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When Jobs go Bad - Contractor Advice Articles


Contractors and Client Relations – Carrier Slocomb, from 35 years in the trades.

Who says you have to be poor to make a buck in the trades?

You know the kind of client I’m talking about; those who begin talking you down even before you get to their house to give them a price. Listen closely and you’ll hear it in their initial phone call; it’s in their tone, the way they try to dominate the conversation, their insistence that they could do the work themselves, but either age, time restraints, or health forbids it.

The question here is what made them call you in the first place? If they’re so dead set against you doing the work then why should you waste your time setting up a meeting? The poor economy? Not enough bids to turn even one job down? It’s good to have a bad feeling about this kind of client – their intentions aren’t honorable or fair. Still, this is not a ‘one size fits all’ scenario, so it’s to your benefit to look at all the approaches before you intentionally blow this client off.

An associate of mine used to say that he loved hard-to-deal-with clients. “Most of them aren’t coming at you with vicious intentions,” he’d say. “Some are just downright scared of contractors, because of a bad experience.” My associate saw them as challenges and sold hard to get these jobs, sometimes giving in to their price so he could prove to them that not all high ladder-men are thieving knuckleheads. Years later I asked him about his success ratio. He told me that it was no worse with this group than it was with some of his peach clients. “I’ll say this, when things went right I turned these hardheads into regulars.” So what made this key turn: price, work, or service attitude? “All three; it’s just that you have to be a lot more attentive to them and, since it’s their money being spent, you can never go against your word.”

What about the other kind – the client who enjoys hammering you down? “This guy’s looking for freebies that’s all.” My associate went on to illuminate me. “Since he’s not paying any more than the next client, give him the same price. That’s only fair – his house isn’t any different than the next one. But in those back and forth negotiations gage what really matters to him. Say its windows, the front door, carpeting, or a particular appliance brand. That’s where you go to town for him. Pull out all the stops. Give him more than he’s asking for. It pays for itself in the end because what he’s really after is being treated better than anyone else. Trouble is, the only way a guy like him knows to get his way is by going at the world with both fists; probably was a biter as a kid, but you can still find common ground and do good business with him.”

What about a nastier kind: the guy who doesn’t care about anything else but cheating you out of what’s your due? Clients like these find fault with everything, delay staged payments, argue you through points in the contract, and consider any extras they order should come to them free-of-charge. ”They’re tough to spot right off, but when you see one make sure you have a strategy ready,” he advised. “Personally, this type’s a control freak. Everything you’re doing, like ripping his house apart and wearing a tool belt full of weapons turns him into thinking he’s a cornered rat.” My associate went on to say that one thing you need to do immediately is to muffle your manhood around this type. Come down off the ladder, unhook the tool belt, shut down the air compressor, remove your hat, drop to a chair, look up not down at him and then engage your client in everyday kind of chat. Be relaxed; prove to him that you’re no Neanderthal threat to all that he holds dear.” My associate went on to say that even this nasty kind can be tamed, but it’s up to you to find common ground again. “You get them to respect you and they’ll drop that cheating instinct.”

And then there are those who quietly hold all their venom to the end and this with the expressed purpose of getting you to slash your final bill (and the job) 15% or more. “I know the type,” says my associate. “But I won’t work for them. They’re the ones you end up taking to court just to collect. My advice to any contractor is to give them a very wide pass.” That’s easy to say but how do you spot them early on, like in the pre-contract stage? “Do your homework. It pays off. Hey, if clients run me through references and credit checks then it’s only fair that I run them too, right? Go to state and county court records. Look for their name on lawsuits. If you find them then see what the pattern is. Any mechanic liens? Search engines and certain sites on the Net make this job pretty easy, but the staff at your local courthouse can help as well. What’s key is seeing how far this client goes to hold onto his last buck. If the estimate’s five figures plus then checking him out makes good business sense.” That and solvent sense too.

Like anything else, these strategies are footed in common sense. Common sense is something we’re supposed to learn early on; however, common sense in business is usually a well fought over talent, one that we gain at huge personal cost. Yes, it took me thirty-five years to even get most of it right. --Learn more about my strategies for contractor success at, under the heading Pro Desk.

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