Is the customer always right?

How saying "no" can create a positive response

Those of us working in the service industry have been brainwashed with the notion that a customer is always right. We're taught we must try to please our clients to no end, and though the intention behind this is worthy, we can be misguided by always following this idea—often to the detriment of our companies, our employees and ourselves.

So how do we find a balance between pleasing our customers and not sacrificing resources? Must we wait for clients to choose us, or are we also allowed to choose our clients? And once we do, are we allowed to say "no" to out-of-bound requests? The short answer is "yes!"

As a roofing professional who has been in the industry for nearly 30 years, I've experienced a lot of crazy situations. I'll share with you why I do, and should, say no, along with ideas to help you stand your ground when needed.

Why do residential work?

My commercial roofing contractor colleagues often ask me how I can handle working with residential clients, asking whether they are more of a headache than they are worth. That's when I remind my colleagues we don't all live in large metropolitan areas, such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, where contractors can be selective in the type of roofing work our companies perform without traveling great distances.

In my state, Oregon, we have about 4 million residents, and in my hometown of Corvallis, a college town, we have fewer than 60,000 residents, half of whom are university students. The opportunity to be strictly a commercial roofing contractor isn't a viable option, so our client base is about 75 percent residential. And my fellow roofing contractors are correct—this sector comes with a unique set of challenges.

The main challenge with working in the residential arena is encountering more personality types than on the commercial side because we need to close more smaller-sized jobs to equate to one large commercial job. On average, it takes about 10 residential jobs to equal one $100,000 commercial job. This means residential companies need to interact with about 10 times the number of people versus working solely on the commercial side.

Residential clients rarely are familiar with the construction process and are understandably hyper-focused on what tends to be their largest assets, their houses, which can fuel a fear of being "ripped off." So they educate themselves, which is great, until they swirl in too much information to the point they don't know whom or what to believe.

Thanks to the internet, all roofing contractors probably have experienced a client who second-guesses a recommendation because "This 'expert' says XYZ, so why are you doing it differently?"

My reply in these types of situations is something like: "Roofing has been my company's primary business for 65 years. There are many acceptable industry techniques, but the one you are referencing is not applicable in our geographic region and here's why. …"

Educating clients

Educating residential clients is time-consuming; some call it hand-holding, which my company does a lot of, and that's OK. But what I believe to be most important before, during and after a job is how we manage client expectations—the logistics of the people, their emotions and their perspectives.

For example, some customers may try to use your company's good reputation to their advantage and manipulate you by saying things such as: "We hired your company because it is highly recommended, and we didn't get other bids."

To which I reply: "Thank you for your confidence in us. I think you made the best choice. However, your decision not to consult other companies does not entitle you to walk all over us. We are more than willing to accommodate your requests whenever possible if they are appropriate for your job, but in this case, this is where I must draw the line for our collective best interests."

Sometimes, it's acceptable to not be politically correct and to say "no." There is truth in the adage "no good deed goes unpunished!" How many times have you given in or compromised your values to please a client against your better judgement only to be rewarded with more of the same? It will happen over and over until you say "no."

Saying "no" doesn't mean you don't do the right thing when things go sideways. What I'm talking about is clearly and succinctly defining upfront what is and, perhaps more important, what is not included in a proposal.

My company takes this a step further by also including a laundry list of disclaimers with our proposals—items for which we are not and will not be held responsible. I assure you, every item on the list was hard-earned—things we should have pointed out to clients upfront but didn't and later kicked ourselves as we wrote a check for fixing something we had no part in breaking because the client swore otherwise.

People tend to not pay attention to things until the things become relevant to them. Think about deciding to buy a new car—when you're considering a certain model, you tend to see that type of car crossing your path on the road more often than you previously had noticed. It's the same with clients and their homes—there will be a broken window, a dented gutter or cracked plaster that "wasn't there before you got here."

I can't tell you how many times customers have complained our fasteners have come through their overhangs only to have us point out what they're showing us was painted over. And by the way, those are staples—we used nails. Are you nodding in agreement? Yes, you are. Do whatever you can before a job starts to explicitly lay out what can be expected.

You're already up there

So now you've pre-managed expectations, you're on the job and the requests start rolling in. What do you do? For purposes of this article, I'm not addressing change order items, but there are other small "hidden gems" of opportunities to not lose money via wasted crew time. I often have found our workers are so well-trained to be of service to our clients they say "yes" to requests outside the contracts and fall behind with getting the contracted work done because of those small favors.

"While you're up there, can you wash all the second-story windows?" or "Can I toss a few things into your dumpster?" This request quickly is followed by a mattress, chair and boxes of junk being thrown into company dumpsters. These "because you're already there" requests seem simple enough, but they take away valuable time when added together and multiplied by several crews on several jobs, day in and day out.

Here's a simple solution: Train your employees to turn such requests in your favor. A foreman can say: "Sure, since I'm already here, it'll cost less than making a return trip." Immediately this tells a client there is no "free lunch." Not all customers assume they won't be charged for the request, but I estimate 80 percent of the time the assumption is it's no big deal, and they assume (correctly) we want them to be happy with us. But time is money, so when that happens, politely toss back the implication that if they value your time, they'll be willing to pay for it.

For example, a foreman's response to this type of request should be along the lines of: "Let's see, it'll take about three labor hours to clean your windows, so at a rate of X per hour, that'll run you X in additional charges. How does that sound?" This type of response not only saves valuable man-hours, but you have set an expectation that it's not given freely unless you set those terms. If we choose to go above and beyond and not charge for it, fine—but we shouldn't be bullied into it. It's a matter of learning to get out of your own way without allowing the client to get in it, as well—sometimes literally.

Once, our company foreman called our office complaining a client was on the roof measuring every shingle row as the workers installed them. (Nope, this is not a joke.) After a conversation with the client, during which he emphatically stated he had every right to be on his roof because it was his property, I agreed. I then added: "Because the safety of my employees, as well as yours, sir, takes precedence over all else, I will ask that from now on you access your roof with your own ladder, and when my guys see you ascending it they will stop all actions until they see you are once again safely on the ground."

He fumed: "But then the job will take forever, and I need this done before the rain comes!"

I continued: "Yes, it will slow down the process considerably but as I said, I cannot risk injury to you or any of my men unnecessarily. If you feel you cannot trust us to do the work you've hired us for and must check our work so closely, I suggest you wait until we leave. Otherwise, this two-day job will extend into several weeks. I am sure you understand the position I've been put in?"

I left little room for negotiation—those were my terms and the client had to choose how to work within them. Miraculously, the job was completed on time, and I'm happy to say we never got a call back saying a row was out of alignment by 1/32 of an inch—though I fully expected it given his compulsion to ensure "exactness." I should point out this gentleman presented us with a bullet point list of 32 questions and concerns pre-job that we dutifully answered, which leads me to my next point.

Cross the street

How often do you have a gut feeling about someone but ignore it because people can't be that bad? If you are reasonable, surely they will be, too? Not necessarily.

Some people simply are not willing to play nice, and if you willingly accept all clients you're bound to be dealt their wrath at some point—so how about you not invite them all in? What I can tell you after conducting numerous autopsies of jobs that went upside down because of a client's outrageous demands is nearly every single one gave us warning signs.

I'm not necessarily talking about the jobs that cost us cash. Often, the worst debacles were because the people were unbelievably needy, self-absorbed and paranoid—the kind that suck the lifeblood out of everyone in their paths because they're sure you're trying to wrong them.

These are the people who are used to getting all the crazy things they want because many people will do anything to get them out of their faces—even cut their losses and say: "OK, here. Now, please go!"

I think we've all catered to these types of people, but I'm suggesting you become diligent about recognizing these types of people more quickly and recommending them to your competition. But you must pay attention, listen and believe you are allowed to say "No, thank you." After a particularly rough year of these types of jobs, my company collectively adopted this Iyanla Vanzant quote, which you may find helpful: "When you see crazy coming, cross the street!"

Protect your employees

One final point that needs to be made concerns clients and hard-working employees. First, I believe none of my company's employees are paid enough to endure any customer's verbal abuse, so make it clear to employees that when any such lunacy happens, it should immediately be directed to a company's owner. If you are the company's owner, you always handle it. And secondly, do what you can to not put your employees into situations where their integrity can be called into question. To illustrate this, I will share an example of another time my company said "no" to a client.

The project was quite involved, expensive and had many moving parts. The clients were smart, easy to work with and the types of people you wish all your clients could be. Because I wanted to do whatever possible to accommodate them, it nearly knocked me off my game when they made a request for which I had never compromised in the past.

The clients were planning to be in Europe while a majority of the work was being done to their home and wanted to give us a key in case it became necessary to go inside. I hesitated and told them I wasn't comfortable doing so, but because they were going to be 10 hours ahead in a different time zone, I accepted the request with their acknowledgement that the only person who would be allowed access was my superintendent who has been with my company for 35 years and whom I trust without question.

As they handed the key across the table the husband said: "Oh, it'll be fine. The electricians and drywall guys will also have access. We have faith in you all." To which I instantly retracted my hand, letting them know we would not be part of that deal. They may have put their trust in others, but because I didn't know those workers I didn't share the clients' trust in them. Therefore, I was not going to allow any of my workers inside for any reason whatsoever. I then shared the following story with the clients.

Many years ago, a close general contractor friend of mine asked for a reference for a subcontractor to work on his personal residence. I easily gave him the name of one we had used for more than 20 years. He hired the subcontractor, and the crew commenced work on the interior. While on the job, the general contractor's wife discovered an heirloom ring was missing and accused the subcontractor's workers of stealing it.

The subcontractor did the right thing and interviewed each employee individually, offering full immunity if the ring suddenly appeared. The employees were adamant of their innocence, and the subcontractor was dumbfounded such a thing could occur with any one of his long-term, trusted guys. The wife was equally adamant the ring was in her jewelry box before she left the house during the project and was missing when she returned.

They were at a stalemate—nothing could be proved on either side, but the end result was the same—trust was shattered in all directions. The subcontractor no longer was sure whom he could trust on his crew, and the crew members became leery of whom they could trust among the workers they worked with daily—it was a mess.

It remained an unsolved mystery until several years later when the wife went to the bank to retrieve paperwork from her safe deposit box. And what do you think she discovered among the papers? Yes, the "stolen" heirloom ring. She forgot she moved it there to alleviate worries about being robbed. She most likely wouldn't have given it a second thought if strangers hadn't been in her house, which triggered that worry again for her.

As I closed the story, I reiterated it's human nature to suddenly notice things we hadn't noticed before until we're attuned to them. Even if nothing is missing upon their return, I almost can guarantee they will notice something amiss because they will be keenly looking around their home at all the work completed in their absence and will invariably notice a ding in the drywall or a new scratch in the wood floor—something that had been glossed over before. It happens. And so does the curiosity of how it happened.

Because of this, I do what I can to insulate workers from being part of the mix of the accused even if it means having to decline a job.

A positive outcome

So how did the situation turn out? Those awesome, smart, easy-to-work-with clients postponed all the work until after they returned from their trip and could be present for it. We still got the job, and I felt confident I made the right decision.

It wasn't easy, but it was necessary for the long-term health of our company, my employees and my psyche. Saying "no" doesn't need to be negative—sometimes, it is the most positive word to use—and I encourage you to choose it more often.

Lisa Sprick is president of Sprick Roofing Co. Inc., Corvallis, Ore.



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