Use Samples to Help Manage Client Expectations

Have you ever found yourself in this situation? Your client tells you she wants “just the regular kind of white painted cabinets” in her new kitchen: a simple Shaker style door. You call the shop you’ve used for years and pass the information along.

Then the boxes all arrive on site and you get that phone call: “I’m really not sure about these cabinets we ordered – they have a grey tinge. And I can see brush strokes in the finish. Oh, and the frame joints are cracking, too. Can you come over and take a look?”

Well, if this has happened to you, you’re not alone.

We’re living in a very different world these days. All those small, beautifully designed, robotically-produced items that we use every day – smartphones, iPads and many other household products – set the stage for much bigger expectations for what we build for people in our own industry.

Dealing with those unexpected client phone calls is all part of getting the job done. And, if you have a good handle on sampling, things will be a lot easier all around: for the designer, for the client, for the contractor, for the schedule and, most of all, for everyone’s peace of mind.

Perhaps it’s more important for the client than anyone else to understand how the sample and approval process works – the last thing you want is for an item to arrive at the job, have the client look at it and say “Oh, that’s not what I had in mind…”

It all starts at the beginning of the job – managing the client’s expectations of how sampling will work. You may be able to show a great color rendering of how the kitchen or the master suite will look, but the customer needs to know that there will be many things, materials and products that they have to see and touch (and sign off on) prior to the job being built.


When it comes to showing samples to your clients, bigger is usually better.

Flooring is a good example of this. A cut-off piece of tongue-in-groove rift-sawn white oak that’s 3"Wx6"L is probably not going to be very representative of what the whole floor is going to look like when it's installed. The grain pattern will vary, as will the natural color. So ask your favorite flooring supplier to provide you with at least a 2'x2' selection – and hopefully it will indeed show some variation.

Look at plaster and stucco this way, too. Use a large section of actual wall to experiment on if you’d like, or a mocked-up piece; again, a 2'x2' square of the actual finished product is advisable. If it’s a separate, portable sample, put it in the room or in the area of the building it will end up in; it will be better for you and your client to really judge how it will look in the physical place where it’s being installed.

The same goes for paint – large samples, painted on the wall, in the room it’s going in is way better than small color swatches or fans that the paint companies provide. By all means, use the small paper chips to get a few ideas, but insist that some of the real paint color be rolled out before you commit to covering the whole area. And let that paint dry out completely before you and your client decide which final colors to go with – it always looks different when it’s wet!

Some of the better quality stone and granite suppliers are beginning to use photography to help in sampling, selecting and matching. As we all know, stone can vary from slab to slab – in color, veining and pattern – and you may not be able to see everything at the supplier’s place of business. Raw material can be photographed upon arrival in the warehouse, and then the planned cuts and seams can be viewed digitally. This way, you’ll have a better chance of ensuring that the shower enclosure or kitchen countertop layout will be acceptable.

Metal finishes are a concern, too: If you’re trying to match brushed stainless steel on a particular line of appliances with, say, locally custom-made stainless panels (for a cabinet door or for a hood facing), tread carefully. The “graining” or buffing from a factory-produced item may look very different than one from your metal shop, so get a sample of each if you can; and give your client a heads-up about this.

Whenever you’re ordering cabinets from a manufacturer, it’s a good idea to ask for a full-sized cabinet door and drawer face – not just a small stain sample. That way you and your client can see variations in the grain and even the color. Once again, you’re trying to avoid any surprises later.

And be extra careful in the area of wood paneling; make sure you have large pieces for you and your client to review, again, in the actual space if you can. There’s a very complex world of veneers lurking out there with its own unique terminology and techniques: flitch selection, book-matching, slip-matching and seam placements. Make sure you’re dealing with suppliers and fabricators who know what they’re talking about, and who will produce the result you want.


Here’s a good example of the kind of text you may want to use – in this case for wood or paint finishes: “Your signature below indicates acceptance of this sample for raw material, grain, color and sheen. This sample represents an average appearance. Due to the uniqueness of wood, natural variations in color and grains of woods will occur within the total scope of work and are not to be considered defects – finished products may differ from this sample. Solid lumber will not be the same color and grain as veneers.

“Raw materials, paint, stains and clear finishes will be affected by age, light, heat, suppliers’ chemical formulation changes and/or grain variations.

“Finish stress lines at joints may become visible over time as materials expand and contract in relation to temperature and humidity changes. Such stress lines are not to be considered defects.”

All of this may seem a little over-reaching, but from your perspective, it’s good to cover your bases if the job takes a left turn and your client claims that it’s all your fault. Most of the time, success in this industry boils down to managing clients’ expectations effectively.

Stephen Nicholls has been in the building business for over 30 years. In 1982 he founded Mueller Nicholls, now a 50-person company based in Oakland, CA. In addition to performing remodeling and construction work, his firm operates a large cabinet shop, building work for its own projects and for other contractors.