Jason Schneider

Mistakes happen.

No matter how well you plan or how skilled your workers are, something is bound to go wrong that will make your client see red. Whether it’s out of your control — weather, materials arriving late or broken — or it’s totally your fault, such as a subcontractor tracking paint through the foyer or a family heirloom getting dinged by a 2x4, there comes a time when you have to say “I’m sorry.”

According to Mac Crawford, president of Crawford Builders, in Lexington, Ky., he tells his clients that “there has never been a perfect building and there never will be. If something is built with human hands it’s going to have human errors.” Mark Scott, president of Mark IV Builders, in Bethesda, Md., agrees: “I’ve never had a job go perfectly, or had one where I didn’t say something didn’t work the way I had planned. Admit your mistake, fix it, and move on.”

Such a straightforward approach is not only refreshing for the client but it’s empowering for the contractor. By putting everything up front, there’s nothing left for the client to discover. “It gives them a sense of confidence that you have control and that if things go south, they know they can trust you,” Crawford says.

Fast, not Furious

Whether a remodeler is just starting out or has more than 50 years in the business, when it comes to the issue of when you should apologize, all the remodelers we spoke with unanimously agree that the apology should be made immediately. Nothing is worse than the client finding a problem and then waiting for an apology. Nobody wants a customer to stew for a few days over a mistake. Some contractors even apologize in advance because they know that, at some point, something will inevitably go awry — it always does.

After 30 years in business, Mitch Stanley of Stanley Renovation & Design, in Portland, Ore., bemoans the fact that he’s had way too much practice apologizing, but says that he now has it down to a science. “First, get face-to-face with a client if at all possible,” he says. The next step: Admit the mistake and take full responsibility. “As the general contractor, I take responsibility even if the error or problem was caused by my employee, a trade contractor, or a supplier.”

Jason Schneider

Scott echoes Nike’s famous slogan when it comes to apologizing: “Just do it.” He says, “If you’re the general contractor, it is your fault. You didn’t follow up properly with your subcontractors. Everybody makes mistakes.”

Finessing the Client

Scott and his team’s unique approach to making amends is reminiscent of classic crime shows of yesteryear: they play “good cop/bad cop.”

According to Scott, the way he and his team finesse this routine is to make him the “bad cop” or the one likely to hit the roof when something goes wrong. The project manager contends that a certain solution is the way to go but “Mark won’t go for it.” By using this method, they create a feeling of teamwork even though it’s putting Scott in the position of the heavy or “bad cop.”

Getting the client on the remodeler’s side is another method Mark IV Builders uses to smooth over a rough patch. “I work with my guys to draw the client in as a fellow problem-solver,” Scott explains. “We say something to the effect of, ‘I’m thinking about doing it this way. What do you think?’ And it works! If you can draw them in to help solve the problem, things work out much better.”

The key to success in negotiating with the client is to maintain a caring, understanding, empathetic, professional attitude, so the customer knows you are a fair and reasonable person, says Tim Nagle, founder of Remodel Buddy, in Richmond, Va., and a REMODELING blogger. “Yet you must be firm enough so that the customer gets the point that you are serious about resolving these issues, but you’re not a pushover.”

Scott admits that he probably apologizes more during the sales cycle than at any other time in the remodeling process and has found it to be a very effective tool. “When you fall on your sword and bleed all over the table, people aren’t going to gut you right there,” he says. “They might have been prepared to, but if you say ‘I should’ve done this better,’ or something along those lines, people’s natural desire is to help you rather than hurt you.”

What it boils down to is your company’s philosophy, according to April Bettinger, owner of Nip Tuck Remodeling, in Seattle. “If you and your company believe in doing the right thing — meaning that you own the good and the bad — empathizing with the client comes naturally and an apology will be delivered and received with sincerity,” she says. “Apologizing does not mean that you have to discount anything, but it does mean that the client knows you care and will take care of it the best you can.”

Can't Buy Me Love

Jason Schneider

No doubt many remodelers are pressured to cut prices, or to offer freebies or even cash when a client is dissatisfied. One Seattle company owner gives an impassioned opinion about why you should leave your balance sheet out of it.

Rob Carlisle, owner and president of Carlisle Custom Homes, in Seattle, says that a remodeler should never apologize via the bottom line. “Our experience shows that the client will still have a sour taste in their mouth because the money will be spent but the problem or memory will remain,” he says. “Always say you were wrong and that you will make it right — no ifs, ands, or buts — then correct the problem ASAP and move on. The second you are on the leeward side of the problem, it will be nothing but calm waters. But be careful as the trust is still being rebuilt and is easily damaged.”

Carlisle adds that the money will not solve the client’s frustration, and everyone who comes in contact with the error will likely see the mistake and hear about the client’s unhappiness with your company. “No amount of money keeps a client’s lips sealed in regard to a problem that wasn’t fixed,” he says. “On the other hand, if you fixed it, no one will ever see it, and the client is more likely to sing your praises about quality control and standing by your word.” —M.N.

Legal Ease 

There’s a fine line between apologizing and admitting fault. While a contractor is walking that line, it is extremely important for the client to hear an apology when things don’t go as planned, according to REMODELING columnist and attorney Richard Feeley of Feeley Mediation & Business Law, in Marietta, Ga. “On the other hand, it’s construction, and quite often things don’t go as planned through no fault of the contractor,” he says.

So how do you provide the client with an apology without “admitting fault,” something that could come back to bite you in a lawsuit?

Simply apologize for the situation rather than for any one, specific, thing. “Apologize for the inconvenience and then move past the apology to state how and what is going to be done to get the project back on track or to fix the problem,” Feeley says.

The client needs to feel that the contractor understands his frustration and acknowledges his feelings. However, the remodeler should not expressly make admissions that might come back to haunt him in future litigation. After all, “inconvenience” is an entirely subjective term, Feeley adds. “One person’s worst thing that ever happened to them is another person’s normal construction mess.” —M.N.

—Mark A. Newman, senior editor, REMODELING.