Is this customer worth the hassle?

The project was complete and paid for in full. Then, the customer requested a "free" change to it. June 7, 2000

I have a part-time custom shop that I have been working out of for several years. I plan on going full time in approximately 2 months.

Over the years I have only had one "customer from hell," and when I was done with his changes to the project, he went away happy, and it cost me quite a bit. But now, I have the worst customer I have ever had.

Before I built the stereo cabinet I went over all the details with him very carefuly, and even changed the design twice to please him. He approved the changes, and I built the piece exactly the way he wanted it. I never promised a precise delivery date, telling him about 3 to 4 months, but said I'd try to get it to him sooner. I updated him on the progress every couple of weeks, and told him he was welcome to visit my shop any time he wanted. He never did.

I delivered the project a little later than planned, about a month. He stood back and looked at the cabinet and smiled, and happily handed me the balance of the money. He then asked if there was anything I could do to soften the edges of some fixed shelves, I said that I would think and see if there was anything I could do. A few days later I told him that to make the changes that he asked for would cost me a lot of time and money and I thought the changes would be prohibitive.

He called me back and insisted that I either make the changes at my expense or refund him $100. The total I charged him for this cabinet was $1,750. Very reasonable for what I built for him. If I were to make the changes, it would cost me $500 in lost time.

I don't want him to tell potential customers that I am not a fair person.

Do I give him $100?
Do I make the changes and eat the cost?
Do I tell him I'm sorry but you approved the design, I built it that way, and you are stuck?

Forum Responses
"He stood back and looked at the cabinet and smiled, and happily handed me the balance of the money."

In my opinion, the job was completed at this point.

When he asked to make further changes he was starting a new job,and not offering to pay you for it. Then he tried to bully you out of $100.

I don't think he will ever be happy with not taking you for more time and money, but I'm sure he will enjoy the furniture and show it off to all of his friends (if he has any). Be nice and walk away from it.

Give him $100? No! Make the changes and eat the cost? If so, charge him $40 per hour, minimum. Tell him, "I'm sorry but you approved the design, I built it that way, and you are stuck"? I'd leave out the "stuck" part; be nice. I'm sure he's busy working over someone else at this point.

I also make and sell furniture to my customers and to a few Furniture stores, the owners of the furniture stores have a lot of stories about customers from hell. There seems to be no shortage of them; just try to screen them out if you can.

Although you it seems from a legal and economic standpoint you don't "owe" him anything, you must carefully weigh what affect this $500 will cost you in potential "bad advertising."

By this I mean if you do nothing and he tells four friends why he would never use you again and they each tell two or three, you could lose more business than you could ever buy for $500.

You need to explain to him that you would like to have a happy customer but one of the reasons you reviewed the drawings with him (I hope they show the edge detail) was to eliminate potential problems like this, and that you always do this, since erasing lines is much easier than reworking wood. I would then gauge his reaction and try and reach a compromise.

I think softening or easing the edges of the shelves is ONE BIG CHANGE!! I don't agree that the drawings should have indicated the sharpness at the edge of the shelves. That is a detail that is left to the finisher - one finish can support a sharper edge than another.

Base your decision on his community influence. If you feel that he is one who can influence future sales for you, you may decide to eat the $500 and do the work. If you feel that he is not that influential or that a reasonable person would question his motive in complaining about your work, take him up on his offer and refund the $100. Put the $100 under the expense of learning one more thing about your business and customer base.

If you think that he is out of line in his demand, tell him so - tell him that standard operating practices in the industry, and your competition, will not allow to do the extra work without total compensation. If he asks what your competition has to do with it, tell him that every hour you spend doing for him what is not warranted is an hour your competition uses to take your next customer away from you.

I know how you feel - take as much time as you need to reduce your frustration factor and water temperature and then lay it out as matter-of-fact as you can.

Best of luck to you. And please, raise your prices. I think you're too low and your customer thinks he's found somebody he can take to the cleaners. Just my personal opinion.

Give him his hundred dollars and move on.

I think the establishment of your own standards and including them in each drawing package is important, we detail every detail that isn't covered by grade rules and we do detail the radius on shelf edges. It is a shop drawing and for us that is instructions to the shop first, second to the owner/arch/gc it is our interpetaion of the design using our methods so the can see the differences or details.

All of the postings in this thread have been thoughtful and plausible. But I think we're forgetting a very important point, which is this:

Why does the shelf edge detail suddenly become acceptable to this yahoo once he's got a hundred bucks in his hand?

Answer: Because the shelf edge has nothing to do with it. He wants to manipulate you for a further discount, pure and simple.

Nobody's ever tried this with me, but God help them if they did. Influential or not, after I'd finished rolling on the floor laughing at their cockamamie request, I'd have cleaned up my tools and gotten the hell out of there. Sometimes you just have to accept that there's a weenie born every minute, and that sooner or later, you're gonna cross paths with one whose picture should be in the dictionary next to the word.

Unfortunately, it seems you're in a place where you must now deal with it. So here's my suggestion:

Ask this guy to put his complaint -- and his acceptable solution, the hundred bucks -- in writing, to sign his request and mail or fax it to you. Tell him you'll send him the money as soon as you receive it, but that your accountant insists on a record of the reason for the discount.

If he does this, which I doubt, send him the hundred bucks with a note of your own: that you appreciate his business and would appreciate it even more if he took it elsewhere the next time around. Throw in plenty of guilt about the great price you gave him in the first place, but keep it professional, i.e., "I'm sorry this minor detail was displeasing to you, but happy that a mere hundred dollars made it somehow acceptable." This does two things: gives you the satisfaction of telling him what you think, and gives you written proof of his left-field request.

But I seriously don't think it'll come to that. He sounds too smart -- or should I say, too cunning? -- to walk into the "trap." Upshot: You keep the hundred, and still get to honestly tell people that you were willing to give him a discount, but that you never heard from him again.

If it ever comes up.

Which it won't.

And yes, your prices sound way too low.

Good luck, and ain't the general public grand? Rivaled only by general contractors -- but we'll save that for another day!
Anthony G. Noel, forum moderator

If we are going to write this guy off then let's get an unconditional acceptance of the work, and for further consideration let's tell him we won't warranty it beyond this point so we don't have to deal with him again?

I'll second it.

I want to thank every one of you that took time to help me out with my problem customer. I'm going to be nice to him, tell him to submit anything in writing, and not devote any more of my time to him.

I had an uneasy feeling when I took the job from him, but I ignored it. From now on I will also follow my instinct. If I don't feel good about the person, I won't take on the work.

You could also approach a job as high risk and price it accordingly, each customer will have varing degrees of risk or problems, some fall into your norms, some don't.

Somewhere in our contract verbatim it says something like, "Any construction details not specifically discussed and documented will be performed at the discretion of (insert company name here)".

You cannot possibly detail every construction detail that goes into a project. Having something in your contract like I outlined above may not make the customer any happier, but at least you've got the paper on your side if it comes to that.

Don't let this schmuck try and hold you or your reputation hostage. He is only one customer, but if he takes you on this item, does it stop?

What about your time? How many times will he come back for "changes" and expect you to eat them? The world is full of dirtbags like this. It is also full of good customers. The trouble is sorting them out!

This clown's trying to chisel (oops, woodworker pun!) you out of a hundred bucks, pure and simple.

Here's the solution, pure and equally simple: Look him right in his weasel-like eyes and say, loudly and clearly, NO! That usually works for me. If that's not enough, kick him in the balls as hard as you can. And watch out -- sometimes they puke when you do that.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
Sounds like several of my ex-clients. Tell him you will think it over and leave. If he calls asking for the hundred bucks, ask what makes him think he is entitled to it. He agreed to the project and paid for it. In the future if he shows up with work for you, show him the door.