How to Deal with Client Conflicts


The very nature of the construction business makes it inevitable that there will sometimes be tension and conflict with clients. There are any number of clich's which are appropriate to these situations: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," "The best offense is a good defense," "Cut your losses," etc. While these are simplistic, they are also the basis for a sound approach to managing common client conflicts.

Ounce of prevention
All businesses should practice this phase of conflict management, but it's even more critical in the kitchen and bath industry. The remodeling business is one where the product is never clearly defined, no matter how much time and effort is spent on plans and specifications. In spite of this, there are many steps you can take to limit the areas of potential misunderstanding.

Start with your showroom and samples. It's important that the products, workmanship and finishes shown in your displays are indicative of the type of results your clients can expect.

You should also make sure that the samples used in your clients' product selection process are current and indicative of what they may expect in their project. Most of us would be dismayed by the portion of our samples which are no longer available or have been changed. It's not unusual for many suppliers to change colors or textures while retaining the name of a particular finish.

The most important place to prevent problems with clients is with the completeness and accuracy of your plans and specifications. There are two major reasons why plans and specs can fall short. They may fail to cover significant and important products or parts of the project and/or there may have been discussions about the project between the client and your staff which are not documented within the plans or specifications.

The place to start in addressing these shortcomings is to make sure that you are sensitive to the feedback that you receive from your clients as their projects progress. Try to ascertain what is at the root of any complaints or dissatisfaction. It's important to regularly review your showroom displays, samples and literature to make sure that they accurately portray your business and its projects. Your specifications should be generated by a "checklist" format, forcing the individual who is completing them to cover all of the steps and products which normally go into a remodeling project. Finally, you should standardize the format and content of your drawings and plans to assure that they are complete and contain details which need to be agreed upon.

Another area where problems can be headed off is through the education of your clients. It's a good idea to provide your client with a description (in the form of a handout or pamphlet) describing the process they are about to embark upon. I suggest giving this to them at the time the contract is signed, assigning them the "homework" of reviewing this material prior to the pre-construction meeting. This handout should include descriptions of what needs to be done to prepare the space for the project, protection or removal of furniture and belongings, what industry standards are, when the client can review plans and specifications for completeness, etc.

The next step in educating your client should be your pre-construction meeting. This meeting should take place a few days to a week before the project begins, and should provide the opportunity to review all aspects of the project: plans, specifications, timeline, preparations on the client's part for the start of the project and an opportunity to address any questions which may have arisen as a result of this education process.

The best defense
When problems do arise, the most important step is to get them out on the table and deal with them. Who among us has not received a phone message and, knowing that returning that call will result in a "blast" from our client, put off calling back? However, this very human response to facing unpleasantness is exactly the wrong tactic.

It's also very human for people to escalate their frustration level if they have a concern or problem and cannot reach someone to address it. Conversely, once they have turned their concern over to someone they are confident will address it, the "monkey" is off their back and they will focus on other things. Regular meetings with your clients during the course of the project are important in getting questions and concerns out in the open and dealt with while there is time to solve problems - before they are compounded by continued work.

Regular, on-going communication with your client is critical in preventing minor frustrations from escalating into a major confrontations. Make sure that your client can always reach a real person within your organization on short notice, particularly in an emergency.

Cut your losses
If, in spite of all your efforts to avoid a serious disagreement with a client, you find that the client is demanding that you provide or do something which you feel is clearly not justified, you'll have to choose: Do you do battle for what you think is right and fair, or do you try to negotiate a resolution that will allow you to finish the project and move on? My experience suggests that battling with a consumer is a "no win" situation for a business, especially a contractor.

It's always preferable to negotiate a settlement rather than to wind up in a situation where a judge or arbitrator imposes one. You should therefore structure your contract so that it forces a resolution short of such an imposed solution. To do this, make sure there is a provision in your contract that spells out how disputes are to be resolved: first by direct negotiation between the parties, then by mediation, and finally by arbitration. For more information about this process, you can contact the American Arbitration Association, which administers such a program.

Reaching the point in a business relationship where direct negotiations have failed should almost always be avoidable. In 20 years and approximately 2,100 projects, our business has only had four projects which required the involvement of an outside party to achieve a settlement.

The key to keeping conflict in check is continuous, clear and open communication with your client.

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