Qualifying Husband-and-Wife Customers

Intuition, psychology, and interpersonal techniques can help you sort out the worthwhile leads from the dead ends. July 20, 2011

A few years back I met with a local couple who inquired about several custom woodworking and cabinetry projects - fireplace mantle, home office, TV cabinet. The wife took the lead and described each item carefully. The husband lurked rather menacingly in the background until she finished, and then contradicted and even belittled most of what she said in each room. It was one of the only times I didnít get back to a prospective customer, for I was 99.99% sure it would be a complete waste of time, or maybe worse, a nightmare if I got started the work.

Recently I met with another couple about a custom TV cabinet. Again the wife drove the process while the husband sat passively in the room and listened. (At least I didnít feel threatened by him!) I sent a proposal but never heard back, despite a couple follow-ups. This was likely a case of them having a furniture store budget in mind and being shocked at the cost of a custom cabinet. I might have saved myself the time of doing the proposal if I threw out a ballpark price at the meeting, but I generally try to avoid that, unless I can point to a similar project Iíve done and give a rounded price range for that.

In these difficult times Iíll chase almost any lead, but Iím wondering if others have repeat equations that always seem to land at a dead end. In this case: Active and interested wife + Passive but notably present husband = Almost Certain Waste of Time.

Hereís another one I just encountered twice in the same week: Contractor who doesnít know me from Adam + urgent need for pricing on a commercial project, numbers due next week = ???

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor G:
Another clue is Hubby's hands balled into fists in his pockets while you're talking.

From contributor J:
Don't let husbands lurk. Bring them into the conversation and qualify them as well, even if it's through the wife if he's not present.

From contributor M:
Sounds like your intuition was dead on. It sucks to walk away from money, but you don't want to get caught in the middle either. I agree with not throwing out prices. I bring several well documented projects with all specs and pricing to give clients the general pricing.

From contributor S:
It may seem like a waste of time when you first get to a call like this, but it's up to you to change the situation.

First of all, I can't recall a time when a man actually called the shop and was willing to spend $40K remodeling the kitchen to get his old lady off his back. Most of the work I do is new construction, but the few remodels are all driven by the wife. The guy will spend $15K on a plasma screen to watch football, but as long as some form of food is still coming out of the kitchen, he's not really interested. He's the one you need to be getting involved in the project. Show him the samples and the photos. He's usually there for one purpose, to keep a lid on the costs, and to decide just how much he's willing to spend. If you change his mind, you've got a job. She already wants a new kitchen, just doesn't know how it's going to be paid for.

The other thing I have observed about most custom remodels is that they are done by older people who have the money, and really want a place to show off for that occasional party. Customers who have spent the most are in their late 50s, kids are mostly gone, and they hardly cook at home in the first place. These are the golden ones, and hubby is usually still the skeptic at first.

I'm going through the same thing at my house. I have done a lot of remodels for friends and family members, and they all look better than my kitchen. Wife wants a new one, and frankly as long as some form of dead animal ends up on my plate every evening, I see no rush... and I get the remodel for close to nothing! Look at these situations as a challenge, not a dead end.

From contributor P:
I hate wasting time, so I ask outright:
"Do you have a budget in mind?"
"Have you gotten custom cabinets in the past?"
"Have you gotten quotes on this work from other contractors?"
"This job will likely be in the range of x-y dollars depending on the final design, wood species, finish, options, etc. Is that in your price range?"

Nothing worse than spending 10 hours on a design/price and hearing, "We had no idea it would be that expensive."

From contributor S:
This aspect of our business is frustration. I personally have a hard time coming up with a guesstimate without running my numbers first. If I am off by even a small percent, they say, "but you said it would cost X." Customers are often cagey, give incomplete information, and have unrealistic expectations. I especially hate the follow up call part of the process. Only about 1% will have the courtesy to call and say that they are not using us.

From contributor R:
After 27 years of selling, some thoughts: Pre-qualify, pre-qualify and pre-qualify. And, ask lots of questions. Write them down in advance. Be prepared. Take control of the potential sale rather than it controlling you.

Try to ask pointed questions prior to the meeting. For example, have you ever done any remodeling before? Purchased any custom cabinets? Will this be a joint decision or will you make the final purchase? Have you and your husband already talked about the scope of this project? My experience says that both parties need to be very involved because typically there is a lot of money involved. Where have you shopped thus far? What did you like or dislike about this vendor? Was the price they provided in your budget? Have you researched what a project like this should cost? When do you expect to complete the project? Okay, help me out... If you were purchasing a car (and not cabinets) what dealer would you be at? What are your tastes - Lexus, Hyundai, etc.?

Try to ask questions that don't corner you or belittle the homeowner/buyer. The more you know, the faster you will paint the picture of this particular customer.

Finally, it's very important to give an approximate cost range after about 1 hour of discussion. Tell the homeowner you want to do this prior to starting the meeting, thereby setting the stage of what's to come. You don't want to waste their time or your own. After throwing out a range, immediately ask: Is this in your budget? Ask both husband and wife for responses.

If a spouse is totally disengaged, frankly I would call them on it. Ask for input by saying their name aloud. The more you know about your customer, the less stressful it will be... Reading between the lines is an art. Listen carefully and respond with questions.

Ask the customer before they leave when you can call them back for follow-up. Call 1-2 times. Don't bother leaving any messages after that - it's usually a dead sale. In fact, if you cannot get a small deposit after 1-1/2 hours of discussion, it's about 95% likely it will never happen. Keep working at it - it's a skill!

From contributor P:
Here's a tip for dealing with couples: take them out on the shop floor. Show them the tools, the machines, the wood. Hand the man a drill or router. Shops are a guy place, and emphasizing the build turns the job into much more of a guy thing than just a decorating project. The male customer is often looking for a way to feel good about spending all that money. He couldn't care less about the details of the design, but if he can identify with the macho act of building stuff, he will be much quicker to part with the money.

From contributor M:
Very good contributor P, I like that.

From contributor S:
Whenever two people are involved in the decision making process, you have to get them both on the same page. This goes for spouses or business partners. If one of them is doing all of the talking and the other is refusing to engage, a deal is never going to happen. If they argue back and forth, at least that has the semblance of a negotiation.

Sometimes there are legitimate relationship dynamics that you have to address. Other times, buyers will intentionally isolate you from a decision maker to keep you at bay. Either way, you'll waste a lot of time if you don't deal with it early on.

Regarding follow up, I never ask people if they'll let me know. Many people are non-confrontational and would rather never speak to you again than call you up and explain why they went with another bid. Instead, I ask for permission to call them in a couple of days and ask if they'll let me know either way (as if it's no big deal). It's really your job to follow up, anyway. If you remain positive in the face of rejection, you'll position yourself to pick up the job if something goes wrong with their first choice.