Today, buyers are much more educated about roofing products and application methods. The Internet has altered the landscape to yield a new crop of roof-savvy consumers. Typically this works in favor of the seller, since the customer has done some homework in advance of the sales call. Property owners in the market for a roof simply “Google it” and do their preliminary research online. The knowledge they gain about products, roof systems and hiring a contractor paves the way for you to sell to an informed buyer. So, why do I caution you to beware?
Don’t get me wrong - the advantages of an educated consumer, even a semi-educated one, outweigh the disadvantages. The hazard arises when that buyer, armed with a little bit of knowledge, becomes dangerous! More than you may realize, customers are watching you like a hawk or inspecting your workmanship after you leave the site. Nowadays, Mr. and Mrs. Smith are more likely to read installation instructions downloaded from the manufacturer’s Web site. With instructions hot off their printer, some homeowners are scrambling up on the roof and taking photos and measurements of your work. If the instructions call for a 1/2-inch overhang, they cannot comprehend why you installed the shingle with a 3/4-inch overhang - it is just wrong in their mind.
No longer is this scenario an infrequent occurrence. Recently, more and more consumers call us to verify their contractor’s application methods, which prompted me to make you aware of this trend. The following actual situations highlight the extent to which some customers are applying their newfound knowledge of construction. One homeowner called to ask if his warranty would be voided since the contractor used nails with a head diameter that was 1/32 of an inch less than the 3/8 of an inch noted in our instructions; he worked in the automotive industry and measured the nail heads with his micrometer! In another case, an elderly woman who had recently suffered a stroke climbed a ladder, inspected the starter shingles, measured the shingle offsets and took tons of digital photos to cast doubt on the contractor’s work. These are just two examples of numerous incidents which reveal that homeowners are really paying attention to the smallest details.
In any case, customers are more apt to scrutinize or question every aspect of your work; some will be easier to reassure than others. You deal with diverse types of consumers who can have different expectations, and ensuring their complete satisfaction is not always an easy task. When you sense a prospect may be a “challenging customer,” you might either avoid them or include a nuisance factor in your job estimate to properly assess them for anticipated extra time and handling. Nevertheless, some customers will still surprise you when they become cantankerous or find fault with your company’s performance.
An unexpected dispute inevitably catches you off-guard because practically all of your customers love your work and never complain. You might suspect that this customer is trying to take advantage of you and feel compelled to defend yourself, your crew and your company’s reputation. You’re probably thinking, “This person is either a deadbeat or dim-witted.” Am I right?
Now, let’s step back for a minute and consider the customer’s point of view. Unfortunately, as the contractor, you are already guilty in the eyes of the customer - guilty until proven innocent. Excluding those who actually are deadbeats trying to get a price reduction or a freebie, the other people with complaints truly have a concern, valid or not. They just spent “a lot of money” on this job and believe your company is somehow responsible for their angst.
Once a seed of doubt about the project is planted in their mind, it can quickly sprout and create a crazed customer. Angry customers can be quick to call the Better Business Bureau, local code officials and other contractors to scrutinize your work. They will not hesitate to trash you on the Web or on sites such as Angie’s List®, a consumer organization that collects and distributes customer satisfaction reports on businesses at www.angieslist.com. Some would post your picture in the local post office if they were allowed! In this computerized marketplace, customers can fire off an e-mail to every one of their friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers telling their tale of woe, and you suffer, no matter how just or unjust the case may be.
Accept your fate just for the moment, then try to work through the issue with an eye towards quick resolution. Nip it in the bud, don’t feed into it or give the customer more reasons to escalate the conflict. Hear the person out and pay close attention as they speak, jotting down notes if necessary. Listen twice as much as you talk, and don’t interrupt. Don’t try to “dextify” (defend-explain-justify) while the person is speaking. Wait until they are finished telling their side of the story, then state your case and try to reach an understanding.
An Ounce of PreventionSo, how can you protect your company from this peril? As the saying goes, prevention is the best medicine. Manage customers’ expectations from the start and help them put their bits and pieces of knowledge into full perspective so they completely understand the process and the scope of their project. Leave them educational brochures or videos so they know what to expect. The more you help customers comprehend the context of their job before it starts, the less chance of misunderstandings later on.
While the job is in progress, communicate daily to address any questions or concerns the customer may have and bring any underlying complaints to the surface. If you, the salesman or the foreman do not have the opportunity to communicate with the customer face to face, do it over the phone or leave a clipboard on the site for the customer to post any questions or comments. After the job is finished, follow up with a survey to ensure customer satisfaction. Finally, heed customer feedback and use the lessons learned to establish procedures that will avert customer quarrels in the future.
Should a clash develop, be prepared to address complaints - real or perceived - promptly and professionally. Time is of the essence. Do not let complaints fester because what may seem to be a small issue can quickly turn into an ugly situation if left unaddressed. Keep in mind that customers generally expect an immediate response; when their phone calls remain unanswered, they get crotchety. Try to return their calls in the same day whenever possible.
Some people can be very demanding, but it is important to remain professional despite their actions. Do not resort to macho antics in retort. Sadly, we have heard of contractors threatening to tear the new roof off or pulling the crew off a job and telling the customer, “Once we leave this job, we ain’t coming back!”
Resolving disputes tactfully is an art. Because you may not have much experience handling disputes, you most likely are not skilled at settling them agreeably. If you are, you have a special talent; otherwise it pays to have a written procedure in place to address the matter and guide you through the ordeal.
The key to effective dispute resolution is to do what is right and fair for both parties. Try to get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes there are underlying factors beneath the verbalized complaint. Maybe it really isn’t the 3/4-inch overhang. Perhaps your crew left cigarette butts all over her yard or treated her rudely - who knows? You must first set the emotions aside, then make allowances for misperceptions and plain old ignorance.
Expectations and proposed remedies need to be discussed. Unless it is a clear-cut case of contractor negligence, which most often it isn’t, the remedy must pass the test of reasonableness. Agreeing upon what is reasonable can involve a negotiation process to find a solution acceptable to both sides. If it can’t be resolved, using arbitration or a third-party resource to render opinions may prove helpful. Legal action from either party is the worst-case scenario, one that turns out to be a costly event where nobody really comes out a “happy winner.”
Statistics show that if your actions turn an unhappy customer back into a satisfied one, they will sing your praises. So, if you find yourself embroiled in a heated discussion, try these dispute resolution techniques to turn a disparaging e-mail into fan mail. Better yet, manage your customers closely from the onset to steer clear of the dreaded “difference of opinion.” Now, go out and sell more jobs, but only to nice, easy-going customers, or let the seller beware!