Legal Aid: Saying No

Clients worth rejecting
By Peter Lamont, Esq.
November 10, 2011

In the design world, saying no to a new client is an uncommon occurrence, especially in today's economy economic climate. However, there are times when saying no will save you a great deal of time, money and aggravation. The key is to determine when to say no. While there is no easy way to know when to turn down a new client, there are certain characteristics and qualities of prospective clients that can be red flags. The key to noticing the red flags is to listen intently to the questions and requests of the prospective client. The most common red flag personalities are discussed below.

Personality #1—The Negotiator. This prospective customer knows what he wants as far as design but has no intention of paying what you are asking. The red flag is typically raised during your initial conversation with this customer. After providing the customer with a project estimate the customer's first response is “can we knock the price down little bit?” This is often a routine question asked by many customers, but it’s the follow-up question asked by the Negotiator that should signal a red flag. Once you tell the customer that the price cannot be modified, the Negotiator starts proposing all sorts of price-lowering scenarios such as “what if I do the demolition myself” or “can we reduce the price if my son provides free manual labor.” At this point in the discussion, the designer should begin worrying about whether or not she will get paid once the work is completed. You can tell a Negotiator by their insistence on driving down your price. Quite often, the Negotiator will justify not making final payments by claiming that you or your staff failed to satisfy the contract or meet his expectations.

Personality #2—The Do-It-Yourselfer. The Do-It-Yourselfer is a very dangerous client. Recently, a kitchen designer met with a prospective client who was seeking a full kitchen makeover. When she arrived at the customer’s house he began pointing out all of the things he had done to his house and made sure the designer knew he did them by himself. The designer noted his work was relatively high-quality. The customer spent approximately 20 minutes showing the designer around his house before they got to the kitchen. In the kitchen, the customer pointed out his meticulous base and crown moldings. He told her that his friend, who paid $2,500 to a contractor to install moldings, commented that the customer did better work than his paid contractor.

The designer presented her drawings and received the approval of the customer. On the first day of work, the customer parked himself in the kitchen to observe everything that was going on. He began telling the installers how he believed the cabinets should be installed. When the installers ignored him, he became frustrated and eventually threw everyone off the site and fired the designer. He refused to pay the balance of the contract and, in fact, sued the designer for the return of his initial deposit. He claimed in his lawsuit that the designer failed to comply with the contract, employed installers who possessed subpar skills and alleged that they negligently damaged the crown molding in his kitchen.

Personality #3-The Written Estimator. This customer is looking for a written estimate even before you get to his house. A cabinet designer received a call from potential customer who stated that he had a lot of work that needed to be done and that he was looking for an estimate from the cabinet company for the whole job. He asked how long it would take for an estimate to be provided and if the estimate would be in writing. The designer was excited about the prospect of a large job and said she would be out to inspect the site the next day. When the designer arrived on site, she noticed the kitchen was in serious disrepair. The customer asked the designer to provide him with the cheapest ways to make the kitchen look presentable and demanded the estimate within two days. While the request was odd, the designer only saw dollar signs. She spent the entire afternoon creating a written estimate. When she submitted it to the customer the following morning, he told her he would get back to her. After two weeks and numerous unanswered follow-up calls from the designer, she learned that the customer was going through a divorce and had been ordered by the court to obtain estimates to repair certain areas of the house so that he and his soon-to-be-ex-wife could agree on a settlement. The customer had no intention of hiring the designer. Between the time it took to inspect the customer’s house and the follow-up calls, the designer lost two full days of work.

While it is not often that designers turn down a client, there are some jobs that are better left alone. Every designer has been involved with jobs that cost them time and money. Listen to what the customer is saying to you and do not be afraid to tell him that you cannot accommodate his requests at this time. As Kenny Rogers said, “You need to know when to walk away and know when to run.”

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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