Paul Laroe
LaRoe Remodeling
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Big50 1996

We try to realize that you can't change them or fix them. You have to manage the emotional roller coaster of the situation through timely communication and up-front agreements with clients.

During the pre-construction conference, state the ground rules for the remodeling process. Discuss potential areas of conflict like change orders or additional work. Talk about “remodeling fever” — the point in the project where the client has had enough and just wants to be finished.

Typically, if clients have issues, it's not with us but with themselves, their spouses, or their own jobs. But we're going to take the hit in terms of them blowing off steam and projecting their own frustrations onto us. Talk to your staff about not taking it personally and let the client vent and blow off steam. Don't get on the defensive; you're just adding fuel to the fire.

Matt Plaskoff
Plaskoff Construction
Tarzana, Calif.
Big50 1998

Understanding their behavioral style will give you insight into how they communicate. There are many tools to help you uncover this information (such as DiSC or NLP). We don't give these tests to clients, but as you gain knowledge and skills from these tools, you are able to assess the behavioral style without testing and get pretty close. All are founded on a similar basis: People fit into various behavioral types and everybody needs to be communicated to in the appropriate style.

If you have a fast-paced, results-oriented individual, and you don't come prepared, ramble on, and speak about personal issues, you can “create” a difficult client; you certainly won't be soothing an already angry one. A client with a nurturing personality will become difficult if you are not patient.

Most clients are not difficult until their needs are not being met. Learn to understand clients' behavioral styles and manage those needs, then difficult clients will become big fans.

W. Thomas Riggs
Riggs Construction & Design
Kirkwood, Mo.
Big50 1996

Our most difficult clients are the “time consumer” and the “indecisive” client. Both can usually be identified during the design phase or contract negotiations. Our best defense against these types of clients is to set boundaries early in the process and stick with them. Time, deadlines, schedules, and monetary draws are spelled out carefully, and the consequences of stepping outside those boundaries are stated clearly.

If selections deadlines are not met, we immediately revise the start date to show the consequence, and if there is a stall in collections, work comes to a stop.

This can all be done without emotion because it's the policy everyone follows and is clearly stated up front.

Gary Rochman
Rochman Design-Build
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Big50 2005

The stronger I set boundaries for difficult clients, the less problematic they become. If you let their craziness run rampant by trying to appease them, then it just gets worse.

I tell them specifically what they are not allowed to do, and specifically what we will do and what we won't do. Corralling them gives them a sense of comfort. Often clients don't have any idea what is allowed, what should be happening, or what their boundaries are. They act out in difficult ways until they see that their remodeler is in control and is leading them, not following them.

Dave Bryan
Blackdog Builders
Salem, N.H.
Big50 1995

If a client is disgruntled, 8 times out of 10 we've given them a reason to be, so we have a process in place that we've trained our project managers and lead carpenters to use.

We ask clients three times to tell us what's wrong. The first time, they vent, and you can see them start to wind down. We'll ask them two more times: Are there other issues? They'll begin again and bring up new stuff.

By the third time, their shoulders come down and their posture changes. They're more receptive and open to discuss solutions. Mostly we try to maintain a higher ground. We want to feel we gave it 110%, and if, at the end of the day, that client is still unhappy it's not because we quit trying.