We recently had our first customer in years go off the deep end. We built and installed cabinets back in July and August of '06. We finally had to threaten to send the guy's final invoice to collections in November. He paid most of the bill eventually and by the end of November '06 we were completely done with him. Now after 14 months he calls me out of the blue claiming that his cabinets are falling off the walls, doors are falling off, the finish is chipping, etc. and that he will see me in court. We can proudly say that we have very few warranty calls (fewer than two per year), so this is rare. I told him that I would address the issue with him if he could give me some specific examples so I had an idea of whether it is really as bad as he makes it out to be. After 3 minutes of threats about small claims court he could not give me any examples. I told him that we would like to make sure that there is not anything wrong with the cabinets, but would like to get the general contractor informed about the situation first. He says something about needing to talk to the general contractor about other things in his house that are falling apart anyway and hangs up on me.
I have been in business since 2000 and this is relatively new territory for me. Should I immediately get a lawyer? Do I ignore him? Do I just bite my tongue, open my pocketbook, and buy him off? Any advice would be appreciated. I hope this doesn't sound like a rant against the customer, because although he has always been high maintenance I really want some advice on how to deal with this situation. I have had two cabinets that I made along with his kitchen as displays in our showroom since 8/06 and they are in immaculate shape, so I have a hard time believing there is something inherently wrong with his cabinets.
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor A:
He won't look good in court if he doesn't give you the chance to remedy any problems. It's a lot easier and probably cheaper to fix a few problems than to get a lawyer and go to court. Send him certified mail stating that you want to make him happy, then get in there, snap some pictures, do what you can and say have a nice day.
Once you have found out what you can, then it will be time to ask over the phone for a time to come out and check out any complaints. Don't offer anything or say anything other than that. Don't discuss anything until you see the cabinets with your own eyes. Then send the guy a letter confirming the date, time and reason for the meeting. Don't send it certified mail - just get a proof of mailing receipt, which costs 50 cents or so. You are setting an ambush just in case. If he refuses to set the meeting, offer again to meet in your letter while also mentioning the first refusal. Write this letter as if it is being written for a judge to read, not the homeowner. Chances are if this guy is setting you up, he won't likely to be smart enough to think that you have proof of mailing, so is likely to lie about receiving the offer of inspection. Proof of mailing is good enough in most states. The courts usually assume the mail gets there on everyday matters such as this. Certified mail lets him know the battle has started and he will write any responses with that in mind. Get there with a good camera and take lots of notes if needed. If there is something that truly needs taking care of, no doubt you don't need advice on what to do. However, don't reply on site, treat the meeting as just information gathering. Mail him another letter, with proof of mailing receipt, on what you decide to do about the matter.
I never take an upset customer personally. I never know what kind of day he had, or if something major is going on in his life. If you handle it professionally and on time, most problems can be handled. Also if you have shown every chance you could to take care of the situation, you will look more credible than he will, if it should go to small claims court.
Then the rest is up to you. At that point you will know what the real truth is and if you need to do anything. As far as the general contractor goes, that does not have anything to do with you as the homeowner was your client and not the general contractor's. The only part he would play would be if his walls or workmanship were causing the damage to your client's cabinets. As far as repairs that you expect the client to pay for remember what you have already gone through and get cash in hand before you unload one tool.
I once had a job where I was called back after 12 months with the customer saying that the paint was coming off. It was - on all horizontal top surfaces of the doors only. The customer had a maid who flooded the place with water and 2 little rat dogs that urinated everywhere. The floor was ruined also (laminate buckling up). At the time of the call, I found 3 doors that needed to be repainted. I took careful pictures of the dried coffee drops that were clinging to the bottom edges too and forwarded to the GC. When I returned to remove the doors, low and behold almost every door had paint missing, along with knife marks where it had been scraped. What she really wanted was the entire kitchen repainted a year afterwards. I redid the doors she messed up. Six months later, another batch needed to be done. I told here it was her maids fault for flooding with water, not cleaning up spills, and I was not going to re-do. I have never heard another word from her and it's almost 3 years now. Some people think "warranty" means that it repairs whatever abuse they can manufacture in a given time period.