Some clients swarm your psyche, sap your crew's morale, even poison your company until it dies. But if you identify species early, you can prepare for them -- or shoo them from your habitat. Rub on some repellent ... and step into the jungle.
Clients from hell are like insects. They find you. And they leave their mark. Recovering from their bite is often harder than slapping on a little calamine lotion.
"He did so much damage to me, psychologically, and my company, financially, that I am doing a rather good job of repressing the memories," says a New York remodeler who asks not to be named. "The guy was a bastard."
Clients from hell cause venom to spew everywhere. They come in as many species as insects. Fortunately, like the bugs they resemble, they have identifying features.
Getting to know the dangerous species enables you to recognize their kin and learn to avoid them, as has our unnamed remodeler.
If you've shared the bite of experience, you know a darker truth: Some clients use your own policies and practices against you. "I've dealt with some people who others find impossible, and vice versa," says this contractor. "Look deep and determine if you, as a company, or personally, are doing something that just may be creating the monster."
The following field guide identifies species, habitats, food, characteristics, and warning signs. It collects survivors' observations. It provides expert advice and suggests a few antidotes, should your repellent not work.
Type: The ambush bug
Latin name: Boyarewegonna screwya
Description: This is the most dangerous client of all. It looks nondescript, yet its fore legs are adapted for seizing and holding prey. This is what psychologist and author Susan Edwards calls the pathological client -- the serial litigator intent on "getting you." It's a species proud of past conflicts, says builder and consultant Tom Stephani of Crystal Lake, Ill. While normal clients run from demanding (but reasonable) to demanding (but unreasonable), the ambusher populates a third genus, the true Client From Hell. Can be "slick," but also less obvious and calculating. Leaves litigation trail. Takes forms of other species listed.
Habitat: Adaptable to any habitat.
Food: Remodelers who think they can satisfy anyone and who convince themselves that this client's last contractor didn't have what it takes.
Warning signs: These clients often think in extremes -- you're a hero or a zero -- Edwards writes in "Managing Fraudulent Clients" (JOURNAL OF LIGHT CONSTRUCTION, August 1999). They lack compassion. These clients won't sign contracts with arbitration clauses, or they want to revise the contract, or add delay penalties.
Anecdotes & antidotes: Our unnamed New York remodeler started a six-month, $375,000 project but finished in 13 months after $475,000 in change orders. The client expected changes to be finished on the original schedule. "'Don't get me wrong, it's a very nice job,' he told me. I said, 'Fine. Instead of badmouthing me around town for mismanaging the project, why don't you tell your friends how nice it turned out?' He said, 'Well you know how it goes, you typically emphasize the negative.'
"He's still holding back about 20 grand."
Type: The assassin
Latin name: Tightus sphinctusmus
Description: Stephani, who has informally surveyed audiences for 10 years during his seminar, "Clients From Hell & How To Deal With Them," says people like engineers, attorneys, doctors, pilots, and purchasing agents are prime examples of this species.
Habitat: Micromanaged homes tend to hint at the perfectionist existence.
Food: Contractors who fail to meet every letter of their client's law.
Warning signs: Irrational, narcissistic behavior.
Anecdotes & antidotes: Paul Coates of Clearwood Custom Builders of Englewood, Colo., recalls a job for a $12,000 built-in entertainment center. The client didn't like the wood grain, so Coates agreed to remake new doors. The new ones were no good either.
The client refused to pay. Coates had received $6,000 up front, and through the client's rabid insistence, Coates figured out that he was an Assassin.
Coates asked for a $1 check to legally complete the transaction and be rid of the client once and for all. In retrospect, Coates says, he really didn't listen to the client's prior kitchen remodel story, and he believed the client when he talked about "what an idiot the other contractor was," he says. "I should have called the other guy and asked what happened."
Type: The dynamite bug
Latin name: Watchoutus boomerangus
Description: Notorious. Difficult to eradicate. Known, too, as "sleeping giants," these people are demanding customers whose dissatisfaction surfaces only when something "sets them off."
Habitat: The center or tail end of a job.
Food: Remodelers unprepared to deal with a client's emotional mayhem.
Warning signs: They offer few, if any, warning signs, which is what makes them so dangerous. They harbor a hidden sense of rage.
Anecdotes & antidotes: A.J. Paron-Wildes of DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen, St. Louis Park, Minn., says these clients seem OK, then something sets them off -- remodeling or non-remodeling related. "Let them vent, as long as they're not cursing," she says, "and empathize with them, tell them what you can do, then double-check: These are the issues you said you had, we've resolved them, do you agree?"
Dennis Rourke, a former builder/remodeler and author of "Managing Your Most Difficult Customers," was on a final walk-through, and his project manager said something inappropriate. After that, he couldn't regain his client's good will. Rourke documented the problems, then "overserviced" the client. When the homeowner threatened litigation, Rourke suggested arbitration. The client changed arbitrators three times. Rourke had resolved 370 items on six lists. The final matter boiled down to six complaints, four of them resolved after arbitration ensued. Rourke showed records of how he had serviced the client to death, and in the end was vindicated legally.
Type: The preying mantis
Latin name: Mani norespectya
Description: Sanctimonious in posture and manner, this species bears no respect for tradesmen. They don't pursue victims but instead lie in wait, then put them down with vicious, verbal behavior. "These people minimize what you do," says Roger Howard of Joe Howard Construction in Denver. "It's hard, then, for workmen and tradesmen to do a good job, no matter how hard they try. They know it's not appreciated."
Habitat: Any place where they can put down someone deemed their lesser.
Food: Your crew, your subs, your suppliers. Maybe you.
Warning signs: Look for a nose higher than yours. They're judgmental, angry.
Anecdotes & antidotes: Howard was working on a $1 million proposal for a doctor. It would have been Howard's largest remodel. They met at the doctor's house when no one was home, then at his office. The final meeting before contract signing was at the doctor's house again, only this time, the doctor's wife and children were there. Howard recalls leaving the meeting: "The architect working with me said, 'We'll see you tomorrow at the contract signing with the revised changes.' I said, 'I'm not sure you will.'"
Howard had been shocked by the doctor's lack of respect for, and belligerence toward, his wife and children. "If he treated his loved ones that way, how was he going to treat me?" Howard asked. When the job was contracted (with someone else), all those who worked it were later sued. Says Howard, "One of the best things I ever did was say, 'No.'"
Type: The maybemaybenot ant
Latin name: Whimpa indecisiva
Description: While innocent-looking, this species defends itself by squirting a jet of indecision from its mouth. Stephani says these people typically take orders from others in their jobs and are never in an authority role. Thrust into the "boss" role on a remodel, they're overwhelmed. A remodeler is sucked into their decision-making process (or lack thereof) and ends up swimming in the acid of confusion.
Habitat: They live just about anywhere.
Food: Remodelers who don't document client decisions.
Warning signs: Continually reworks proposals in the contract stage.
Anecdotes & antidotes: Shawn McCadden took the project because he was slow and needed work. It took three months to get the client to say "Yes." At each meeting, the client reworked the proposal. "I bought a job instead of sold one," says McCadden, of the Residential Design/Build Institute and Custom Contracting, Arlington, Mass. "Even when you realize you're looking in the face of a client you can never satisfy, sometimes your ego gets the best of you."
The job went to hell when McCadden neglected to get a client signature on items considered done. Lesson learned: Custom Contracting now generates a cover sheet for every project folder, which is signed by the client to make sure the client notes every step of the job.
This client was so unable to be satisfied that before the matter could be resolved with McCadden, he tore down the 14-foot-square family room addition and had it rebuilt by another contractor.
In the end, the client cost McCadden four years of hassle, two lawyers, and $150,000. He settled instead of risking triple the damages. Worse, the Ant's acid killed his motivation to go out and sell. "You can't go out chipper and sell the world after that," he says.
Type: The black widow
Latin name: Singulara oldmaidus
Description: A spider isn't an insect, but we make an exception for arachnids that eat their partners. The female species is most dangerous.
Habitat: Homes under their titular care.
Food: Any remodeler who doesn't cater to heightened sensitivities, or who doesn't understand paranoia related to home being their castle.
Warning signs: Defensive behavior, paranoia.
Anecdotes & antidotes: Paron-Wildes hates stereotypes, but her client analysis bears her out. Examining profit margins over two years, she learned good margin jobs were with people her mostly female staff enjoyed working with. She examined 120 jobs. A pattern of single, unmarried, or widowed women emerged on low-margin jobs. "I never would have thought it until I saw the numbers," Paron-Wildes says. "Many women don't know what they're doing when it comes to remodeling. And they feel we always take advantage of them. They're more fearful that they're being taken advantage of, and they're responsible for upkeep. They're fearful a crack could turn into a cabinet falling off the wall." Out of her company's 15 worst-ever clients, 10 were single women. Paranoia led one customer to believe the work crew was taking things. She finally allowed them to work only when she was home.
Don't nurture the larvae
Of course, the best way to deal with a Client From Hell is to avoid them altogether. McCadden suggests asking tough questions in the qualifying or proposal process: What's your biggest fear? Or, what if this project isn't done on time?
Ask again before you close the sale, to make certain the reaction is the one you want. Can your systems withstand this client? Are you certain they're not going to sue? They're demanding but reasonable?
Just in case, McCadden suggests having a reserve equivalent to 10% of volume to cover arbitration or litigation. If later, you don't use the money, you've got another retirement fund.
Remember: These spectacularly fascinating but treacherous clients spawn future clients. Quality clients send quality prospects. Assassins send more assassins.
So take it from the bitten: Look for the warning signs, trust your gut, ask tough questions, and then, if you find yourself staring a true arthropod in the face, do everything you can to take the sting out of their bite.
Create a Safe Habitat
All clients can be difficult, but in the end, 2% just can't be satisfied, no matter what you do, says Dennis Rourke. "Difficult customers, you can handle with good processes," he says. "The client from hell is that 2 percenter."
Rourke is a former builder/remodeler and author of "Managing Your Most Difficult Customers" (NAHB BuilderBooks, (800) 223-2665).
The most difficult client is someone who is beyond fair and reasonable, he says. "Often, they will be someone suffering from some form of mental disorder, with a distorted sense of reality and unreasonable expectations. ... Treat them with respect and compassion, document the effort carefully, and be prepared for arbitration or litigation."
Tom Stephani, a builder and consultant who first gave his seminar, "Clients From Hell & How To Deal With Them," 10 years ago to a room of 800 people, says he can't believe he's still presenting the program. Like Rourke, he believes contractors create their most difficult clients.
"We don't get complete plans and specs and assume they understand what we are talking about," Stephani says. "We forget our level of knowledge is above theirs. We often overpromise and underdeliver."
It's best to know when to say "No" to potentially troublesome projects. Once you have one though, besides being well-organized, you need to set expectations early and maintain communication. It's critical for your documents to show, from the beginning, that you were a professional. File everything. Well-directed, written statements give credibility and standing, should the matter go to court. Create a culture, policies, procedures, and processes that manage customers from start to finish. Treat them with respect and overservice them. That will take care of the toughest 10%, Rourke says.
What bothers Clients From Hell, many of them hyper-organized, are bad systems for communication, change orders, and procedures -- and that starts the aggravation.
Dennis Dixon, of Dixon Ventures, Flagstaff, Ariz., says Clients From Hell are born because they feel they've been misled or there's a misunderstanding. He gets a feel in the proposal process about what he should put in writing for the job, and then he writes it all down in simple language.
Less Dangerous Species
These clients try to establish control through "expertise." They seek the bodies of remodelers and bury them with data, feeding on the decaying flesh of sweet deals and laying eggs on the body of proposals. They snack on Internet information. Paul Coates of Clearwood Custom Builders had one who red-lined his $330,000 proposal, showing how she could get better pricing than his 11 subs. "A definite control freak," he says.
Pipe Dream Beetles
Watch out for bodily structures developed out of proportion to the rest of its body: This client's eyes are bigger than his wallet.
Tunnel Vision Earwigs
Focusing on the project a little too much is the flaw of this species. Pincers help it hang on. If contracted, they can turn into ticks (see below).
This client burrows himself in -- he's constantly on site, bugging lead carpenters like mad. Contractors can limit a tick's bite with tight contract language and should try to limit clients' time on site with leads.
We all know these clients: They surround themselves with spittle, voided from their posterior end, as a form of protection. They talk so much about minor problems they overwhelm contractors.
Beautifully prismed eyes fool remodelers. But these clients can't really visualize anything. Roger Howard of Joe Howard Construction recalls a homeowner telling the designer about her large vaulted ceiling. "My lead is hearing this, and knows we're having trusses with a flat roof, and he's looking at the interior designer with his mouth open." The details had been spelled out in specs, the contract, and the plans. Yet right there and then, the client soured. No one could do anything right, even when Howard raised her Spanish tile roof 2 feet with a crane and four floor jacks, a $10,000 change order.