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When The Customer Is A Jerk

How To Make $100,000 A Year

In my last post I detailed the benefits of providing great customer service, namely the financial rewards that your company will ultimately reap.  But what about those rare instances where a client or homeowner is completely unreasonable with their demands or disrespectful to you or your employees?  At what point do you stop taking it and start standing up for yourself?

I almost wish that every signed estimate for a job included clear terms about expected behavior from both me AND the customer, however impractical that might be.  Specifically, it would politely request that they give us some space to work without constant over-the-shoulder surveillance (this presumes that we have not given them reason to doubt our skills), that they treat us with dignity and respect (presuming we have extended it to them), that they make and finalize all design specifications and special requests prior to the work being started (and really before the estimated price is agreed upon), that they make an effort to keep the lines of communication open at all times to prevent confusion or misunderstandings, and that they pay for services rendered in a timely fashion so that I don’t have to get ugly or send out a letter demanding payment.

Jerk Customer

Don't let a jerk bring you down to their level if at all possible.

Since setting expectations for your customers in writing is probably not wise from a business standpoint, you instead need to prepare yourself for that occasional nutjob that makes your life less than stellar.  Note that I’m not saying that a homeowner with high expectations is a nutjob.  They SHOULD have high expectations, and it’s our job to meet or exceed them.  I’m talking about the homeowner that expects you to “throw in” two days of free labor because they changed their mind on design after installation.  I’m talking about the homeowner who questions your every move and maintains such a close and constant watch over your shoulder that by the time you’re finished installing the wood floors, you can name what kind of gum they chew, what deodorant they wear, and how many times per minute they exhale.  I’m talking about the homeowner that cusses out one of your guys and calls him stupid for something really petty, like parking in the wrong part of the driveway.   Those of you that have been in the business for any amount of time know what I’m talking about.

So what to do in these situations?  First and foremost, keep your cool.  Don’t let some guy with an ax to grind get inside your head.  If you have a meltdown just because he’s having one, you’re the one that stands to lose more.  It’s your reputation and your business that’s on the line.  Usually the best approach is just to suck it up, bite your lip, finish the job, and move on.  Remind yourself that sometimes you’re going to run into these kinds of people but that you won’t allow them the power to get to your emotions, because even if they’re wrong and you’re right, if you don’t finish the job and finish it well, you can bet that they will spread the word in all directions that your company is a joke.  Try to negotiate.  Find middle ground.  Do what you can to move the job forward to its completion, if not for the homeowner then for yourself and the future of your company.  Reputation in this industry is key, and the further you can bend without breaking, the better!  Part of learning how to become a contractor who is successful involves hardening yourself a little bit in order to weather the occasional lunatic.  You have to train yourself not to get too caught up in the drama.

Now as for the guy that threatens you or calls you or your valued employee a (bleeping) idiot, it’s a different story.  When things really get out of control and an annoying customer has become an abusive customer, you have an obligation to stand up for yourself and your people, even if it’s gonna’ cost you.  Where that line in the sand is I can’t tell you, but chances are you’ll know in your gut when it’s been crossed.  Ask the homeowner to calm down and/or apologize, and if they will not then gather the crew and your equipment, load up as quickly as possible, and don’t look back.

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • marilyn September 19, 2012, 12:13 pm

    What about when the contractor turns out to be a jerk? Hired him in May 2012 to build a fence, and then each job that came up, he said he could do, so I kept him on working. He’s dragged the jobs out longer than the Sherk Brothers, shouts and screams at me when I question anything (exterior house painting job still needs various spots touched up that he missed and he said he wouldn’t do it, but then apologized and said he would); gutters leak between house/roof and gutter (doesn’t appear to have any drain guard there); and when he tore out some barn shelves to replace my walls, I had to DEMAND that he put them back (was part of contract to replace them) and then when he should have put all the items back on the shelves (his worker removed all items and stashed everything in a jumbled “Jenga” pile, all precariously placed, and told me that I (handicapped 63-year old) would have to do it myself, and when he denied ever moving all the stuff (who else would have done it?!!!), I called him a liar right then and there, as I had watched the worker move all the stuff! I’ve had to ask him to renail some spots on the wood fence, and that took forever. He constantly finds some excuse not to be here (maybe it will rain today or someplace it will rain so he can’t work outside – but there are inside plumbing jobs he could do!). He took a whole month and a half off in July/August for vacation! Made a trench for electric to run to a light pole and left the trench open for me to stumble into at night when walking the dog (and I don’t think the electric wire was enclosed in a protective tube) and then only filled w/sand which washed out right away. He started out great with the fence, and then got progressively slower and ruder and more obnoxious each time he is here. He threatened to walk off the job after I called him a liar (about moving all the stuff into a Jenga pile), but now I have to eat crap because unfortunately, a lot of money has been paid out (not all), and he still has to enclose my 10×30 patio. He’s extremely verbally abusive to the one guy who works for him; contractor weighs about 400 lbs and just sits on the back of his tailgate and watches the skinny guy bust his buns doing all the lifting and hauling and working. Didn’t show or call yesterday, so I don’t know if he’ll be back or when (his 3 big ladders are here and a lot of 2x4s, plywood and guttering for patio enclosure). Each time we have a “discussion”, he apologizes for “having a bad day”, but this is wearing me out! He started out good and his prices are very reasonable (I had a lot of previous quotes on all jobs). Seems like I don’t have any recourse. Not sure what my legal standing is if he does quit – I owe some yet, but when I calculate money paid out versus jobs still needing done, he would owe me for work not completed – but I bet I would never get that back, and just have to chalk this up to a horrible experience, be out the money (I’m retired and saved up for years to get all jobs done) and would have to save again for someone else to do the jobs he hasn’t finished. Early on, he said he’d pay me to join Angie’s list, and in the beginning it would have been a good recommendation. Now, not!

  • Scott January 27, 2014, 7:43 pm

    Hi Marilyn,

    Sounds like it’s been a real nightmare. May I ask how you found this contractor initially? Did someone refer him or did you find him via a referral service? Perhaps next time around it would be a good idea to find someone who already has a good rating on Angie’s List. Did you check him out with the local BBB first? These are filters that the consumer has available to them to help minimize these kinds of situations. Ultimately you will need to decide what the best course of action is for your current situation. I think if it were me I would approach the BBB first and see where that gets you with your contractor. One other thing. It sounds like you largely based your decision to hire him on the fact that his prices were low. This approach can often be a recipe for disaster. My feeling is why not pay a little more money to make sure you get a contractor who comes with a good reputation, who will show up when he says he will, who will get the job done on time and on budget, and who will be a professional throughout to both you and his crew? Best of luck to you.

    • Handyfixer June 17, 2017, 7:41 pm

      I wouldn’t suggest leaning on Angie’s list to be a reliable source of sorting out the risky contractors. I have a true story to tell you as to why and I’ll make it as brief and only factual:
      A contractor who has been around for 25+ years has had many, many referrals thru angie’s list, who hires individuals on a weekly basis, because they never stick around to tolerate his bad temper and disprect towards all of them, even on job sites, in front of homeowners…
      He had one person in particular, who worked for him 4 months, who had been self employed previously. After those 4 months, the contractor came into some solid info that this person had priors on his record for sexual assault. This person was still allowed to continue working for the contractor, for at least 5-6 more months. During that time, that individual worked his nerve back up and began to make sexual advances on a homeowner who was a single, recently divorced woman. She was an emotional wreck, called the main office, reported it, and they did NOTHING to remove him from their payroll. They continued to give him work and dispatch him to sites until he decided to quit on his own.

      I know Angie’s List can’t sort thru all of those on the rotating door, that it is the responsibility of the business owner. However, Angie’s List is selling itself as a source to find the best people out there, without having a tighter policy on what the business owner needs to or should do to ensure a homeowner is not going to get a possible rapist sent to their front door.

      I will never rely on Angie’s List and I will never recommend them to anybody.

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