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Is the customer always right? Am I in the wrong?

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Forum topic by MikeyCZ posted 10-05-2018 03:17 AM 3539 views 0 times favorited 54 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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MikeyCZ

31 posts in 1574 days


10-05-2018 03:17 AM

Topic tags/keywords: frustrating difficult customer customer always right high end underbid repeat business cracking wood movement budget rural portfolio quote thermal treated ash ipe teak fault faulty construction financial loss no just say no cypress replace outdoor table uv finish finish wife outdoor finish value engineer shop drawings finish sample material sample shou sugi ban expensive question

I apologise in advance for the long post. If you can make it all the way thru, I’d love to get some feedback. I’m in a situation where I’m not sure to keep going and try to keep a repeat client with high end, interesting, portfolio worthy projects, or stand my ground and almost certainly lose this customers business.

I’ve done a few projects for this client who owns a chain of really high end, expensive restaurants. A few of the projects were slightly to massively underbid because I actually really want to build the cool stuff that the architect and interior designers come up with. I convince myself that it will pay off in the end with repeat business and will add projects to my portfolio that don’t normally come around in my rural area. Also, the fact that the owner is a very shrewd negotiator that has a way of letting you know that he’ll find somebody to do it within his budget without actually saying it.

The problem is as follows. The designers meticulously spec’ed every piece of furniture that was to be built. I had to submit material and finish samples that had to be approved by a ton of different middle men and provide detailed drawings of every piece which is totally fine. BUT, the outdoor tables were left completely open. My guess is the designers just didn’t know what to use or how.

It was conveniently left for me to decide and get approval. When my initial design suggestions were shot down because they didn’t fit the budget, I was asked to “value engineer” and give some cheaper options. They wanted a rich, dark, exotic looking wood to match the rest of the high end decor. Instead of using Ipe or Teak, which would have been suitable outdoors and fit the color requirements, we went with Cypress because it is fairly cheap here and was just about the only wood that was somewhat suitable outside and stayed in budget. To achieve the color they were looking for I suggested burning the wood shou sugi ban style. Bad idea.

Initially it looked great. Rich, chocolate brown color with beautiful raised grain pattern you get when you burn the wood. However even with 10 coats of UV protectant outdoor finish, the color faded after a month or so and looked blotchy. He notified me of the situation and how terrible the tables looked and I immediately wanted to say “You should have gone with my initial suggestion”...but I didn’t. I told him that I didn’t want him to be dissatisfied with the product I provided and I would make it right. Many people told me that it wasn’t my fault and I shouldn’t have to replace anything. BUT, in my head it was my fault for not just saying no. It won’t work. After all he was right. They looked terrible. In addition to the finish problems, the Cypress was just too soft and was getting banged up.

I told him I would replace the tables but they would have to be made from a better material. He was ok with that but still wouldn’t pay for Ipe or Teak. We settled on Thermally treated Ash. A hardwood that’s been heat treated for outdoor use. About double the cost of the Cypress but still well under the cost of Ipe or Teak. I told him my labor and the cost of the material up to the original price would be free and he would only pay the difference of the cost of the more expensive material. He wouldn’t have it. According to him we agreed on a price and that’s what he already paid and he would pay no more. I was getting extremely pissed but my wife talked me out of going completely ballistic on him. She said that we’ve come this far on a large project (there were many other pieces of furniture worth tens of thousands of dollars, some that we hadn’t gotten final payment on) and that we should just bite the bullet, take the financial hit and get the project over with. So that’s what I did. I replaced them. I worked my a$$ of and lost thousands. The second batch looked fantastic.

Now a few months later, the owner wants me to “fix” them again. Apparently the wood is cracking. I immediately felt sick to my stomach thinking somehow it was my fault and how many more late nights I would have to endure. He sent pics which I’ll attach. He’s making it seem like it must be something to do with the construction of the tables because “they weren’t like that when they were installed”. I installed 3 of the smaller tables that included a base that I built. They installed 3 slightly larger tables that had a standard restaurant table base spec’ed by the designer. 2 of the 3 they installed cracked and it looks to me like someone sat or pushed on the corner and cracked it. Right on the end where there was no support from the generic base. In my eyes there is no way wood movement would have cause the wood to crack in that way. He wants me to drive the 4 and a half hours and fix them onsite as it’s patio season and they can’t afford to have missing tables. What would you do in my situation? Do the cracks look like they were cause by faulty construction or something else? Thanks for taking the time to read this lengthy post.


54 replies so far

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lumbering_on

558 posts in 660 days


#1 posted 10-05-2018 03:33 AM

I used to own two businesses, not in woodworking, but I’ve fired a few large customers because it was worth the piece of mind. If you’re losing money on him, then it could be a case of throwing more money down the toilette and that isn’t worth it in my mind. However, it’s your money, so you need to make the decision.

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Woodknack

12397 posts in 2550 days


#2 posted 10-05-2018 03:37 AM

I’ve been in your shoes. You have been honorable and reasonable and there is no reason for you to continue eating the cost. They have benefitted from your aggressive pricing for years and it’s time for them to step up and be honorable and reasonable or end the relationship. And if they pull out I would make it clear they pay or you will place a lien on the end customer, that should get their attention. If he chooses to continue the relationship, which is unlikely in my experience, from now on everything is spec’d by their guys – everything; and don’t lose any more money for their benefit.

-- Rick M, http://thewoodknack.blogspot.com/

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JAAune

1846 posts in 2487 days


#3 posted 10-05-2018 05:51 AM

A few lessons to take away here. One, never underbid a job unless you’ve got a real plan to make the same work become super profitable in the future without having to raise prices. Once you set a price low, you’ll never be able charge double for the same work later on. For example, it’s okay to bid low to land a job, work overtime to get it done, then use the profit to buy equipment that doubles the speed of production on future jobs. But don’t bid $1,000 for a $2,000 project just for the sake of landing a contract.

Second lesson is to never allow a client to push you into using a design or materials if you’re not willing to guarantee the end result.

I adopt the Carl Sewell approach of swallowing the losses then moving on. By accepting the project without any written disclaimer, it’s your reputation that’s going to suffer if you don’t do the repair. Remember that you’re supposed to be the expert and the expert is responsible for educating the client about the pitfalls of lower grade materials. If you stand your ground, you may keep a few dollars but the loss of reputation could cost more than that.

That being said, it sounds like you’ve a nightmare client. I’m willing to work with picky clients. I’ll also work with cheap clients. But anyone that is both picky and cheap doesn’t have a shot at hiring me. Stand your ground on future bids and the client will probably cease to bother you about new money-losing projects.

-- See my work at http://remmertstudios.com and http://altaredesign.com

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clin

945 posts in 1166 days


#4 posted 10-05-2018 06:08 AM

Well, here’s a nice long response to go with your long post.

In the end, I don’t think it is wrong of the customer to expect the color of the tables to stay roughly the same for much more than a month. Unless you had specifically warned him that the color might not last and had him sign agreeing to take that risk, then that’s on you. You’re the expert.

However, I think you were very reasonable offering to upgrade and he only needed to pay the difference. After all, that’s what he needed to pay anyway. However, you agreed to eat this.

As for the cracking, commercial restaurant tables should not crack. It is expected they will get sat and leaned on and should handle that. So whether you built them badly or they failed becasue someone sat on the corner (poor design), I think that’s on you. Now, I’m not saying anything is okay. If the offensive line of the local football team all decided to see how many guys can fit on a table, then that’s abuse and not your fault.

I think you made a mistake not designing to the legs or bases they chose to put some of the tops on. Or again, should have a signed statement that they are buying table tops and they assume all risks associated with the mounting etc.

I can’t say whether your construction is faulty without more details.

In general it sounds to me like you were working with materials and a design for outdoor tables that you didn’t have enough experience with. Unless the customer agrees, in writing, to accept an unproven approach, in an effort to save money, then I think it is on you.

From his perspective, he’s not paying for an R&D effort on tables, he just wants tables that will hold up a reasonable amount of time (some number of years). I do not think you owe him construction from high end wood for free (maybe free labor, but not materials), especially since he chose not to pay for that in the first place.

I’m definitely not a customer is always right type of guy. But, I don’t think he has been unreasonable. And in the end, you agreed to to eat the first fix. And I think an initial error was to not have in writing that the cheaper approach was unproven and might not work and therefore you are not liable. My guess is he would not have agreed to that, in which case you stick to your guns and some other guy would be fighting this battle.

I think you have two choices, come up with a permanent fix or simply refund all his money on these tables and quite while you’re behind. Note: I do not know what legal obligations you may have, so that of course is a consideration.

It sucks, that’s the problem with custom work. Sometimes it just doesn’t work well and you lose your a$$ on a job. But, you’ll be that much smarter the next time.

-- Clin

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therealSteveN

1564 posts in 744 days


#5 posted 10-05-2018 08:01 AM

I adopt the Carl Sewell approach of swallowing the losses then moving on. By accepting the project without any written disclaimer, it s your reputation that s going to suffer if you don t do the repair. Remember that you re supposed to be the expert and the expert is responsible for educating the client about the pitfalls of lower grade materials. If you stand your ground, you may keep a few dollars but the loss of reputation could cost more than that.

That being said, it sounds like you ve a nightmare client. I m willing to work with picky clients. I ll also work with cheap clients. But anyone that is both picky and cheap doesn t have a shot at hiring me. Stand your ground on future bids and the client will probably cease to bother you about new money-losing projects.

- JAAune

Bam, right there is the answer.

Just gonna post this part again, in case you didn’t read it all the first time through.

“Stand your ground on future bids and the client will probably cease to bother you about new money-losing projects.”

-- Think safe, be safe

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CWWoodworking

177 posts in 349 days


#6 posted 10-05-2018 11:17 AM

This is gonna sound like I’m an ass, but you made a product that failed. The rest is just details.

What type of jointery did you use?

As for as the logistics, you might want to hold your ground on that. People in businesses have people that can run them To you. But fix the problem.

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Fred Hargis

5128 posts in 2663 days


#7 posted 10-05-2018 11:43 AM

I am 100% behind the “customer is always right”. That said, I wouldn’t ever do anything for hire because I believe that….and I won’t put up with it.

-- Our village hasn't lost it's idiot, he was elected to congress.

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BlasterStumps

942 posts in 610 days


#8 posted 10-05-2018 12:53 PM

looks like they might be stacking the tables with the metal bases when cleaning.

-- "I build for function first, looks second. Most times I never get around to looks." - Mike, western Colorado

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msinc

552 posts in 674 days


#9 posted 10-05-2018 12:55 PM

If you have to “discount” your prices to get a customer…..then you have “gotten” nothing to start with. In fact, you are cheating yourself!!! You must charge accordingly and appropriately, period, end of story. The reason is simple, and it sounds like you haven’t got to this point yet, which is a good thing in a sense. When you charge people and provide a service or a product the court will look at it like you are the expert and in exchange for money it is your responsibility to take care of the customer that comes to them for relief. The court does not and will not consider the fact that you did it for nearly nothing to start with or that you have lost money on the deal, so you must address this issue at the very beginning with a proper and correct estimate and a bill that covers every thing you did, every second of your time and every molecule of material you used.
The old “if I do this cheap to get my foot in the door” is seldom a sound business policy or tactic. Once you operate that way two things happen and neither is good for you…first, you end up with a portfolio full of “cheesy” something-for-nothing customers. And second, they will expect, demand and not allow you to later charge a fair amount that allows you to make money. In short you get them when you are working for free, as soon as you try to get things “on track” they go to the next do-it-for-nothing.
At this point, I doubt this customer is ever going to be the type of valuable customer you want/need, so why stay??? I suggest you have a sit down and offer some options that will close this issue for both of you. Offer to give him his money back and you keep the items. He walks away with his money and you with the items you can sell and recover something. He is going to bad mouth you anyway, probably already is. You are better off to get away from a customer you have now “trained” to come on back and get more than to try and salvage what promises to be a constant money losing arrangement for you. Best of luck.

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MikeyCZ

31 posts in 1574 days


#10 posted 10-05-2018 01:08 PM

Thanks for all the feedback guys. Much appreciated.

Clin – I agree with most of what you said. Regardless of the owner being somewhat cheap and not wanting to pay for the more quality material, I was the one that suggested the finish when pressed on how to achieve a darker finish. That was a mistake in more ways than one. The first being that it didn’t hold up. The 2nd being that I shouldn’t have suggested it in the first place and stuck with my gut. For this reason, I felt I was in the wrong and didn’t hesitate to take the hit and replace the tables. However, I don’t feel the poor design is on me as I did not design any of the furniture. This was done by the interior designers . Every piece of furniture was spec’ed down to the nth degree (minus the material and finish of the outdoor tables). In the RFQ all of the details were on paper and CAD drawings with height, thickness, material, etc. were all drawn out. I was not shown the base to be used on the 3×5 tables, only that the interior designer was ordering them and would take care of it. The reason the RFQ is detailed so meticulously and is usually a 30 page stack of papers for around 10 items is so the architect, interior designers, and owner can cover their a$$. If something isn’t right, they can go back and make sure everything is to their spec’s and if it’s not, then the builder is liable. Same in construction. I have my degree in architecture but they aren’t paying me to design, only build to their specs. We did sign a document stating the furniture would be built to their specs and that is what I did. I feel it should work both ways and cover our a$$ as well. You are right in that this is a learning experience and I am definitely using it as such and will try to be smarter the next time around. Thanks for your advice.

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JayT

5925 posts in 2381 days


#11 posted 10-05-2018 01:08 PM

My thinking is always that the customer always knows what they want, it does not necessarily follow that they are always right. That is why we hire experts. I may know what I want in my will, but that doesn’t mean I can tell the lawyer how to write one correctly.

I agree with the others that mention putting yourself in a tight spot because of compromising to get the contract. If you know cypress won’t hold up, don’t agree to build with it because of a budget. Politely state that you understand the budget constraints and cannot put his customers and your reputation at risk by using materials or construction methods that are borderline or untested.

For the current situation, I’m with JAAune and clin. You are the expert that agreed to do a commercial project and the purchaser should have a reasonable expectation of longevity and durability. The loss of $$$ is far less costly than the loss of your reputation. Take it as a learning experience and be more prepared to say “NO” in the future when a similar situation arises. Chances are that if you had politely and respectfully stood your ground the first go ‘round, the customer wouldn’t have been able to find anyone else to do the job on his budget, either.

-- In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock. Thomas Jefferson

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MikeyCZ

31 posts in 1574 days


#12 posted 10-05-2018 01:09 PM

JAAune – very sound advice. I agree 100%

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MikeyCZ

31 posts in 1574 days


#13 posted 10-05-2018 01:18 PM

BlasterStumps – unlikely. These aren’t the kind that stack. There is banquette seating on one side though and it happens to be on the sides that cracked. My thought was that people are using the corner of the table to push themselves up and out of the banquette since you have to slide down to get out if that makes sense. I think the table top cantilevers to far out and is not supported by the base properly. Normally I’d say its my fault for not building a piece of furniture that could hold up to the rigors of restaurant use but I did not design the table or detail its construction. Nor did I build or specify the base that the table top sits on.

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tomsteve

844 posts in 1389 days


#14 posted 10-05-2018 01:46 PM

ive burned myself a few times by allowing a customer talk me into building something in a manner i wasnt comfortable with.

now i listen to what customers want and if what they want doesnt go with what i know i will offer suggestions and why. if they still want it their way they are free to find someone else.

i dont work with difficult people any more- especially ones that receive their woodworking experience from anna white and google.

View Richard Lee's profile

Richard Lee

183 posts in 945 days


#15 posted 10-05-2018 01:50 PM

Did you allow for the “Breadboard Ends” to move, if not looks like its tearing itself apart.

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