Big50 1990

My rule is to immediately answer an e-mail like this. My only exception to that is when there is obvious emotional distress coming through that, in my mind, is unwarranted or unreasonable. In that case, I intentionally wait several hours to let the client's distress dissipate. This allows me to not overreact in my communication.

Then I answer as courteously and as diplomatically as possible.

GREGORY A. ANTONIOLI Out of the Woods Construction & Cabinetry
Arlington, Mass.
Big50 2006

I answer those (rare) e-mails immediately and by phone, giving the client the benefit of the doubt that their concern is valid.

I have confidence in my crew that they haven't done anything embarrassing, so whatever the client is disgruntled about should be easily solved as long as we deal with it openly and honestly.

How a contractor handles these situations is the determining factor in retaining the client and ensuring their willingness to refer you later. They will brag about how well you handled a screw-up more than if you never screwed up in the first place.

Most of the time, if there is an issue, I will have heard it first from my crew. They are good communicators, and the clients will usually go directly to them with concerns before coming to me.

MICHAEL GRIGGS Disaster Restoration
Big50 1995

I personally look into and call each client who has a complaint. Clients really appreciate the contact. This also helps to identify if the issue is with one of our staff not working up to par or if it is part of the client's pattern of behavior.

STEVEN ST. ONGE Rhode Island Kitchen & Bath Center
West Warwick, R.I.
Big50 2006

Here is my prescription:

  • Respond immediately via e-mail and make it short and sweet. Apologize and state that you will attempt to contact them via telephone and would like to arrange a personal meeting ASAP.
  • Within minutes of pressing Send on the e-mail, follow up with a phone call. Try every number you have on file for that client, and if you get their voice mail, leave a detailed message. Repeat what you said in the e-mail: Apologize and state that you will continue to attempt to contact them to schedule a personal meeting ASAP.
  • When you do connect via phone, the client may have already received the other communications and realize you are not trying to dodge the issue. Schedule a meeting in person. Ask if you can meet them within the hour or later the same day. Nothing impresses a client more than offering to drop whatever you are doing right now and meet them on the jobsite.

E-mail and phone conversations can be misinterpreted. When you are offering solutions to a client who is already edgy, there is no substitute for meeting in person and being able to read their body language and facial expressions as you discuss the issue.

BOB BENEDICT Northwood Construction
Sterling, Va.
Big50 2007

First, we try really hard to avoid having any disgruntled customers. But things occasionally happen and we have to respond in a responsible, accountable way.

The first time I had a customer who sent me an e-mail in which he sounded disgruntled, I responded with an e-mail. Unfortunately, the customer had e-mailed me using words that were aggressive and almost confrontational, and I must admit that my response was not as polite as I would have liked. He immediately e-mailed back that I had misinterpreted the tone of his first message.

My next move was to call him on the phone, which was the best thing I could have done. I heard what was wrong, he heard me take full responsibility for having a correction made, and we ended the phone call the way our relationship had originally started — friendly, respectful, and polite.

The lesson I learned is that you should always call on the phone and speak to the client. Now, I always call in these situations. It works far better when people can hear the genuine concern in my voice. E-mail takes away the emotional tone and can spoil a good relationship.