Art of the Deal

To some, the word “negotiate” carries an ugly and stress-inducing connotation; that of a drawn-out battle of wills that blurs the line between compromise and greed. A blinking contest, if you will. According to leading designers interviewed by KBDN, however, even negotiations with difficult clients can end up as win-win situations if certain basic rules are observed.

Kitchen and bath dealers and designers who excel at client negotiations generally are the ones who focus on finding and building on common ground, rather than focusing on points of contention. Additionally, “playing fair” and keeping it professional are critical tools when it comes to working through difference over issues such as budget, product selection and time frame. Finally, educating clients is key to creating an environment of trust which helps to get both client and homeowner on the same side.

These are the sentiments of David Norton, CMKBD and owner of Columbus, OH-based Ellis Kitchen & Bath Studio, who explains: “The best way to work with the consumer is to be forthcoming with information regarding the design process. After all, the ultimate goal is to have a project that, when completed, will be considered a success by both the consumer and the designer.”

The idea is to have the client take ownership of the project without taking over the project, says Karen Kassen, CMKBD, of Memphis, TN-based Kitchens Unlimited. “The most important part of negotiating with difficult clients is being detailed from the beginning, letting them become an integral part of the process, the selections and the design, and then documenting everything,” she explains.

By contrast, if dealers equate negotiation to a game of poker, they may be in danger of missing the big picture – and future referrals. After all, poker is won by purposely withholding information, while successful negotiation is based on trust and problem solving.

“We have to build up trust because we’re coming into the client’s home and we have to be able to work within that environment. It’s not just a construction site, it’s a living space,” adds Alan Zielinski, CKD, president of Better Kitchens, Inc. in Niles, IL.

Rebecca Gullion Lindquist, CMKBD and owner of Duluth, MN-based Lindquist & Co. offers: “If you take the time to build that relationship and determine whether you can work together, and if you stay honest, then there is no reason why you should not have a good, successful process.”

Room to Budge

As most would suspect, budget and cost often top the list of negotiation snafus, in large part because many homeowners feel that they are entitled to get some kind of special price. As Zielinski notes, “Everybody feels that they have to get ‘the deal.’ Nobody ever comes in and thinks they’re going to pay retail.”

Whether or not you negotiate on price before the contract is signed, these discussions about price and budget are a good opportunity for dealers and designers to evaluate the client as a potential business partner.

As Lindquist says: “I usually can tell whether we’re going to be able to work for a client effectively, or if there are red flags and we think it won’t be a good fit for our business. Some of it is based on intuition and some of it comes after you present information to people and they keep asking the same questions repeatedly. After a while, you realize they aren’t getting it.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, Kassen says. “I recently had to explain to a client why we charge retail prices. For instance, we do not charge an hourly rate for our design services, and when it is time for cabinetry, countertops, and appliances to be installed, our company is responsible for getting all selected products to the job site and ensuring that they are installed properly. Once clients understand all that goes into a project, they typically do not have a problem paying retail.”
In fact, quoting accurate costs up front is the fastest and easiest way to avoid “negotiation confrontation,” she believes.

Zielinski takes it one step further, and as a good faith gesture toward the client, will include value-added items to a project, such as extra tiles in a backsplash or a slightly bigger sink, free of charge.

This is a key component, Lindquist notes, because regardless of the project budget, the client wants to feel that they – and their project – are special. As she explains, “We generally see the issue of budget arise when someone is doing a $65,000 kitchen that may be pushing the financial envelope for them. To them, that’s a tremendous amount of money. We’re also doing $165,000 kitchens, so to us, the $65,000 kitchen is a basic project. But the homeowner of the $65,000 kitchen wants to feel like he or she is [being treated the same way] as the client with the $165,000 kitchen.”

Kassen adds: “Overall, one of our biggest challenges is helping our clients understand why projects cost what they do. I also find it challenging to help clients realize that more details and unique features will likely add to the cost.”

Other times, consumers will flatly refuse to give a budget figure, creating another challenge. “This causes double work for the designer because the design and the pricing have to be done twice; once for the clients to gain an understanding of how much the project may cost, and then again to bring the numbers back to where the clients feel financially comfortable,” says Kassen.

“If clients would only inform the designer, up front, of the amount of money they want to spend, the designer could plan accordingly and design within the client’s budget.”

Zielinski continues: “One of the first things that we will ask clients is what their budget is, and they are shocked. So I will ask them if they were buying a car, ‘what type of car would you buy?’ This way, we know whether it’s an entry-level, mid-range or high-end client.”

Kassen concludes “In my opinion, the main benefit of going through this budgetary process is that by the time I’ve come up with a workable budget for the client, I’ve also gained their trust and respect. They understand that I care, and that we share the same goal – to give them their dream kitchen within their budget.”

Great Expectations

According to Norton, one of the toughest negotiation challenges is overcoming any product, project or materials exposure a consumer may have had prior to entering a showroom.

“The most common challenge we face today is the consumer being ‘educated’ by HGTV and the Internet. The expectations that the consumer has regarding both the time required and the budget needed to complete their project is often unrealistic,” he points out.

Zielinski agrees: “It has to do with expectations. They watch home shows and feel that their project, which normally would take a few months, should be done in weeks.”

In many cases, consumers will even want to provide materials themselves as a result of this exposure – a definite no-no, Norton says – which often negatively affects the schedule and the profitability of the project.

“This leads to [us] having to re-educate them,” he says. However, he adds that this situation can help with narrowing down choices for the project, by virtue of the clients being familiar with current product offerings. “This will help me better understand their wants and needs and therefore allow me to provide a more appropriate solution to their design challenges,” he suggests.

Kassen adds: “It’s in everyone’s best interest that the client be as informed as possible so that an educated decision can be made.”

Lindquist adds: “Before we allow ourselves to be retained for a process, we go through a pretty solid education process that explains to people exactly what they are about to get involved with: the scope of the project and what the process is going to be like for them. In a 90-minute meeting, we let people know exactly what they need to know if they are going to take on a major renovation in their home.”

She concludes: “The success of a project depends on being proactive during the process, knowing what you’re doing and communicating with the client. That starts at the beginning by qualifying someone and being honest about budgetary issues with the project, honest about the design parameters and responsible about follow through.”

Step by Step

Designers agree the design process is called “a process” for good reason. And for that reason, it’s not enough to ask clients to become familiar with a world they may have little or no practical knowledge of. Rather it is the designer’s responsibility to become as familiar with the client as possible, Norton suggests.

“Asking lots of questions at the initial interview will help to unearth any potential stumbling blocks to a successful project,” he says. And, he adds, “it’s also important for the designer to listen to the answers.”

Kassen agrees: “First and foremost, we encourage our designers to talk to any potential clients. Once a person understands that we are here to help them, they tend to be more open and honest about their needs and expectations.”

“We have a ‘needs assessment’ survey that is eight pages long and goes as far as to ask their height and shopping cycle and whether they are right-handed or left-handed,” Zielinski notes.

“We will also give them three choices,” he says, “quality of product, price of the product and the services we provide. We let them pick two. We want to know what the two most important things to them are. That is how we begin to qualify them to find out if they are indeed our customer.”

In fact, he will even study clients’ body language to understand them a bit better.

“If I ask a question and they start looking up into the air, then they are a visual learner; if they look side to side, then they are an audio learner, and if they start looking at their hands, then they are a hands-on learner,” he says.

He is quick to add that designers also need to show the client that they know what they are doing from a technical standpoint, including explaining design details and supplying accurate information.

He states: “Whenever a client calls one of our staff members, we will write what the conversation was about in their files. We’ve had several instances where clients have forgotten or changed their decision. So, when we can print out multiple pages of documented print logs to document what they said, it makes the job progress more smoothly.”

Project Run Away

Of course, some problems can’t be easily resolved. According to Norton, sometimes the wisest choice a designer can make is to concede parts of a project – or even the entire project itself – due to client demands or unforeseeable circumstances. In fact, it is often a matter of preserving the integrity of the project – and your firm’s good name, he points out.

“Allowing the clients to ‘get their way’ [is fine] as long as it does not negatively impact the design from the standpoint of safety or functioning in the space,” he says.

“In some cases, this can lead to great referrals because the client feels ownership of the design.”

He continues: “I also believe that as dealers and designers, we reserve the right to ‘fire’ a consumer if we can tell that no good will come out of the proposed project.”

Lindquist agrees: “You don’t have to work with everybody that walks through the door. In fact, sometimes it is better to walk away so that you are not faced with all of the challenges that come with some clients. There are people that monopolize your time, call you every day and second-guess everything you do during the entire process.”

Kassen adds: “At the first meeting, if you feel a client is going to be difficult, maybe it’s time to step away. It has taken me many years to realize that I can’t do every project that comes my way.”

“If I sense that the person is going to be difficult to work with, or that the budget or expectations are unrealistic to the point that I won’t be able to meet them, then I usually will avoid the project from the start,” Lindquist adds.

However, once a designer has committed to a client and a project, he or she should exceed the client’s expectations to eliminate any chance of misunderstandings.

To that end, Lindquist recounts an instance where a structural issue recently threatened to derail an entire project. “A cabinet did not fit properly in a space that I had measured in the framing stage. The reason for the cabinet not fitting properly was due to the walls being 1-3/4" out of plumb. Although we knew the cabinet had been ordered correctly, we ended up re-ordering the cabinet to fit the space. These clients had spent close to $100,000 on their cabinetry and we were not going to let this become a [detrimental] issue,” she describes.

Zielinski shares a similar experience: “I had a client who wanted a kitchen with no doors on the cabinets. She told me that she often had flour on her hands from cooking and the flour would get on the cabinets. [While it’s not what I would have chosen], in the end, all of the wall cabinets had no doors and she took high-quality window shades and painted beautiful murals on them to use across the front of the cabinets. That was definitely a case of letting the customer get her way while not losing the sale.”

Lindquist has even gone as far as declining a job after having established a budget with a client. “We couldn’t come to terms on the time line of the project. He wanted things to happen on a certain time line and I just knew it wasn’t going to happen, so I just said that ‘not only can we not get product to you in that time line, but I don’t think the tradespeople can get the preliminary work done in your time line.’ His inappropriate response got him a ‘no, thank you,’” she states.

Kassen offers one last piece of advice: “Ultimately, it is up to us to qualify our clients and decide if the project and the client are the best fit for our business structure and business philosophy,” she suggests.

After all, sometimes the best way to ensure successful negotiations is to walk away from no-win deals so your firm can focus its time and energies on creating successful kitchen and bath projects that will enhance both your reputation and referral business.