At some point most contractors encounter the job from Hell. It’s a law of averages thing. The more work you do or the longer you’re in business, the more likely you’re going to make a mistake or encounter an unreasonable customer. So, what do you do when you find yourself in trouble?

Rule number one is don’t ignore the problem. Denial will only make things worse. Oddly enough, denial when pursuing this job may have gotten you into this situation. Dig in and figure out the cause of the problem. If it was a bad bid, determine where you went wrong. Consider approaching the customer for help. I know the customer may tell you to pound sand, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Depending on the job and budgets, they may be able to help you out. We had a landscape contractor that had a designer calculate 5,000-plus square yards of sod in square feet, leaving that portion of the job almost 90 percent short. Fortunately, the job was bid under the original budget and a compassionate owner helped the contractor out. 

Work to determine if it’s just happenstance that the job went bad or is the customer pursuing a purposeful path towards non-payment and merely trying to get something for nothing. If you have a customer who is trying to jilt you, it can be tough, but not impossible to control. Document with photos and timelines, and confirm all conversations by email. Do everything you can to protect yourself.

Try to assess your worst-case numbers so you can estimate potential losses. If you can take the financial hit, you may be able to struggle through and complete the job. If the job is going to be devastating financially, contact a good lawyer who’s experienced in such cases and follow his or her advice. Remember, the customer doesn’t want to own your business and the threat of bankruptcy is pretty scary. When dealing with a hardline, unreasonable customer, I’ve advised more than one contractor to throw his keys on the table and say the business is theirs. Sometimes such a tactic can make the customer face reality. And of course, this is why you need to be incorporated and maintain the integrity of your corporate shield. Again, get good legal advice. Having legal advice to help avoid a bad situation is way cheaper than hiring a lawyer to get you out of trouble. Know your legal options and manage them.

Some residential customers can just be picky and crazy. If you detect this at the beginning of the job, you may be better off to take your lumps on the money installed to date on the job and get them to release you. Document, document, document. Don’t say broad things like, “We’ll take care of it.” A difficult customer will use such well-intended feedback to build unreasonable expectations. Instead, have very specific discussions on what’s needed to fix the job and an understanding that they’ll pay you if you proceed. 

Attack the job. If you know the job is in trouble, project and micro manage the hell out it. Set your alarm clock early, get out there and preplan the heck out of the job. Do everything you can to bring the job in on time. Again, denial is the worst approach. Also, appreciate that some of your best people may be on this job and struggling to finish it on time. Manage the problem, don’t yell at the problem. Help, don’t hinder.

Control collateral damage. A large bad job can have a devastating impact on the company. Don’t let a bad job rob profits from another job. One of our customers pulled his service guys out of service and threw them onto a bad job. This created even more cash flow problems as service wasn’t bringing in badly needed income. As hard as it might be to do, you have to somehow manage the rest of the company and bring other jobs in on time. An all-consuming bad job runs the risk of bringing down the entire company.

Exhibit leadership. Remind people that the job will eventually have an end and you’re not asking them to run at full speed forever. Set production goals and targets and acknowledge when those targets are achieved. Ease the pressure wherever you can. Influence those around you to help get the job finished and reach timely goals. 

Learn the polite “no.” Maybe you shouldn’t have taken the job and should have simply and politely said “no.” When asked to do impossible or unreasonable things, decline to proceed and try to offer an alternative solution. Obedient compliance may not be in your best interest. It’s ok to disagree, it’s not ok to yell, curse or emotionally escalate the crisis. The least emotional person usually wins.

We all make mistakes, learn from them and move forward. Experience is a wonderful teacher but it can also lead to a very expensive education.