When a Job Goes Sour

Expectations were unclear, now the customer is unhappy. What to do? May 4, 2005

I have a client that was unhappy with a master vanity that we installed in his house. He told me that it looked cheap. It was not a good day. One of his problems was that the maple we used didn't look like cherry. We had a conversation about material costs and I told him that we could make maple the same color that he wanted, which was a "cherry" red color.

When we delivered the piece, it was the right color, but he was unhappy with the grain. He said to me, "You said that you could make maple look like cherry." I told him that it was still maple and I couldn't do anything about the grain and I mentioned again that it matched the sample that we gave him (in maple) as well as the sample he provided us to match (which coincidentally was maple). Then he went on to say that he thought certain things would be built a certain way and that there would be a door here, more useable space, etc. As far as that goes, we had the drawings that they saw and had a copy of that (to me anyway) clearly marked out what was what. I pointed that out to him and he said "What does that mean? I don't know what those lines mean."

This person is remodeling a house that he bought. He was referred to me by a builder we work for, and has seen our work before and been to our showroom. He just sold a house in the 4 million dollar range that he built and he said that this remodel was not to be on that level (this is one thing that set my expectation prior to bidding). The bid gave options in material and options in extras, and in all cases he chose the less expensive material and none of the options. So, the job was bid at one level set by the homeowner and the work was performed at that level. Now we are told that is not good enough and we need to do things over. In addition, we are told by the architect that we need to provide full or half scale details of every cabinet and every condition in the cabinetry. I told him that this was not typical for us and that the project was not bid this way and that we had provided sufficient detail to the customer as well as to him to determine exactly what the cabinetry would look like.

So here I am with a job stalled (and now late) that we can't complete (there's still a kitchen and an entertainment center to do) and I have a client that has unreal expectations for the amount bid. I refuse to lose money on the job and do it at another level than that bid, although I am loath to walk away from the job and return deposits, even less materials. It's a lose-lose situation at this point.

What would you do? I could build everything like it's going under a microscope. Some people do this, have a great reputation and may or may not be making any money… When I go under, at least I gave a bunch of rich people a great product at the expense of my family and health. I could bid everything to cover every contingency and price myself out of most markets - maybe. I am very frustrated. I feel our prices are reasonable for what we do. Lately we have been averaging about $80,000 in cabinetry per house and doing okay. The job in question was about $40,000 for the kitchen, entertainment center and master bath vanity and wardrobe cabinets. All is pre-finished with Tandembox SS drawers, euro cabinetry with end panels, etc. - good stuff. It is not on the level of studio furniture, but would compare favorably with companies like Siematic.

Forum Responses
(Business Forum)
From contributor A:
Been in your shoes before. If you can step back and analyze the situation with a detached business sense, the answer is easy. It is very difficult to do that when you're right in the middle.

The answer: You should drop whatever you're doing right now, drive to the jobsite, remove the vanity and return any monies collected from the client. Tell them that you will not be able to make them happy and they should find someone who can. This goes for the kitchen and entertainment cabinetry, too.

Now I know you're thinking, holy s#^@%. My reputation will be shot, I'll lose money on the materials used, labor invested, etc. You won't be able to do anything about your reputation, you don't actually know what effect the client and architect will have… It may be 0 when they start to chisel on some other vendor. Better to lose a little money now than a lot later.

Between the lines, I see a client with above average means looking to squeeze anyone he can. You have speced a SieMatic-like cabinet without the price. Euro build, tandembox, etc. There is a reason SieMatic charges double for the same stuff. Markup/overhead and management/massage. He neglected to tell you that he's really expecting top quality, just feels he can value engineer out some of the layers of cost because he's found a better source - you.

If you want to make money like a businessman, concentrate on making what you make best for people who appreciate it, and are willing to pay for it. If you want to be the nice guy, the can-do person, go-down-with-the-ship type captain, that's very noble, but the banks don't take those for deposit.

I deal daily with this sort of client. Haven't worked in a house or condo under $1 million in over 5 years. Not all of our clients are happy, but all of them are paid in full. I'm sure you can find some to talk bad about us. I hope they tell their friends. Like usually finds like, and I hope these problem clients don't send us anymore of their likeminded friends.

From contributor J:
What you've got here is a job that has gone sour due to the behavior of the client. There is nothing you can do to make this person happy, bar doing the rest of the work to museum standards and paying him for the privilege of his letting you work on his house. Your job now is to detach yourself from this situation as quickly and as gracefully as you can. If you can't manage graceful, then settle for quick.

From contributor B:
I too have had clients this way. There is nothing you can do to satisfy this guy... nothing. He will always find something to complain about. If not yesterday, it's today or tomorrow. I'd take the above advice. Remove the vanity, saying that he's not pleased with it. Also take yourself off the job, saying that it is beyond your ability to make maple look like cherry... color, grain and all.

The client I had like this, I figured he suffered from OCD and had to have everything perfect, which is impossible to achieve. I am convinced he contributed to my heart attack. Walk and be in better health.

From contributor L:
Been there, analyzed it to death, finally concluded the same thing everyone above has said - bow out quickly and whatever you do, don't go back. Some things never change their stripes!

From contributor K:
Absolutely... get out now. He sounds like the kind of guy that will be shocked that you don't kiss his butt. When he frantically says "What are you doing?" (while you're carrying your stuff out), just tell him how sorry you are that there was an obvious misunderstanding from the beginning and that you cannot give him what he wants at that price. If he tries to barter with you, ask you to stay, agree to pay more, etc. (savor the moment), tell him you'll consider it and then just keep on walking. Leave him hanging. He's a textbook case of how some rich people get rich: by not paying their bills.

From contributor P:
Please don't build this person a kitchen. Some of my extremely wealthy clients do this, because they feel they are above you. They actually think it's a game and want to push you so far. Just imagine how the kitchen would turn out. Are you willing to explain and draw every detail of the kitchen? I'm sure he will say you missed something or he didn't understand. Return your money (refund) in a professional manner and move on from this person. The other option is to take money off the vanity and walk away. This person will not be satisfied with whatever you do and I know it might hurt both pocket and mind, but lessons learned the hard way will be best remembered.

From contributor X:
It takes all kinds of people to make our world go round. But that's life. My suggestion is to have an observer listen in to your conversation with your customer while you relate your problem with them, whichever way you decide to go. Personally, I'd tape record the session. Good lesson to learn from, besides giving you a bit of protection.

From contributor R:
When I encounter a problem like this, I try to put myself in the position of a large, formal business and think of how they would handle this. I think you get a clouded vision if you take it personally. I went through this a year ago with a demanding client (attorney) and the architect. I can only tell you what my experience was, but your answer will present itself.

I actually got right back in the face of the architect who I was having the problems with. (Tackle it head on before you walk away. These people have probably had no one stand up to them before. Remember they also need us.) Every time I installed something, she would come by and say it wasn't done the way she wanted it, even though it matched the drawings. I was constantly second guessing myself. There were numerous other additional requests. It was getting bad. Then after I got sick and tired of feeling like this, I called her up (with a prepared dialogue) and told her what the problem was. I talked to her like I would anyone else and didn't back down. It got heated and I knew there was a possibility that I would lose them as a client. If you don't tell them, they don't know. As a creative cabinetmaker, I do not like confrontation, but I was doing this more for me, my family and my business. Initially they were pissed at me, but we agreed to new terms, the air was cleared and I have never been busier with the architect.

It looks like you should stir up the pot here and even if you lose the client, you can walk away knowing that you did the best you could with the situation. Also, I hate to say it, but it seems that you let yourself get painted into a corner with the maple/cherry thing. I'm getting to the point now where I can smell a rat after a few conversations with a potential customer. A gut instinct is hard to beat. If you are confident in your abilities and your product, you should act like it. Don't eat this vanity. Send them a bill and keep sending it until it's paid. Add an interest charge to the bill. Act like a large business.

From contributor D:
Every decision you make now should be predicated on dollars and cents.

I agree that this client will be impossible to please. Therefore, the rest of the job will almost assuredly lose you money at the price you've quoted. In regard to the rest of the job, you either kindly pass on it, or raise your price due to the new expectations.

As for the vanity issue, although it might be tempting to remove it, I would negotiate a reduced price and leave it at that. There's a whole litany of things they could attempt if you remove it, from back charging you for the damaged wall where the screws entered, to breach of contract and holding up the job. Leave the vanity, cite a change in standards and expectations for your decision to pass on the kitchen, and move on.

From contributor U:
It is not always that easy to walk off the job. Might be that if confronted, the client will back down. I do agree with the last poster about not taking the cabinet out of the house. Once something is installed in a house, it is no longer your property, paid for or not. You could tell them that you will take it back to the shop to see what can be done about the grain pattern. At that point, you have permission - you just never get around to coming back.

In retrospect I would never have agreed to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. If they want it to look like cherry, then that is what I make it out of. Cost is tough.

From contributor H:
The following is the key to this problem:

"You said that you could make maple look like cherry."

Did you? If not, then according to everything else you wrote, the customer got what he bargained for and so should you - your money. If you did say that, then you owe him what he bargained for.

From contributor W:
I have suffered through this problem time and again over the years, but a lot less these days because of another woodworker who helped me through. One day I was moaning over a client and my friend said, "my God, stop your moaning, please." Then he said, "would you like to know why I seldom get screwed?" Of course I would. So he laid out the following to me.

1) Your drawings are your contract. Of course, have a written one as well.

2) If there is an architect, he is the one to do the drawings. If you are asked to do the drawings, the client and architect are to sign off on the drawing. They must sign on the drawings themselves. Remember, it's your contract.

3) No matter what, get 50% upfront and it's nonrefundable. This covers most, if not all, of your cost.

4) When the cabinets are built, have the client and/or the architect come to your shop and approve the job to date and sign off on it.

5) Do the finish work and have the client come to the shop and approve the finish. Get paid for the job.

6) Now if you have to install, you know that the job is good to go, you have been paid for it, and all you have to do is worry about getting paid for the install.

It sounds like a pain in the ass to do all this, but I haven't lost any money (well, almost any). The architect cannot pass the buck-blame game to me, and the client has more respect for me. And yes, even the rich have come to my shop and jumped through the hoops I used to jump through.

From contributor Y:
I agree, stand firm and don't second guess yourself. This reminds me of a job not too long ago with the same type client. They came home and she remarked how beautiful the cabinets were to her husband, and the installation crew heard this. Later she called my office and says "this isn't what I ordered." I go straight over with contract and detailed drawings with her signature on them all. We talked a while and it became apparent that she wanted a discount when she kept saying "and I'm not paying till you do something to fix this." I had my installers, who are finished, pack up all the doors and drawers with fronts and we left without saying goodbye. By the time I get back to the shop, she has called inquiring about the doors and drawers, to which I replied, "If you only want to pay half, you only get half." She wasn't happy, but I eventually got paid.

From contributor Z:
This is just ridiculous. In the eyes of a cabinetmaker, the customer is always wrong and the cabinetmaker is always right. Being both a cabinetmaker and a consumer, I also like to know why the product I am buying doesn't meet my expectations. I just bought a fiberglass bed cover for my truck from a well known company. The cover has three tiny dents, is wavy and the paint job is the best orange peel job I have ever seen. You bet, if they don't make one to my expectations, it'll be time for small claims court. I think you have gotten into the problem yourself because the difference between maple and cherry is just minimal on a 40K job. Stop blaming consumers who are the ones spending big bucks.

From contributor B:
I'm sorry, but the difference between maple and cherry is not minimal from a finishing standpoint... lot of differences.

From contributor Z:
From a finishing standpoint, both woods are blotchy, they both need a stain and they both need a topcoat. So what is your point?

From contributor B:
Point being that maple is white wood and cherry is reddish. Grain is different on maple than cherry. You can add color to maple, but you can't change the grain.

From contributor K:
It's true that almost all agree that the questioner should dump this guy ASAP. However, it is also true that the questioner is the only one who knows or who has the best feel for whether or not this guy is trying to screw him and cause problems. We have made our suggestions based on the questioner's description of the circumstances. I think even the most naive customers know that cherry and maple are different woods and that the color is what the guy wanted to look like cherry. Nevertheless, whether or not that is true, in the end, the questioner is the only one who can really decide what to do. If he has embellished or slanted his take on things in any way, only he knows that (or actually, maybe he doesn't realize it). Again, either way, he got to blow off some steam, but has to compose himself and make a decision. No sense in any of us getting steamed up about it.

From contributor Q:
Sorry to hear about your dilemma. In my opinion, it would be a horrible idea to do any more work for this customer. Nobody wants to turn away a $40K job, but how would you make money off a job for this customer with their expectations?

I would also check with an attorney to cover your end. Obviously, different states have different laws regarding contractors and these situations. It sounds like this guy does have money and could afford to finance a lawsuit. Be careful!

I know in California I couldn't pull that vanity out without permission. I hope you don't already have contracts signed for the rest of the jobs with this guy.

From contributor I:
We all know that we must have shop drawings, floor plan, elevations, and sections for customers to sign off. We need to clearly spell out materials. That is not always enough, though.

That is right about the lawsuit potential. I had one evil customer who let me install the cabinets complete, all the while giving me verbal punch lists, which I did. When I said "enough, this is perfect, time to pay," she tells me to take the cabinets back, give her all her money back. I laughed at first, but long story short, ended paying her $10,000 (half the contract) because I did not have a "loser pays attorney costs" clause in my contract. It would have cost me at least $10,000 to defend myself, and no guaranty on how the outcome would be. So I took my attorney's advice and decided to settle. You can bet my contract is much longer now.

I have learned time and again, when a customer gives you the idea early on they will not be picky in order to get a better price… red flag! Those same customers are the ones who find every fault, real or imagined, in order to not pay you in the end. There is only one way I know to deal with this type: cut your losses and run!

From contributor G:
I've run into this a couple of times on some furniture. Not to the dollar amount others have. One particular situation was a designer. They brought the photo, the dimensions, the color, everything, which was agree on and I built. When finished, the ultimate customer refused to pay. I told the designer - he made the contract and signed off on it. Not his customer, so it was up to him to pay for it. Ultimately he did, grudgingly. I've ended up with either the designer accepting 100% responsibility or they have the customer come in to sign off. In situations where using something like the maple stained as cherry, I make up a sample (12"x12" is usually big enough) stained and finished from the same material as the finished product will be, and have them sign off on that in addition to everything else.

The ones that I've had the most trouble with are the rich. They have a Champaign taste and expect to pay you with a beer budget. Get half up front or risk them finding fault with everything and expect you to dance to their jig on your nickel.

From contributor V:
At this point, you're in it for a vanity. Hold your ground. The customer chose maple finished in "cherry" documented. Caveat Emptor, if he didn't know what the lines meant that you showed him and told him about, then he should have asked. As to changing it, you would be very happy to change it to make the customer happy. I'll do anything to make a customer happy (as long as they are making me happy and paying). Point out he ordered it this way (which you did) and you built exactly what was ordered. You can veneer it with real cherry and finish it, then only have to change maybe the doors and finish them. The cost for the change order is.... And give him your regular price in the quote, but being that he is a good customer and you wish to do the rest of the job you will do this change order at cost which is about 70% or 80% of the regular price.

As to the architect wanting total detail drawings, you have already explained the project was not bid as such. If the architect would like or the client would like, you can order the drawings made up at a cost of $X for this add-on.

Do this in writing. You may lose the client, you may P.O. the builder/architect. But it's business, you've done all you agreed to and offered to do more and met the client's demands. In court, the client would lose, you documented everything. In life, you lose a job, a client, get badmouthed a little, but you don't lose your shirt, business, and be badmouthed by your wife and children for losing the house too.

The customer is almost always right. The customer gets what they pay for. If they want more, they pay more, simple. You protected yourself in every manner you could and even did the sample panel. I wouldn't walk from the customer. I'd ask for my money as agreed and if it happens, let the customer fire me and walk away himself. I still have my honor, integrity, and the check. If you get a refusal to pay, do a lien, send the notice and wait for the check to come later. You still did everything by the book and above and beyond reasonable for the unreasonable.

If it can be salvaged, it's worth it. Cost of client acquisition is skyrocketing. Client retention is even more important these days. One happy person might tell someone about you. One unhappy one will tell everyone bad things. I saved one client, picky and dingy, by just being nice, firm, stood my ground, and she bought more. I kept missing deadlines, I was buried and couldn't keep up. The quality was impeccable and she did like what she had. She was just freaked about the time frame and wanted to cancel the rest of the job and redo a table top free. I explained everything, spent some schmooze time with her, charged for the table again, charged her for the doors again, she added some work, and still is waiting for that entertainment center (8 months now) that should be ready next week (supposed to be last month). All from communication, politeness, professionalism, and being firm but nice.

From contributor N:
Try hiring a professional retoucher to fake in the cherry grain. Get the customer to sign an approved sample and it'll cost a few hundred to make it right. Then renegotiate the rest of your contract.