Question (WOODWEB Member) :
I'm just starting out doing custom woodwork as full-time as I can. I have a small shop with some standard tools, and so far have been able to fill my time with small but interesting projects. I recently completed a single custom cabinet for a client's mobile home. It was made to his dimensioned drawing (he is a precision fabricator, and "has an eye for detail"). I designed what I thought was an interesting and functional piece, made a small maquette of part of it, showed him a drawing, and gave him an estimate for time and material cost. Upon finishing the installation, he told me that he thought there were a few things wrong with it, that it wasn't of the quality that he expected, and that he'd pay me less than what I was planning on billing for.
One thing that I'm sure to never do again: I failed to have him over to my shop to inspect the cabinet before installing it. We argued a bit, and the next day I settled for being paid less. I offered to take it back and correct the problems he saw. He insisted that it wasn't worth de-installing because in his eyes much of it would need to be rebuilt. I considered taking the cabinet back, but I didn't want to have to deal with a cabinet made for a specific place that I have no room for. So, I settled on being paid for about half of my labor, in the name of moving on from a bad situation and making at least a little money, rather than none. What would you have done?
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor R:
Either this guy was right, or you got ripped off. I don't know you or the client so maybe the cabinet was deficient and he had good reason to get mad. It is also quite possible he planned to screw you over all along and never pay full price. This is more common than you think. Next time write a rock solid contract and stick to those terms. When a project is substantially complete, you should be asking your clients if they have any concerns or punch list items. Now is the time to address any issues, not when youíre asking for final payment. This is also the time to go over your own punch list of what you plan to address before final completion. Open a dialogue and discuss this with customers. Also think about how you can better communicate what you intend to build in the planning stages. A concrete set of drawings/renderings/specifications can go a long way.
It is also good to state for example that wood may have natural traits which some may consider defects such as pin knots, sap pockets, mineral streaks, figure, etc. Also make it very clear that stain colors/grain will vary. Make it known that you are not promising a color match. Get an approved sample signed off for all finishes. I typically make a large sample, cut it in half, keep one, and give the other half to the client.
I cannot stress how critical communication is. Make sure customers have seen photos, and examples of your past work. Make sure they are buying your work, based on what they have actually seen, and touched. Not based on talk alone. All you have to do is produce work equal or better to your past work if this is the case. If you are starting out in the business this is a great time to do some personal work. Make sure to have some great examples on hand to show prospective clients. If your work truly isn't up to their standards whether they are reasonable, or unreasonable, it is better if you go your separate ways before you do business in the first place.
Refuse him the cabinet, telling him it is not worthy of his home. If he's not happy, you are not happy. If he insists on keeping/taking it, tell him it is the full price plus your additional time to deal with him, or you cannot leave it with him. He will reconsider. In hindsight, you should have never left it with him.
This should allow any issues of misunderstandings, lack of communications and/or failed expectations of what was ordered to be resolved before you take the time to deliver and install - putting the owner in the driverís seat since once it's installed he owns it and only a court order will legally allow you to remove it. Sad but true. Yes - most definitely have the clients come into your shop to inspect before you ever deliver. At least for new customers that you are unsure of as to what they may be expecting.
In this manner - you can only be shafted your installation fee. Sorry you learned a hard lesson - but better now on a smaller project than one that could have been much more devastating! I believe you did the right thing - avoiding confrontation is always best, even if it costs you. This guy may now be an asset as he may relay to other potential customers that though you made a mistake (alleged) and then took the proper steps to rectify it to his satisfaction. If he indeed was a snake and knew all along he was going to shaft you - then nothing you did would have changed what he would say to any/all that looked to him for a referral for your firm. Chin up and put this experience off as a "day in school". We've all been there and learned to shrug it off and move ahead, hopefully learning a bit and being better prepared to avoid the same thing next time around. Fingers crossed here!
She decided to have it exposed and not install it in the niche. She had chosen a matte white which was unavailable pre-made and had to be special ordered. She took exception to the Masonite back I used (a standard item where I am) and the vents (plastic not stainless steel) upgrades all, none of which she paid for or ordered (it would also be covered by the ovens and therefor no one would ever know)!
She then proceeded to offer me less than a hundred bucks for it and said she would just have to live with the ugly Formica and the other defects but she didn't want to see me loose out completely, so I told her I appreciated her kind offer but I would rather she keep her money and used it to buy the cabinet she really wanted and this money could go towards another carpenter (her ovens were being delivered the next day)! I took the cabinet home with me where it sits to this day filled with odds and ends of my kids toys. Yes I ate my labor and materials but I didn't and don't intend to give my work away for free to a someone who would cheat me out of my work!
I learned a few very valuable things from that experience:
1. Always take a deposit!
2. Always put all the details down in the quote!
All three of these things were issues that I did not consider important as they aren't visible without unusual inspection. These are newbie mistakes I suppose, because I'm a newbie - lesson learned. I offered to take it back and correct these things, but ended up receiving a condescending lecture on "where I am in my career" and "what it means to be a craftsman." By the time he was through talking, I was ready to get the heck out of there. It was obvious to me that I would never be able to meet his standards, and I don't particularly want to try at this point. Worst part: I never took a photo of it!
All the advice in this thread so far is good. Use it all. The only thing I would add is: Always insist on a Delivery-Payment. Write your contracts to where you collect the lionís share of your payment when you deliver or arrive with the material. This is the customerís chance to inspect the work and accept or decline. If declined, it is much easier to fix before it is installed. If accepted and paid for, customer has no legs to stand on unless the installation is really botched up! I do 40%-50%-10% deposit, on delivery, and completion. Works like a charm!
-Sizing a customer and their project: You need to figure out quickly whether this is a reasonable, stable person with the budget for the work. If they are high-maintenance or squirrely, avoid them or bid so it's worth your while.
-Managing customer expectations: Document everything. Detailed drawings are critical, as are samples. Have them sign the drawings and any other detail samples. Contracts are critical too, but even if you have a watertight contract, it's usually far easier to make a client happy than to take them to court.
-Underpromise, overdeliver: Make conservative estimates on delivery times, then deliver on time or early. Always exceed their expectations in terms of quality and workmanship. This method is far less expensive than disappointing a client then redoing the work.
-Don't assume they know what you're talking about: Draw it, make SketchUp models and show them samples.
-Stay away from bottom-feeder work.
I know you're hungry. But think about whether your time would be better spent marketing and selling bigger, high-quality jobs than replacing that rotten sink cabinet for $200. Are you going to put that project in your portfolio? If not, maybe spend your time building your website and talking to general contractors, or dropping flyers door-to-door in good neighborhoods.