Handling a Dispute over a Glazed Cabinet

The work's done, but the designer doesn't like the glaze job, and the customer wants a refund. What have we learned here? April 29, 2012

I know it's unheard of to refund money on custom ordered items of just about any kind. And I am very reluctant to be the first, but customer satisfaction is paramount to me. This is a very difficult situation. The client was referred to me by another client. He had seen my work and was pleased with the quality.

On March 28th I met with the client and his designer. We discussed a dresser/TV cabinet for his bedroom, I drew a design based on his input, and gave a detailed estimate outlining all aspects of the piece. My bid was acceptable at $6400.00 and I took half down. His designer wanted it built as soon as possible, but had not yet picked a drawer front profile or a finish. I ordered drawer boxes and hardware, picked up my wood, and started building the unit. The designer finally picked a profile April 23rd, so I ordered drawer fronts and everything arrived by May 18th. At this point it's only been 6 weeks since our meeting. I told him it would take about 6 weeks to complete once I had everything in place, so I was shooting for end of June. After delivering 10 variations of painted maple, linen was the base color with van dyke brown glaze. This was decided on June 3rd.

It's now June 25th. The cabinet is complete except the designer doesn't like the glaze technique, and the client says I've had more than enough time to deliver and wants his deposit ($3200.00) refunded to him and he told me to go sell the cabinet to someone else.

I've spent about $1200.00 in material and logged 68 hours including design time. I'm looking for opinions whether or not to:

A: Refund his $3200.00 and make him happy.
B: Offer to consign it for him and refund his money if and when I sell it.
C: Sue him for the balance since the job is complete, and his only objection is that his designer doesn't like the glaze.

He said the finish doesn't matter to him; it's up to his designer to approve it. And he doesn't want to wait any longer and give me a chance to redo the glaze to her satisfaction. He felt the 6 week build time started when we met on March 28th, not when the design was finalized and I was able to order drawer fronts which I received on May 18th. Thanks for any insight you may have.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor A:
You are a nice guy. The designer is incompetent. The client is obviously not a nice guy. He has already proven that by threatening to not pay you. At this point he has already passed the whiffle ball and softball steps and moved onto hardball.

Keep in mind this is between you and the customer alone. His money, your product, and the contract the two of you signed. He has already badmouthed you and will continue to do so regardless of the outcome. Except if you sue him and win. He will never mention it to anyone ever again, because it is embarrassing.

At this point I would have a 3 way discussion face to face with the client and designer. If they want to throw stones, let them do it man to man. Most people won't. If it comes down to it, I would not hesitate to threaten to take him to small claims court. He will lose and still owe you your money. Hopefully the guy is somewhat rational and will have words with the designer.

End of the day, do not take less than 90% of the project before install. Argue about the final 10% after install. Do not be afraid to threaten small claims suits.

Do not bring a knife to a gun fight. You are not in business to make friends. You are in business to do good work and get paid for it. This job is already a negative. The only positive thing that may come out of it is you getting paid.

From contributor M:
Giving a refund will not make a happy customer. He will still run you down, not brag about how nice of a guy you are. What you need to do is meet with the designer and fix your glaze. You should have done samples and got an approval. There are a lot of different glazing techniques. Finish and deliver quickly. Explain it was 6 weeks from the final decision and there are no refunds.

From contributor R:
Don't give the refund! You may be able to save the project by meeting with the parties. After that, remember the way this customer has acted and be careful.

Dump the designer! Don't raise a stink, just don't let this happen again. No starting without all details and approved finish samples. I agree the designer helped cause this problem, but you should not have let this happen.

From contributor S:
Great advice so far. I will only add that a lot depends on your contracts (if you had one) and the wording as to the finish. I would never make a custom piece without a finished sample of the doors which would have been signed by the homeowner.

I am right now in a similar situation where the designer gave me vague design criteria and is holding up my production of the work due to her failure to provide these details. Specifically I am talking about "coated glass doors" (no specifics or color provided) and "paint finished panels."

The client expects me to deliver next week, but that is not possible because I still do not know what the materials are. From the client's perspective, I am late. It is my responsibility to make sure the client knows that I am ready to proceed but I need the info from the designer. I have done this by CCing the client on all my emails to the designer.

I will not buy materials without a deposit and I will not take the production deposit without having all finish details specified. I think that was your mistake. You took the deposit without any signed finish samples.

I agree with the previous comments. Have a sit down, type out a document with the timeline of events. Bring all the documentation you have, especially any pictures or emails from the designer regarding the finish. If your documentation is good they will not have a leg to stand on. If they insist on being A-holes about it, your options get very narrow very fast; keep the unit and the deposit, sue for the balance and deliver it, give the deposit and walk away. I agree that giving the deposit will not help them change their mind about your work.

From contributor R:
Because this is a glazed, painted finish, it can be redone relatively easily; it's not like you stained it the wrong color, and have to strip it and get the stain out, which is almost impossible. It's a re-paint job. The designer needs to tell you what they want, and approve a sample.

What does the customer do? Is he in some kind of business where everything is completed on time, every time? I would like to know what that business is.

Get an approved sample from the designer, re-do the finish and present a bill to the customer - to be paid in full before delivery (make sure you cash the check first). Does he think someone else will make the unit on short notice, to his designer's specifications, or has he just changed his mind about spending the money? Why did he hire a designer, if he is a cheapskate?

I would definitely not refund any money, in this case; you have a nice piece of furniture for your home or showroom, and learned a valuable lesson about working with designers. Believe me, this lesson could have cost a lot more, on a bigger job, and you are really not out that much, even if you get nothing more for this job.

The only referrals that you will get from people and designers like these, are more of the same.

From contributor P:
This is another case of the third party. One of the fundamental premises of justice is the right to face your accuser. You are not being afforded this right. The customer would be fine with the project if not for the designer.

As suggested, have a sit down with all three parties and work out a resolution. If they are not willing to do this, then go to small claims court where you will be afforded the fundamental right to face your accuser. To do otherwise is a transgression to yourself.

From contributor I:
Since none of us are in the "happy" business, I believe you have every right to collect for services rendered. I would not give the refund. You have already done quite a number of things that the customer owes you for. I agree with what has already been said - the guy is unhappy and will stay that way, refund or not. If you refigure a new bill based on your time and investment in materials, maybe you can refund the remainder or leverage the customer to choose to let you complete the work. Keep in mind, you are not the only one here with an obligation and a good judge should see that. However, if you are like me, you probably would just as soon give up the money just so you don't have to work for this ass.

From contributor K:

The customer is always right. That is until they are flat out wrong, or have an unreasonable demand. This guy is not your customer anymore. Either way he is not going to bring you more work, and he is not going to give you word of mouth. Don't let him rip you off! It sounds like his designer probably found something cheaper in a catalog, or from another shop, and they want out. I would send him a copy of any correspondence related to the delays caused by the designer and state that the deposit is nonrefundable, and that you intend to collect the remaining balance. Try to keep any phone conversations brief. You want any correspondence to be in writing at this point.

From contributor Q:
What does your contract say about finish and lead time/delivery/delays/samples? The rest doesn't matter and we can't give you any good input until this is known. From what you posted in your initial post, you provided samples. Did you get them signed off? It doesn't matter what anyone "felt" if it is in the contract. What does the contract say?

From contributor N:
Call the client, not the designer, and ask him to come and take a look. You think he will love it. Get paid and deliver it. What will the designer want next? Remember, the person that signs the front of the check is in charge.

From contributor O:
Could you easily sell the piece to someone else? If you have properly documented the process with contracts, signed finishing samples, etc., then I would consider going to court over it.

From contributor P:
Paint/glaze finishes are among the most difficult to execute and the results are very subjective, especially when the glaze is on all surfaces, versus just in the profiles. You often end up with a stripy effect that may look okay on a small sample (or even a whole door), but looks different on the whole piece of work. I've done a bunch, but still agonize over every one. Just finished one, gets installed on Friday. Hope they like it!

Offer to redo the finish. Good opportunity to work on your technique. Do some research, take your time, bring the client and designer into the process. Does the client really want to wait another 6 or more weeks to contract with somebody else?