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Legal Aid: Protect Yourself with a Checklist

Make a list and make the client check it twice
By Peter J. Lamont
November 15, 2010

It is that time of year again when Santa is busy checking his list in preparation for the big day. Design professionals in the kitchen and bath industry can learn a valuable lesson from Santa: When dealing with your clients, make a list and make the client check it twice.

Checklists are one of the most important tools that all designers and sales personnel should utilize every time they make a sale, issue a change order or prepare for an installation. To some extent, everyone uses a checklist system to help them remember appointments and clients’ requests. But those in the industry need to expand the use of the checklist and make client checklists a functional component of the sales and installation agreements with the client.

Far too often issues arise when customers claim they are entitled to massive refunds because their cabinets were not delivered within the time frame set forth in the contract. Even though the contract may say “approximate delivery date,” customers always come up with stories of oral promises made by sales staff and designers. Another area of concern is with installation. Frequently, clients may refuse installation by your company and instead opt for the work to be done by their general contractor. However, many general contractors may not be familiar with the installation of your products, especially if they’re European cabinets, which require specialized knowledge and technique. When these complaints arise, you may issue refunds or provide other price cuts in order to keep the customer happy. This translates directly into lost profits for your company.


MAKING AN EXAMPLE

You can prevent this type of issue from occurring if you use checklists as part of your contract and have the client sign off on each line item. Here is a real world example: Recently, a cabinet company sold a large kitchen to a client. The client signed the contract and declined to purchase installation from the company. Instead, she chose to have her general contractor install the cabinets. The salesperson verbally explained to her that the cabinets were manufactured in Europe and were tricky to install. She again refused. The cabinets were manufactured and delivered without issue. However, during installation, her general contractor—who was not familiar with this type of installation—damaged some of the units and improperly installed others. Of course, the customer blamed the cabinet company for the problems, claiming that they had measured her kitchen incorrectly and provided her with improper panels.

In general, judges and juries are not familiar with the cabinet and design industry. Additionally, lawsuits arising out of cabinet and design contracts lack the flair of personal injury trials. Thus, juries are not interested and typically decide to “split the baby” on these type of cases. The bottom line is that your company loses money even when you did everything right. So how can a checklist help you avoid this scenario?


THE ESSENTIAL LIST

Even the most basic contract can be confusing to both the designer/salesperson and the client. They all contain at least some legal jargon that requires at least a glance at Black’s Law Dictionary. You can eliminate any gray contract areas by supplementing your contract with a checklist. In the scenario above, here is how a checklist could have prevented the loss of profits. After signing the contract the customer should have been required to review and initial a checklist concerning the installation. The checklist should have stated (at the very least) the following:

• The customer understands that “X” company offers installation services. _____ (initial)

• The customer understands that “X” specializes in the installation of specialty European cabinets. _____ (initial)

• The customer understands that “X” company highly recommends that client utilize the installation services of “X” company. _____ (initial)

• The customer has declined installation services from “X” company. _____ (initial)

• The customer understands that his/her contractor may not be proficient in the installation of “X” companies' products. _____ (initial)

• The customer agrees that “X” company will not be responsible for any damage to cabinets during installation or issues arising out of improper installation. _____ (initial)

Once the client signs off on the checklist, you have a written record stating that you advised the client about the potential dangers of using her general contractor to install the cabinets. You have also cleared up any confusing “legalese” contained in the contract. Now if you are sued as a result of installation issues, you have clear-cut, admissible evidence that should get you out of the case without any loss of profit.

Checklists can be used for more than just installation. You can prepare a separate checklist for delivery issues, appliances, countertops and for any other issues in which you wish to clarify or wish to limit your liability. So while you might not have Santa’s helpers to assist you in the creation of checklists, the benefits to your company are well worth the time and effort that you will put into their creation.


—Peter J. Lamont, Esq., is a commercial litigation attorney with offices in Hawthorne, NJ, as well as Massapequa, NY. His practice focuses on the representation of small- to large-size companies in the building and design industry, as well as individual designers and architects. To contact him with questions and suggestions on topics for future articles, please email him at plamont@peterlamontesq.com or call him at (973) 949-3770.
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