Adjustment Problems and Customer Care

An extended discussion of how to handle a customer who repeatedly calls about minor drawer alignment issues on custom cabinetry. December 6, 2008

I am wondering how others have told a client, in a firm yet professional way, to go (insert an appropriate four letter word here) themselves?

A client ordered a custom bath vanity from us back in early 2007. The vanity was made of ribbon striped mahogany, finished inside and out, has 6 drawers, 2 pullout shelves, 2 adjustable shelves and 2 flat panel doors and is about 80Ē long. The design is 3 drawers on either side of the cabinet and the 2 doors in the center. All the drawer faces and doors are flat panels and were done in a single sheet of ribbon strip so that the strip pattern matches across the entire face of the cabinet. All the drawer slides are Mepla dynamic NT undermount soft-close slides. We built and installed this for $3200. Yes, we lost money on this job.

On top of this, we had to store the cabinet in our shop for 6 months, at no charge and not having been fully paid, because the client was having other remolding work done and could not accept delivery. Once we finally did the install, what should have been a 3 hour install took 2 days to complete. Working in the city of Chicago is a real joy. 4 hours just to get the cabinet and our tools up the freight elevator plus having to park 2 blocks away in a garage at $35.00 a day.

Since installing the cabinet, the granite people, plumbers, painters, etc, have all been there to bang up the cabinet and knock the doors out of alignment, etc. The plumber spilt some sort of solvent on one of the shelves, which has eaten the finish, and being un-filled mahogany, all the white granite dust from the granite installation now fills the pores.

None of this seems to be an issue for the client. This client has a problem with the fact that the drawers and doors donít align perfectly. We have been called out 3 times to adjust the doors and drawers. The client seems to think that the drawers should close perfectly and in the exact same location each and every time they are opened and closed. If the drawer closes and is slightly to the left or right, we are getting a call to come fix it. If the drawer does not fully close, we are getting a call. If one drawer or door sits slightly proud of the other, we are getting a call. And we are talking like 1/32 of an inch difference. This client actually told us, ďwell, it looks okay, but when I run my hands down it I can feel that this drawer is sticking out.Ē

We received a call again wanting us back out to explain why we canít fix these issues. We have repeatedly explained to the client that with the soft close slides, this is just how they work. Sometimes they donít fully close or they may shift slightly, etc. At this point, this is just nonsense. So what is the best way to tell a client to go fly a kite?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor B:
Just curious what style of soft close slides and hinges you are using? I haven't had this problem in the past with Blum undermount soft close slides. They seem to close consistently. Same with the Blum hinges we have used. I could see how the client would think doors and drawers not closing in the proper place would be an issue. Sounds like it might be a hardware choice issue.

From contributor R:

I don't think you'll have success with Blum either. I'm hired as an expert in a lawsuit (wow, I'm finally an expert) because of a really messed up kitchen. But in another area they wanted to gripe about the same things your customer is. I told the customer that what she was asking was too much. I couldn't get it through to her until her lawyer also chimed in. Score one for a lawyer. The slides in this instance are Blum Tandems, soft close.

From the original questioner:
I think contributor B hit the nail on the head. Lately we seem to have had issues with the hardware. The slides are Mepla dynamic NT full extension undermount slides and the hinges are Grass 3000 series. After having been out on numerous service calls, we have since decided to switch to Blum hinges, but have not yet found good, cost effective, undermount slides. The Mepla slides were costing us about $15 - $25 a pair with the front fixing brackets, depending on the size. We have tried Accuride slides but these are near $30 - $35 a pair and donít seem as nice in the soft close feature. Blum Tandem just seem too expensive.

Despite this, we need to get this client out of our hair. We have lost way too much money on this job. I am pretty picky myself, but this client is just being unrealistic. At some point you just canít keep taking money out of your pocket and stay in business.

From contributor U:
I think you should just tell her that her expectations are unrealistic and beyond the industry standards. You might find some specs to quote with regard to being within those standards. The National Home Builders Association publishes a book of standards for home construction. While most of their standards are pretty loose, it gives you something to help fight off the perfectionists. I don't know if the NHBA's book has much on cabinets, but it might be something to investigate.

I've had unrealistic customers with regard to home building. One customer complained that her office wouldn't maintain the same temperature as the rest of her house. We had the HVAC guys go out there and the biggest problem was that she kept the door shut (running a business out of the house and didn't want to be disturbed). The HVAC guys said that was causing the problem, but she refused to believe it and insisted we do something about it. We sited the NHBA book of standards (the temperature difference was within the standards) and firmly told her that we built the house to standards and she was the problem. After that I think we ignored her request.

It sucks not being able to satisfy a customer, but sometimes their expectations cannot be met. I'll bet other parts of her remodel are obviously flawed but she's hung up on cabinets. I had a lady insist I reinstall and line up two cabinets because they were out of alignment by 1/8" (where they joined) over 6'. I reassured her that it would be okay and never noticed once the countertop was installed. She didn't believe me and complained to the company I was subbing from. Worst part was she was adding some cabinets to sell her house. She'd be moving out in two months. Some people are just jerks.

From contributor O:
The doors and drawers should "close perfectly and in the exact same location each and every time they are opened and closed." I've never been satisfied with concealed hinges, and I've been dealing with them on and off since the 32mm System marketing blitz of some 20 years ago. The truth is they don't work as well as they should, but most clients live with it. Change to a 6mm gap and the alignment isn't as much of an issue. Another problem is that the cabinets settle over time, so the fronts get out of adjustment.

From contributor S:
Doors and drawer fronts must be aligned perfectly, don't you think so? If they do not return to their original position each and every time, that means that cabinet is not engineered properly. Also doors and drawer fronts should not be proud of cabinet frame face. You should use butt hinge with face frame cabinet with inset doors. Euro hinge will go out of alignment and gaps will look terrible. Euro hinge is good with overlay doors, where alignment is not that critical. Drawer slides such us Blum undermounted always work perfect. I had similar problems with Accuride undermounted - they are too shaky and never return to same position. However I solved the problem by installing tiny shims on each side of drawer faces, on the frame. When the face hits the shims it is forced to center and returns to its original position. Good luck with resolving the problem with your customer. Just explain what causes the problem and tell them you have to charge them every time you return for readjustments.

From contributor G:
You have several issues all rolled up together. I think they all come under "What do they think they should be getting for their money?"

1) You should add something to your contract that requires full payment and storage fees for delayed acceptance. The customer owes a craftsman that whether it is in your contract or not, from a moral, if not from a legal, point of view. If you add that to the contract they sign, then they will be forewarned of the issue and you will have a better chance to collect.

2) Installation: It is unfortunate that the cost in terms of time and parking fees were more than you allowed for in your estimate. If you charge a flat fee for installation then you just have to eat it every so often if you don't allow for the added costs of a downtown installation. Certainly you knew where it was going. I suggest you alter your installation contract for unusual locations, where you cannot reasonably know what you are getting into, to a time, materials and costs basis.

4) You have no obligation to make right the damage done by other trades. Don't do the work at all until the owner agrees to pay for the extra. Suggest that they recover from them that did the damage. Charge time and material, and perhaps a bit for the inconvenience. Some craftsmen add paper and/or cardboard shields and wrappings to help protect their product from construction abuse, but I bet that only works to a certain extent.

5) The Great Callback Issue... Some folks have little to do and enjoy the small thrill of making someone do it over until it is done right. If it needs fixing, apologize and fix it. Otherwise, don't. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who have no time to sit around waiting to have things fixed that should have been right in the first place. It is an issue that you will just have to strike a balance on. Be fair and remember that word of mouth referrals and denunciations affect your bottom line.

6). The What Do You Want for X dollars Issue... Again it is a balancing proposition. You get customers who have unreasonable expectations and craftsmen who overcharge for junk. I don't know you, and I have never seen the cabinet, so this is based on many similar complaints I have seen over the years on WOODWEB that the customer expects too much. I rather sourly note that one can buy a pair of base cabinets at Lowes which have the same basic function (60" total length, holds up sink, holds some towels, has drawers for stuff), and sell for less than $500 the pair. You have charged an additional $2700. You and your customer really need to get together, before the contract is signed, as to what extra you are selling them for a wooden cabinet with the same fundamental features.

In the question you are asking us about, they apparently think that extra cost buys them a level of fit and closure that you feel is unreasonable, or impossible. Clearly there was a lack of a full meeting of the minds as to the degree of perfection that would be delivered as to the closure of drawers and the door/drawer fit. Perhaps you can send them a letter explaining what they got for their extra $2700, and how the "fit and finish" issue that exists between you should be viewed. Also include a clear statement as to how much more service they can expect, and under what circumstances. Then just stick to it.

From contributor J:
I'm not sure which hardware the other guys use when claiming drawer fronts should be perfect every time, but it's not the Blumotion. I use them, and yes, they can move from side to side a fraction of an inch. It's inherent in the design as you have a little play to accommodate drawer sizes. Solid wood drawers will expand and contract after all. In theory the drawers would stay centered between the slides, but in practice it does not always happen.

There is no such thing as perfect in cabinetry, doesn't matter how good you are or how much time you spend on a piece. Materials move whether solid or engineered. Hardware has play, whether euro hinges or butt hinges, drawer slides or web frames - there is always going to be small variation. Might only be small fractions of an inch, but they'll be there.

Now if your drawer fronts are really only off less than a 32nd of an inch, I think you're okay. If they're off more than that, it may be the hardware. Hard to say from where I'm sitting.

Lastly, Blumotion is not "too expensive." Clients pay for every piece of hardware that goes into a project. So in your $3200 vanity, it would be less than a $60 difference between your Meplas, and about even with your Accurides. And quality drawer slides are noticeable in a finished product.

From the original questioner:
Contributor S, I agree. Doors and drawers should align nicely. But perfectly is never truly possible. In this case the drawers and doors are full overlay so there is no face frame. The issue that the client keeps complaining about is that the drawers donít always seat or fully close tight. So, for example, there are 3 drawers on either side of two doors. The drawers are stacked so there is a top, middle, and bottom drawer. All have about an 8Ē drawer face. If you open and close one of these drawers, sometimes it will not close tight to the cabinet, so it will sit proud of the other drawers. If you give it a slight push, then they all will be flush with each other. Same with the spacing between the drawer faces. Sometimes the drawers will close and be slightly left or right. Again a slight tap will re-position them. The issue is that they are not closing to this "perfect" position on their own every time.

I am not sure about other soft-close slides like the Blum, but both the Mepla and Accuride donít always close the same every time. These slides both have oil filled dampers that give them the soft close feature. If the temperature is cold they close very slowly and if the temperature is warm, they close faster. Itís this damper that seems to cause the drawers not to close fully all the time.

Also, the Grass Euro hinges, in my opinion, are junk. The adjustment screws always seem to loosen up over time and cause the door alignment to shift.

Contributor G, I agree with your comments but must take a small issue with your comparison to the big box stores. It is inconceivable to compare custom cabinetry to mass-production cabinetry. Comparing a $500 cabinet made of 1/4Ē chip board from the big box to a custom piece made in ribbon strip mahogany just is unfair. And guess what, ask the guy at the service desk of the big box how much it would be to special order a cabinet in custom size, and you will see that price triple.

From contributor S:
Yes, you are right, self-closing slides do that sometimes. For that reason, I will set them 1/8" deeper than normal and then put a rubber silencer on the cabinet edge or back of the drawer front. This way it works a little better. And Salice hinges are much better.

From the original questioner:
Contributor J, you said that the Blum are not too expensive. Whenever we have priced them they seem to be. For this job the bulk box (10 sets) of 15Ē full extension soft-closing slides with the fixing brackets cost $190.10 (including 6.5% sales tax). So each slide ran us $19.01. For the Blum soft close in the 15Ē size they priced out at $34.34 (no sales tax), so there is better than a $15.00 difference. We used a total of eight slides so we are looking at $120.00 cost savings. I know itís not much, but with the cost of gas, utilities and insurance going up every day, every little bit helps. In this case maybe we are penny wise and pound foolish? As I mentioned we are stopping use of the Mepla slides but donít have a good replacement yet. Who is your supplier for the Blum? Are you getting better pricing than what I am?

From contributor H:
Go back one more time. Align everything. Have customers use cabinet while you're there. Get them to agree that all is well at the present time. Tell them this is your last service call. One year is pretty standard warranty anywhere. Your documented attempts to satisfy them work in your favor. Tell them if they have another problem you will be happy to fully refund their money and remove the cabinet. They will change their tune quick. Been there, done that, and it worked for me.

From contributor A:
Atlantic Plywood sells 21" Blumotion slides for $18 plus the front clips (about $1 apiece). We end up paying under $21 with tax for 21" undermount, self closing slide. The 18" cost us something like $26 + clips. We are a small shop with small quantity.

From contributor W:
I remember one of the biggest alignment problems I ever had. There is one much worse than this one. It was quartered maple finished in either MLC or Valspar maple, which turned it orange and had lots of radiuses with all drawers.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor Z:
I feel your pain. I actually had a situation where the granite guy did his cutting in place, and ruined the slides with granite dust. That type of dust just embeds itself in the finish also. It is amazing how stupid some people can be.

From contributor I:
Blum and other makes are designed for standard overlay situations where there's going to be something like 3 to 4mm gap between adjacent doors and drawer fronts. There is some tolerance built into all drawer slides to allow for slight distortions of cabinet or drawer box, or slight dimensional inaccuracies, and the result is that they don't always close in exactly the same place.

From the original questioner:
This is exactly what happened - the granite installers cut and ground the granite in place as well as cut about 2Ē of the carcass to allow the sinks to fit. All this dust and sawdust is covering everything including the slides. I am wondering if this dust could be causing the closure issues. Does anyone know if granite dust would ruin these types of slides? If it does, can they be cleaned with compressed air and WD-40?

The gaps were set at 1/16. Normally I would leave them a little wider but since the design was to emphasize the ribbon strip, larger gaps seemed to break the pattern.

The real problem is the other trades. When we returned to install the handles, after the countertop, drywall and other work was completed, the cabinet was all messed up. Dust everywhere. The doors where crooked and the drawers were all out of alignment. I am also guessing the plumber, while working in the cabinet, may have overextended the door and it has never really aligned correctly since. Itís good but not perfect. We have been out three additional times on the client's request to realign the drawers and doors and each time they were well within acceptable tolerances.

Unfortunately we all know the cabinet guy seems to get crapped on. Like itís our fault the other trades messed something up. The clientís not calling the plumber to fix the door he overextended. Nope, the cabinet installer gets the call. As far as we are concerned, once we have delivered and installed a cabinet and it is no longer in our possession, itís not our responsibility. I just canít seem to get this message through to this client. Short of stopping to accept and return their calls I am not sure how to explain this.

From contributor S:
You just tell them what you think. Many times, different architects and interior designers have very nonrealistic requirements. They do not know and do not care about functionality of the hardware. I will refuse to build cabinets with such small tolerances. 3/32" to 1/8" space, that's it. Or state in the contract that you will not guarantee perfect alignment.

From contributor W:
Send them a bill for the additional requested site visits.

From contributor P:
One of the most important realizations about business that I ever made is what to promise and what not to promise to a client. I add things to my contract as issues come up. One line that I like is "Cabinets are made to our standards which generally meet or exceed WIC custom standards." That being said, the client may still be too fussy and how you address that in person is important also. You may have let them take you down the road a little too far in the beginning and now there is no way to stop them.

From contributor K:
The problem goes back pretty far. Just before you quoted $3200. Work of the finish your customer thinks they ordered and you agreed to supply should never be delivered to the site until the day before the furniture goes in. You will have already had the granite people to your shop and on site to template. Better yet, you would add the granite to your price and get them to work for you and at your direction. The plumbers will do all the prep they can, then come back and hook up. Yes, it means 2-3 visits for them, but that is what it takes.

And yes, it means you charged less than half what you should have. The nouveau riche will pay 3200 for that (and both whine and brag), but people with real money and real taste expect to pay more and are more likely to accept the nuances. Metal slides and adjustable hinges are never top flight, always a get over so skills and materials and costs don't get out of hand. Wood slides and brass pivots are more that style, with enough structure to hold the granite without settling. Do some research on really good work and don't assume that $18.00 is expensive, as some have said. $18.00 or no, they are all just mediocre.

From contributor C:
We would never leave a cabinet installed in a situation like that... unprotected. We always tape the edges, cover with plastic, cardboard, do the sink cutouts and staple plastic inside the box to protect from the granite dust. I think you would have been smarter to install the box only and tell the owner you would finish after all other trades were done.

From contributor N:
I agree. I would not leave a cabinet like that unprotected.

1/16" is too close for these slides in my opinion. The Blum undermounts are definitely the best and I pay 24.00 for the 21" version. I build many 36" 3 drawer banks under cooktops and can get them well aligned. If you are building your own box, you must make sure it is perfectly square and that the tracks and clips are installed according to specs or you will not get consistent results. I build my own drawers and have had issues when I was not careful with my measurements due to material thickness of the sides. If back holes are not deep enough or front clips are not located right, then all hell breaks loose on installation. Good luck with this client, but do not push the limits of hardware clearances and don't ship it if it isn't perfect.

From contributor D:
We built and installed a master bath once that had 34 drawers. All wooden slides, furniture style. We made a trip every time the season changed for two years, unsticking drawers (of all sizes). Should have known better - the shower had about 55 steam jets in it, and then there was the 1000 gallon tub right beside it. Learned us a good lesson on that one - be more realistic next time.

From contributor T:
If you want that cabinet to function properly this is what I believe must be done...
- Replace all the slides. If there is granite dust in them they are shot (at least they would be if they were tandem or tandembox which is what I am familiar with).
- Remake all doors and faces from a new sheet with proper 1/8" gaps.
- Charge more next time and never store your finished furniture on a construction site again! Those guys are remorseless animals in case you did not know.

I know that sucks, and it adds to your loss, but I do believe it's the right way. You might even sleep better at night.

From contributor Y:
Anyone got a good clause in their contracts that specifies for this? I read where the cabinet company and the client go through a punch list after install and the client signs off on the work. After that the cab company is only responsible for material defects and workmanship. I will definitely be adding something about not responsible for other trades. I also agree that it would have been better to install only the box, and protected.

From contributor S:
Once the cabinet is installed, it becomes property of the owner. If any other tradesmen damaged the owner's property, they are responsible for those damages. Good GC always includes this in the contract. If your cabinet was damaged by stone dust, call the GC and complain. Tell him you want the stone guy to pay for new slides and all the labor.

From contributor X:
There is nothing wrong with the cabinet. The problem is probably caused by changes in humidity. Do the customers have a humidifier and keep it constant in the room? Also, how new is the house? New houses do shift and move as the lumber acclimatizes. This can cause the cabinet to shift out of square. The shifting can go on for years. I live in a cold climate and built in cabinets attached to walls do a lot of moving with the seasons. This can go on indefinitely. Have a look at their house doors. If they are shifted, you can explain that the same thing can happen to cabinet doors.

From contributor V:
I will confirm the above comment about Atlantic Plywood. I also buy my Blum slides and hinges from Atlantic and find the prices competitive, and they work fine. Some drawer box makers also sell Blum slides at a good price.

From contributor L:
My company builds high end custom cabinetry for very unique clients and I have run into this issue before. I was a Blum slide/hinge user for over 15+ years and I am not putting Blum down, as I think they make a great product and I still use them on occasion. The following is what I changed to and has worked for my quality and consistency level. Also, quality, not price of hardware and materials, should be your number one concern. Bottom line, you may need to charge a little more, but don't compromise.

I would try using Hettich Quadro V6 soft close undermount slides, as they have steel ball bearings instead of polymer (plastic) bearings that other manufacturers use. They have a more positive closing action and they are still very reasonably priced, but in my opinion a superior slide over Mepla or Blum.

Also look into Salice integrated soft close hinges (the latest generation) which have the same boring pattern as the Blum. I switched so I don't have to add the lipstick closer as with Blum (another loose piece that can be taken off and lost). These two changes I made about 2+ years ago with great success.

As for your client, I would format a professional letter on your letterhead, creating a paper trail, and give it to your client after you have made any further adjustments to the cabinetry needed and tell them you will not be returning to do maintenance on the cabinetry anymore and all hardware is operating to manufacturer's specifications. Then let it go. Some clients can never be satisfied.

From contributor F:
I don't know your customer, but I've had "little old lonely ladies" call over and over for this or that just to fill their days. What usually works for me is once I've done all I know to do to satisfy them, I tell them if I knew of anything else to do I would, but I've done my best and to keep on trying would be wasting our time. Always in a professional, cordial manner, but firm. That usually puts them on to the painter, carpet installer or whoever else they want to harass. The thing is, once they realize they've played you for all you're willing to go along with, they'll leave you alone, and as long as you've been friendly and professional and have done a quality job to satisfy your standards, you'll usually get referrals.

From the original questioner:
Thanks all for the great response. After much back and forth with our client, we firmly asked them to send us a detailed description of the issues they are concerned with and what it is they feel would resolve these issues once and for all. After receiving this and discussing it with the client, we have agreed to replace the slide hardware on one drawer and the hinges on one door. We agreed to cover the labor cost and they agreed to pay for the new hardware. Seeing that the hardware was in good working order when the cabinetry was installed this seemed to be a common middle ground that we both could live with.

And thanks for the info on the Hettich slides. We will definitely be checking these out.

From contributor E:
On your very last visit to the customer I would thank them for being a valuable customer and to show your appreciation for their past service, I'd lay a decent bottle of wine on them and ask them to sign off on the dotted line. If they might be offended by a bottle, a nice house plant works wonders too.

From contributor Q:
A thank-you and a parting gift would be a nice touch. As difficult as some customers can be, you don't want them out there badmouthing your work. Should they ever return for more work down the road somewhere, a 50% nuisance surcharge wouldn't be out of line either. Business is business and time is money, and some customers do tend to use up more than their fair share.