Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Client From Hell - Learn To Walk Away

Early in 2003 I ran into some folks who wanted some stained glass in their home. A friend had been discussing another project with them and mentioned that he had an associate who did custom stained glass. They mentioned that they would like to meet with the artist and my friend called me and gave me all the information. He was excited because these folks seemed to want a lot of stained glass and he wanted to help me to succeed. He did warn me that they had a hard time visualizing jobs, so I was going to need to provide drawings every step of the way.

So I gathered a few materials and went to see these potential clients. We met at their home, which was under construction and had been for about two years. I went in to meet them, the husband was there talking with a contractor and I had to wait for about twenty minutes to get my turn to talk with him, kind of par for the course. But when it was my turn, it turned out that he wanted me to wait for his wife, who wasn't there yet. He called her on a cell phone and about a half hour later we all got to talk about the project.

They took me through their home and pointed out places that they wanted stained glass. Three arches in a down stairs kitchen, some panels in the kitchen cabinets, an opening in the wall near the home theater room, a dome in the dining room, a transom over the bedroom, an alcove outside the front entrance and a huge window over the spa in the master bedroom. My head was spinning. This was the big time! I had done many commercial and residential jobs in the past, but never so many great panels and never so much art potential!

I dove into the design process, driving to their site several times, taking pictures and measurements. I began to draw up designs for the windows. After I had three different designs for the kitchen arches and the cabinets, the pass through in the theater wall, and the dining room dome, we set up a meeting time. They wanted me to have designs for the alcove and the spa as well, so I burned the midnight oil and really knocked out some great designs.

When we got together and I laid out the concept drawings, I got the first inkling that I wasn't working with easy clients. As they looked at the designs, there wasn't the normal "Wow, I like this," reaction, there was a lot of "Well, I kind of like that, what do you think?" reaction going on. It felt like the husband had definite opinions but he was waiting for his wife to figure out what she liked. So they were very hesitant. She seemed to be afraid to make a decision or she wasn’t sure what she wanted and she seemed unable to commit. By the time the meeting was over, I was less enthusiastic about the whole project, but felt certain they would soon be ready to move ahead.

We met three times over the next two weeks with me designing many different styles of glass designs. I was doing all I could to get this job, it was going to be a good addition to our portfolio and would be very profitable. The design process was really agonizing, but they finally decided on all the pieces they wanted for the downstairs kitchen, the pass through, the dining room dome and the alcove.

Great! As a salesman/artist/businessman, I now needed to get a commitment and some cash so I could move forward on the project. At the same time, I was busy building panels for other clients and working out details on their jobs, which were moving along smoothly. We scheduled a fifth appointment so I could show them glass colors. I picked out the ones I felt were just right and took a whole sample set with me to their site. They were late again, as they had been every time we met. I was starting to get frustrated with the whole decision process, but the lure of great work in such volume was still very appealing. And the cash from the work would really help with the business.

So, they finally showed up. I showed them the 6 color samples I had for the kitchen panels and they went into their routine.
“Well, that’s niiice…..”
“What do you think?”
Hesitant nervous look, “I guess they’re okay….”
“Well, maybe we better look at some more colors.”
They took every single sample out of the box, one by one and discussed it. They put them in windows and against walls to see what they would look like in different light. This was all okay, with other clients it’s par for the course. I’ve had many customers spend in excess of two hours picking their colors. That’s okay, they have to live with the color choices for a long time, but without exception, they all get closer and closer to a decision. These two were going in circles and they weren’t having any more fun than I was. After the two hours we spent there, they decided on the colors that I had originally recommended.

I wondered later if their decision was just another stalling technique. That maybe they just gave up, tired of the process. I think the husband liked the colors, but the wife just wasn’t going anywhere in her decision process, she just couldn’t say or decide what she wanted.

Since they had made their color choices for the kitchen panels, I collected $3380 from them. A 50% deposit on 6 windows. It was such a relief to walk out with the check, it was a commitment to the whole job. They had agreed to have me start on the mold I was going to cast in the dome in the dining room so I could begin work on that project.

So, I placed a glass order and spent a weekend filling the dome on the ceiling with plastic and spray foam to make a mold. When the glass came I got to work on the arches. I had two built and the pieces cut out for the third one when I went to meet the clients to pick out the color for the glass in the dome. I took Jeanne along, thinking that she could lend support to this lady and help her along the path to picking her favorite color in a way that I couldn’t.

When we got to the appointment, there was another a woman there, the new designer. One in a long number who had come and gone on the project. But she wasn’t a decorator/designer, she was a furniture consultant, really just a glorified furniture salesman with an inflated ego and a mouth that wouldn’t stop. Our clients were just steam rolled by this chick, who didn’t like the window panel we had built for the arch and started shot gunning new ideas for the kitchen.

She then showed me a color swatch, a piece of fabric which was the color they wanted the glass in the ceiling light to match. It was a tan/beige color. But, she specified that it couldn’t have any amber in it. I left the meeting dumbfounded. The way you get beige and tan glass is to take amber and mix in other colors. This woman didn’t know what she was talking about. But she had put the entire glass project on hold.

We never did figure out a color for the dining room glass, eventually the clients got tired of being pushed around by the furniture salesman and cut her lose, and went on to someone else. They didn’t take delivery on the glass arches. They canceled the rest of the order. I ended up putting the cut glass for the third arch in the scrap bin and the two finished arches got hung in storage. The clients eventually ended up putting wrought iron in the arches, it looked nice, but not as fantastic as what our design could have been. They ended up yanking the special wiring they had done in the dining room dome out and putting it back as it had been to start with. That was too bad because the design we had come up with would have really been great and would have given that room a very distinctive look.

Several months later, I learned that a friend in the stained glass business was building a spa window for those folks. I rushed over to his studio to see what they had finally decided on. I had really come up with some beautiful designs for them and I wanted to see how close the final design had come to them.

What I saw was the proof to the old saying that “no matter how much money you have, you still can’t buy taste.” The window was a blocky funky pattern that looked more like a bad tile job than a stained glass window. They chose the most opaque glass available which let as little light through as possible. It really was sad, a waste of money.

My friend told me that those people had not just had 7 different decorators on the job, but they had installed marble floors and then changed their minds and had them ripped out and reinstalled with a completely different design and color scheme. They had cabinets installed and then changed out. They had come to him early on in their construction and had him design work in all the places where they had discussed glass with me. This was a complete surprise, because I had been walking through their home discussing glass ideas when we first went through and each suggestion was met with a feeling of complete discovery. They acted as though they had never had the idea in this or that place, that it was all new.

I didn’t offer a refund to the clients, I had gotten a 50% draw on the work in the kitchen and finished 50% of it. They hadn’t paid for the mold work I did in the dining room, but I chalked it up to experience. The client once asked if he was due any refund or credit towards something else, and I explained my thoughts on the matter which he took in stride. I mean, if you could rip out a marble floor, what’s a little stained glass job?

They say that you need to learn to walk away from deals that aren’t in your best interest. And that’s good advice. A bad deal can cost money and hurt your reputation. So how do you know when you’re getting into a bad deal?

1. I find that it’s really important to listen to the client and hear what they are saying. Don’t let artistic desires or financial rewards cloud your judgment. These clients were an extreme example. I should have realized early on that all the changes in personnel and tradesmen on the job indicated that they were going to be tough to work for.

2. Then you need to ask them what their expectations are. If they are too high or unreasonable, flags ought to go up all over. You need to realize that you might not be in a position to make them happy.

3. If you still feel that you want to go ahead, you need to tell them exactly what to expect. Tell them what you can do and what you can’t. Let them know that you’ll be building the glass but that someone else is going to have to install it (if that’s the case). Try to be accurate, promise them what’s realistic and normal, then try to exceed those promises.

4. Finally, put it all in writing. Before working with this client, I just gave prospective clients a bid document to be able to collect a draw. Now, my bid document spells out that if a draw is given, they are agreeing to the whole project and the full balance agreed upon will be due upon completion of my part of the work.

While going through these steps, listen. If you start to get that creepy feeling that things might not go well, or that you’re in over your head or that these might not be the right clients or especially if they are beating you up over price too much, have the guts to say no. Give them the name of your competition and let them deal with the headaches. Let them get beat up and lose money on the deal.

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