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Customers Who Need Special Handling

We all need new business, but distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable buyers is important. The difference between a deal breaker and an issue that is merely an obstacle can be a loss or profit of thousands of dollars.

As a young man I would watch my grandfather close each deal with a handshake. He would build large projects during the week but would do concrete “side jobs” on Saturday. These weekend homeowner projects created an opportunity for my family to work together. Looking back I can see what a great deal this was for me, because he paid us well, yet took care of the hassles that come with business. I can’t remember any written contracts, just a friendly handshake between the decision makers. Actually I recall two handshakes, with the second handshake being the deal sealer, and it was usually followed with something like, “Thanks for the work.”

Now that I run my own decorative business I know the last handshake was so much more than a deal sealer. It was about two people that agreed to be respectful and reasonable enough to work through any and all differences. Man, how times have changed. Each year that I add a new article to my contract I realize more and more how we cannot litigate integrity. We must realize that contracts are a necessity to the decorative concrete industry whether we like it or not. Having said that, I will tell you something that a $400-per-hour lawyer won’t: You cannot write a foolproof contract in the decorative industry. It is up to each of us to shake out the buyers to avoid.

We all need new business, but distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable buyers is important. The difference between a deal breaker and an issue that is merely an obstacle can be a loss or profit of thousands of dollars. Sometimes it may come down to a personality compatibility issue. Most forms of decorative concrete are best suited for open-minded buyers.

That said, spotting the buyers to avoid can be a little challenging, so let’s look at the worst of the worst and how to spot them.

Unrealistic Expectations Buyer
By far and away this is the number-one red flag. The buyer with unrealistic expectations must be spotted well before the project starts. Contractors must know the questions to ask that will trigger the red flag and not be afraid to ask them.

Each type of decorative concrete will require different trigger questions. My company specializes in decorative stamping so we have developed questions related to this trade. On my first meeting with the buyer I might ask, “I noticed a few cracks in the city sidewalks on your street. Have you ever noticed them?” Most folks will reply with something like they never really noticed, or that concrete cracks and they realize this. Beware of the ones that say their new concrete better not crack or that cracks drive them crazy. You have two choices at this point and one will be easier if you left your truck running. The other is to educate your buyer about the fact that concrete cracks, and you will do everything possible to control it but will not guarantee against it. This puts everything back into their court. Make a quick exit if they continue to argue their case. If the education is working then be sure to highlight the cracking disclosure portion of your contract when signing.

For the guys in the business of concrete counters or stained floors, beware of the clients that say phrases like “bulletproof” or “no maintenance,” because I know of nothing in this business that doesn’t require some form of maintenance or is truly bulletproof. Polished floors may be the closest. Develop a few expectation questions and work them into your first meeting. You’re not looking for trouble but simply trying to sort good buyers from bad.

Something For Nothing Buyer
Luckily, these are easy to spot because all questions seem to be related to cost. Save yourself some time by prequalifying your buyer early on. Avoid the buyers that are looking for five bids before making a decision. Their project will usually go to the contractor that makes a mistake in estimating the project. A good prequalifying question would be, “Completed projects like this have usually run around $10 per square foot and this area is around 1,200 square feet so we should be in the neighborhood of $12,000.” Watch closely for signs of shock. Be sure to distinguish between the buyer that will not pay that much, even if gold-plated, and the buyer that needs more information to see the value. Some people enjoy the art of negotiation so don’t be afraid of friendly bargaining. Most of us like to feel we received a bargain.

Undecided Or Unorganized Buyer
I’m not sure which is worse, but both of these will affect your bottom line and patience. The undecided buyer will be easy to spot because they will want to see one more sample, again. I have seen this type even go as far as to want to decide on color as we are coloring the project. A line must be drawn in the sand with these types early on. Let them know you have a short window for scheduling and a decision must be made or you will have to move on.

The unorganized buyer is always too busy and can’t seem to make time. This can be a back-breaker if you are relying on these folks to clear a work area or finish a project before your phase of work. Spot this type of buyer early and stress, in writing, that an extra charge will apply if you show up and the job is not ready. Both types make me laugh because they are usually the ones that complain about how long their job is taking to complete. If you have been doing decorative work for awhile you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The one thing all the above types of buyers have in common is that the longer they wait for you to start the project the more their true colors show. Hold their contract unsigned until just prior to starting the project if you have any doubt at all. It is much easier to kick them to the curb if the contract is unsigned.

The Ones That Fall Through The Cracks
Well, these are the ones that make us ask ourselves why we got into the decorative business. A few will weasel past regardless of how hard we attempt to weed them out. My company had a customer recently that sent up a few red flags but we needed the work coming off winter and felt we could control the project. This homeowner had plenty of time on his hands and didn’t have a problem reminding our crew of how invasive our type of work was. Our daily progress meetings were spent planning ways to circumvent a sour buyer rather than planning what would be best for the overall project. Our project manager spent one to two hours per day on-site justifying what and why. This guy was a royal pain just south of the belt line.

When one slips through the cracks, you generally have only one choice and that is to cut your losses as you finish the project. The best way to gain control is to plan daily job walks with the buyer documenting all talking points of concerns and changes. These will appear to be a waste of time but will pay big dividends at the job’s end. The goal is to confront small battles daily to save a war at the job’s end. Remember, they are holding your money so it does little good to win the battle but lose the war. Let them see you writing down all items of concern and adding this information to the job file. Be sure to discuss and solve all concerns daily. This will eliminate compounding problems from day to day. Present your job invoice in person as soon as possible after finishing the project. Have the completed job file in hand to eliminate the buyer from resurrecting old complaints. Stand your ground on new issues that were not concerns before. Most of these types of buyers are unhappy with their personal lives and carry it into business.

Move on to your next project and chalk the last one up to a lesson learned. It’s all part of doing business regardless of what business we are talking. Sorting through the buyers to avoid is simply a small price for being part of a great industry.

One last note
There is a growing issue in the decorative concrete industry that is a little concerning. Some unhappy customers are calling multiple contractors for opinions or judgments concerning the quality of work of the installation contractor. This usually turns out to be an expectation issue more than a quality concern. The outcome usually puts all parties in an uncomfortable position as well as creating discontent among competing contractors. My advice is stay out of these situations and let the installation contractor work through it.

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