Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Faux Woe: Dealing with the difficult client

"One Ringy Dingy. Two Ringy Dingy"
"You've reached the Behavioral Sciences Section of Surfaces, how may I help you?"

"Yes, Hello! "
I would like to know why so many of my clients are crazy?"
"Girl, who isn't?"

We field many "Faux Woes" on our big black rotary phone. In an effort to further science and build a better finisher, I thought I would add to my blog an advice feature based on brutal humor and good-natured honesty. Wait, maybe I have that backward ?  Anyway...

Today's questions is really about the difficult client. Some people roll with life's whimsies better-we call them Happy People. Others cause us to react negatively and feel anxious, inferior, or incompetent.  At best, this individual leads us to do our jobs ineffectively. At worst, we end up with non-payment and wasted time. We call these people every name in the book (usually not to their face).

Leo Tolstoy said " All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  The same can be said of the unhappy client. While the circumstances causing their reactions may be unique it is possible to divide these difficult folks into personality archetypes that are easily identifiable BEFORE you start a project.  You can not avoid these clients but you can learn to handle them!

Type One:   The Negative Negotiator
This is the Naysayer who is an eternal pessimist. Thinks the best solution is to scrap everything and start over. Overacts to inconveniences and presents themselves as a helpless victim.

How to spot them:  Is not satisfied with the samples you show regardless of how many you show. Pushes back on your ideas but won't offer any solutions of their own. Emphasizes the "negatives" of a project such as the cost, the time, and the mess involved.  Complains and places blame but never takes responsibility.

Key words/phrases:
"Are those the Best samples you have?"
"I can't have any Mess in this house."
"Every time we start a project, there always seems to be a problem."
"The last job (person, item, pet, child) was so disappointing."

Type Two:  The Bullying Buyer.
This is an Aggressive person that always needs to be in charge.  They argue as a means to prove dominance and keep you in "your place."  Like to present themselves as an authority on everything.  Doesn't respect personal space and is good at the veiled threat. Complains about things just to keep you on "your toes."
How to spot them:  Keeps their arms across their chest the whole consult. Selects top dollar finishes and immediately argues about pricing.  Discounts your training and education.  Cuts you off in mid-sentence.  Flips through samples without really looking or touching them.
Key words/phrases:
"What makes you worth the price?"
"I can get a bunch of illegals to do the same thing?"
"We know a lot of important people."
" I don't want anyone taking advantage of me!"
Type Three:  The Social Climbing Shopper
This person needs to feel important and is very worried about keeping up appearances.  Quantity outweighs quality and the opinions of friends matters a great deal.  Their manner comes off as slightly superior yet they are afraid to stray too far from popular/conventional tastes.
How to spot them:  Always selects the most labor intensive finishes but wants the price of much simpler finishes.  Won't commit or avoids discussing a budget.  Public rooms are very decorated and private rooms are almost empty.  Tries to leverage social connections and name drops during consult.  Will ask for the hot design trend of the moment regardless of their home style.
Key words/phrases:
"My husband will kill me if I spend that."
"We entertain a lot and I'm sure you will get more business."
"Why do I have such expensive tastes?"
"Do you give discounts for more then one room."
"Working with your hands must be so hard."
*The next two types are stealthy because their difficulties are masked behind many seductive qualities and they would often make enjoyable friends.*
Type Four: The Pintrest Patron
This is the frustrated artist/creative type who has tried their hand at many hobbies.  Really like/want to be hands-on but is unfocused. Has a lot of unorganized files of magazine pictures with no clear design theme. Big idea but no actual projects to show you. 
How to spot them:  Eager to show you their faux finishing and get a critique.  Asks several questions about specific techniques or products when reviewing samples. Thinks pricing is too high because any DIY person could do it.  Uses "professional" terms that sound right such as Frottage but don't know what it means.  Insists on calling dry wall mud finishes Venetian Plaster.
Key words/phrases:
"I'd love to watch you do the work."
"I've been told that I am very talented."
"If I help, is there a discount?"
"I could do this myself if I just had the time."

Type Five:  The Very Very Compliant Customer
This person is the Nicest Person in the World and is afraid to rock the boat.  Every idea is a great idea and every one's opinion matters.  Avoids commitment by being wishy washy in decision making.  Needs to be liked and can't discern professional from personal relationships.  Avoidance is their problem solving strategy.
How to spot them:  LOVES every sample in your portfolio. Won't be direct about requesting changes. Wants to get family members to the postal carriers opinion on a finish.  Never asks about price face-to-face.  They take a long time settling on a finish and then are hard to pin-down for a start date.  Will have you go through the whole process (consult, bid, and schedule) and then give you a vague excuse to delay the project. 
Key words/phrases:
"It's too hard to decide."
"I just can't put my finger on why this bothers me."
"Can I show this to a few people?"
"I just need a little more time."

Although these clients approach it differently, the common issue is Trust. Finisher end up with a "crazy" client because they believe these people will learn to trust them. Stop thinking like that!
Your problem is not Trust. What you want to do is establish Control-not of the person but of the job. And Control is something you can have BEFORE you start and during the process. The good news is these strategies work with any difficult person regardless of type.
Avoiding the Crazy Client. Control Strategies Before the Consult.
1:  Never book a consult while you are working on a job. Have a set time when you can return phone calls and really talk with a client before scheduling a visit. These are your office hours.
2:  You should always ask a client how they got your name. Know the social connections.
3:  Establish your business rules and share them during the conversation. I tell a potential client over the phone how I consult: $75 for 1.5 hours. I will bring 4-5 samples based on this conversation to give them color and texture ideas.  For that fee, I will do 3 custom samples specific to their project. During my visit I will bring color decks and am happy to consult on design questions not related to faux finishing.  The samples are mine but they may keep them for a few days.  Once they approve a sample I will give them a bid in writing based on the steps and products used in the sample.
4:  Have a fee schedule established before the consult and share this over the phone.  Tell the client your daily non-negotiable minimum (you should have one) and your cost per square footage rate.  For example: Your daily minimum is $350 and your finishes start at $2.50 a square foot.  If they argue with you or think that is too high-save both parties time because this is not your client.
5: Let them know you are insured.
6:  Ask a lot of questions and then listen-don't do selling during this conversation.  What style is your home? What finishes have you seen? How do you use the room? Do you have a budget? Is this part of a larger remodel? What else is changing in the room?  You can't come out and ask :"Are you a pain in the rear?" But get people talking and they will tell you what you need to know.
Sometimes the Difficult Client opts out at the money part or has an impossible time frame and you don't have to schedule the consult. Problem solved.
Avoiding the Crazy Client. Control Strategies on the Consult.
1:  Be on time. If they are late, on the phone, or distracted during the consult this is a sign of future problems.  Turn off your cell phone and don't chew gum (that has nothing to do with clients-just good manners).
2:  Bring pre-selected samples based on your phone conversation-not your whole portfolio. Include pictures of work you have done.  Keep the options limited and be directive in the discussion.  "What about this sample do you like?" "Is it the texture?" "Do you like the color?"  Use a paint deck to help you with color discussions.
3:  Bring samples in pre-assigned price ranges so the client may compare a $3, $6, $9, and $12 a square foot finish.  You are presenting a menu of samples.  Just like a restaurant.  We all want filet for hamburger prices but we don't negotiate with the chef.
4:  Use a tape measure to obtain square footage. Ask to photograph the space. Bring a pad of paper to take notes. You should appear confident, prepared and professional.
5:  Be realistic about scheduling and time it takes to complete a job.  Don't let their scheduling problems (such as a party) become your problems. Bring a calendar to look at dates.
6:  Always do a sample for that job even if you have done the finish a hundred times before and deliver it within one week of the consult.  Make sure and explain that it is a snap shot and there will be some variations on the wall. For deep or bold changes, the client has to envision the finish on all walls. Putting a red room in an all beige house is just too much for some people.  I steer them toward something with red accents instead.  If I can't get to a sample in 3 tries-I punt. We are not connecting on some level and I would prefer it not be my bank account.
7:  Trust your gut.  If I felt uncomfortable at an appointment, I would give the client my set time but wouldn't ask for my consult fee.  Therefore we had no committed relationship.  I would politely call the next day and explain that I couldn't do the job based on scheduling conflicts.  Don't refer another finisher-even the ones you don't like.
Avoiding the Crazy Client.  Control Strategies for On The Job.
1:  Never start a job without a down payment and a signed contract.  The contract should include a description of the scope of work, fees, work schedule, payment schedule, change order/upgrade policy, cancellation fees, and collection policies.
2:  Explain work change orders. In the event that a client changes the work, then you will re-write the bid to reflect pricing changes.  When this is signed, you will continue with the work.
3:  Have a cancellation policy.  Collect a non-refundable scheduling fee that the client will loose if they cancel the job.  If you cancel the job then you owe the client this fee in full.
4:  Show up on time with the proper equipment. Briefly but fully describe what you will be accomplishing that day. Then put in headphones-this discourages clients from talking to you all day. 
5: At the end of the day, either tell or write a note that recaps what you did and what you will do the next day.  If I notice something that needs correcting, such as a spot, I will let the client know that I see it and how/when I will fix it. Be Proactive.
6:  Be positive on a job.  Even if I felt awful or the job was mind numbing I always smiled and acted like it was a zippity doo dah day! People respond better if you are enthusiastic. Don't put negative thoughts in their head.  Always phrase questions in the positive.
7:  If the client is unhappy do not take it personal and get defensive.  I ask, "Tell me what about the finish is making you unhappy?" "Is it the color?"  Remind the client that the room is not refurnished yet and will look more finished with drapes, furniture, mirrors, and art work. Tease out what is really wrong and retain control of the situation. Have your approved sample with you.  If the finish doesn't look like the sample then you have to fix it on your dime. 
8:  Have your invoice prepared the final day of work and present it after you have everything cleaned up.  My contracts were 95% with the homeowner and not the builder or designer. And in 18 years I only threatened one lien on a property to receive my payment.
Still with me?  Good!  You will never avoid the "difficult" client 100%.  10% of the population in the United States has a recognized mental health issue such as bi-polar or personality disorder.  So 1 in 10 clients you meet has something going on that might require medication.  I'm not throwing stones-I am clinical OCD ( I get a lot done and will straighten your pictures when your back is turned).  Out of the other 9, 3 fit into the client types I listed above.  So that leaves 6 (or more then half) that are really pleasant people and great clients.  And it possible for the tough client to become a great one!
If you find that more then half your clients are difficult, then you are the problem.  Take control of your job and your business by trying some the of the strategies I've listed. Sure it takes time and organizational effort.  But managing your business will eventually lead to better TRUST between you and the occasional tough client. 
"Next Caller Please?"








  1. FABULOUS INFO as usual Rockstar! THanks for all the effort that was clearly put into this AND I LOVED LILLY TOMLIN!

  2. Rebecca, love your format here and this information is invaluable. Thank you for this time & money saving information.

  3. Thanks so much for this Rebecca! I so appreciate you! I'm printing this out to re-read when I need it.

  4. Wow, I've been really lucky for 12 years. Most of my clients have been amazing and wonderful!! Good advice, though. Thanks for your typically edifying post.

    I'm always excited to see your blog in my in box Rebecca! The tutorial on sprayers was SO timely.

  5. Really excellent information, Rebecca, and it is not just limited to the faux world. Thank you.

  6. Absolutely superb Rebecca! You have put so much time and thought into this fabulous post, and have just 'nailed it' ! Truly a "must read".

  7. Rebecca - that was such a great post. I saw a lot of my clients there! It's true, you will always get these types - the wonderful people exist but not as many seem to call me...it's the "others" who call. Great advice for warding off what could (and does) happen with these types of clients.

    I have been so discouraged as of late with the "money" part of the finishing business. Everyone wants to spend so little. I still get great clients...but my pocketbook has taken a hit.

    Thanks for your words of wisdom!



  8. Thanks for your comments! I appreciate the feedback and I understand your experiences. I had a crew of 6 people at one time and we did at least two large jobs per month so I know each of these problem clients very well. I also feel your pain of the increase in "cheap" clients because my own business depends on you getting jobs. Unfortunately the mentality of quantity over quality has practically become an America value and cheapness is a virtue!

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