Managing Customer Complaints

If it seems like a customer is just trying to make trouble for you, here's advice on how to keep your cool and respond appropriately. August 6, 2008

We recently had our first customer in years go off the deep end. We built and installed cabinets back in July and August of '06. We finally had to threaten to send the guy's final invoice to collections in November. He paid most of the bill eventually and by the end of November '06 we were completely done with him. Now after 14 months he calls me out of the blue claiming that his cabinets are falling off the walls, doors are falling off, the finish is chipping, etc. and that he will see me in court. We can proudly say that we have very few warranty calls (fewer than two per year), so this is rare. I told him that I would address the issue with him if he could give me some specific examples so I had an idea of whether it is really as bad as he makes it out to be. After 3 minutes of threats about small claims court he could not give me any examples. I told him that we would like to make sure that there is not anything wrong with the cabinets, but would like to get the general contractor informed about the situation first. He says something about needing to talk to the general contractor about other things in his house that are falling apart anyway and hangs up on me.

I have been in business since 2000 and this is relatively new territory for me. Should I immediately get a lawyer? Do I ignore him? Do I just bite my tongue, open my pocketbook, and buy him off? Any advice would be appreciated. I hope this doesn't sound like a rant against the customer, because although he has always been high maintenance I really want some advice on how to deal with this situation. I have had two cabinets that I made along with his kitchen as displays in our showroom since 8/06 and they are in immaculate shape, so I have a hard time believing there is something inherently wrong with his cabinets.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor A:
He won't look good in court if he doesn't give you the chance to remedy any problems. It's a lot easier and probably cheaper to fix a few problems than to get a lawyer and go to court. Send him certified mail stating that you want to make him happy, then get in there, snap some pictures, do what you can and say have a nice day.

From contributor B:
Do nothing until you check this guy out at your local courthouse. Check for tax liens, lawsuits where he is plaintiff or defendant. Check local and federal court, especially bankruptcy. Google the dude, see if your local paper has anything in archive on where he works to see if his job is in jeopardy or gone. He is most likely in financial trouble and is looking for a deep pocket to sue and anyone will do if this is the case. People don't just wake up years later and start complaining about their cabinets.

Once you have found out what you can, then it will be time to ask over the phone for a time to come out and check out any complaints. Don't offer anything or say anything other than that. Don't discuss anything until you see the cabinets with your own eyes. Then send the guy a letter confirming the date, time and reason for the meeting. Don't send it certified mail - just get a proof of mailing receipt, which costs 50 cents or so. You are setting an ambush just in case. If he refuses to set the meeting, offer again to meet in your letter while also mentioning the first refusal. Write this letter as if it is being written for a judge to read, not the homeowner. Chances are if this guy is setting you up, he won't likely to be smart enough to think that you have proof of mailing, so is likely to lie about receiving the offer of inspection. Proof of mailing is good enough in most states. The courts usually assume the mail gets there on everyday matters such as this. Certified mail lets him know the battle has started and he will write any responses with that in mind. Get there with a good camera and take lots of notes if needed. If there is something that truly needs taking care of, no doubt you don't need advice on what to do. However, don't reply on site, treat the meeting as just information gathering. Mail him another letter, with proof of mailing receipt, on what you decide to do about the matter.

From contributor C:

After being in a retail customer service position for 20 years, my advice to anyone is to diffuse the situation. Don't ask questions that sound like you doubt him. He will tend to get on the defensive very fast. If the customer is shouting and ranting, let him, without interrupting, and let him vent. It will be ok. After all the venting is done, assure him that you want to address the problem and simply ask when it may be convenient for you to have me come over and look at the situation. Put the ball in his court. Go over and address the problems. If the problem is indeed not your fault, that is the time to address the problems. I would recommend that you have someone with you as a witness in case words get crossed or something gets out of control. If you don't feel comfortable with discussing it there, tell the customer you need to get back with him after you pull his paperwork and call the next day and discuss it over the phone if you like. But rule number 1 - always assume the customer is correct and look at the problem. I was in the automotive business for a long time and I learned that parts do fail. If you are in a small town, you don't need a customer bad mouthing you. You may get over there and find that a hinge needs a 30 second adjustment and everything is ok.

I never take an upset customer personally. I never know what kind of day he had, or if something major is going on in his life. If you handle it professionally and on time, most problems can be handled. Also if you have shown every chance you could to take care of the situation, you will look more credible than he will, if it should go to small claims court.

From the original questioner:
Take careful notes on everything that you do for this job from here on out. If you call him and set up an appointment, write it down. If he cancels or doesn't show, write it down. If you keep records of what happens you will be way ahead of the game when he starts with the silly and ridiculous accusations.

From contributor D:
Regardless of what you end up deciding, you need to document what has already happened. Record the time and date of every phone call and communication. Second, you do need to go over and look at the complaint areas. Be sure to take pictures of everything there, just in case he gets mad and decides to add to it. Be very careful what you say to the client as this can come back to haunt you in court if it goes that far. You could even stick a small tape or electronic recorder in your pocket.

Then the rest is up to you. At that point you will know what the real truth is and if you need to do anything. As far as the general contractor goes, that does not have anything to do with you as the homeowner was your client and not the general contractor's. The only part he would play would be if his walls or workmanship were causing the damage to your client's cabinets. As far as repairs that you expect the client to pay for remember what you have already gone through and get cash in hand before you unload one tool.

From contributor E:
I would assume that the client has a valid complaint. It has been over a year and he calls out of the blue? Something must be out of whack. I would suggest that it will be much cheaper for you to fix something onsite than to go to court. Whatever he says in court, you have the chance of losing even if you're right. Try to avoid having it go this far.

From contributor F:
At the end of the day your work carries a one year warranty I hope. End of story.Until you or the general contractor personally sees the problems, ignore his threats.

From the original questioner:
I had a gut feeling about this one when we took the contract, but the general contractor is someone I had worked with before, so I took the job anyway. I will write a letter to the customer today requesting a meeting at his home to address any concerns that he may have. I will let you know how things go.

From contributor G:
This situation of calling a year or more after the job is completed looking for a refund is a standard technique with some people. If there is a problem then you need to see it, otherwise you cannot do anything. If he won't let you see the problems, tell him to move onto the next person on his list and see if his refund routine works there.

From contributor H:
Usually when we get a call from a client or contractor complaining that something is missing, or doesn't fit, or is broken, or whatever, it isn't missing, it does fit, and it isn't broken. Don't make any snap decisions without assessing the problem in person or having one of your employees do the same. When you're confident you know what the problem is and how and why it happened, then you're in a position to recommend and implement a remedy. Half the battle is making your customers feel like you care and that you want to take care of them. Convey that first. Then deal with whatever the problem is in a manner that is fair and responsible.

From contributor I:
I would keep the general contractor informed as to what has transpired, especially if you have a continuing relationship with him. If you have an employee, have him do the initial inspection. That way you aren't feeling pressured on the spot to make a decision. It's 14 months since you got paid, it's 18 months since the job was installed, and is 6 months out of warranty. If the customer is being a pain, you can write and tell him that after reviewing the findings you will either fix it (if there is a legit problem) or simply tell him the job is out of warranty and recommend solutions - at his expense naturally.

I once had a job where I was called back after 12 months with the customer saying that the paint was coming off. It was - on all horizontal top surfaces of the doors only. The customer had a maid who flooded the place with water and 2 little rat dogs that urinated everywhere. The floor was ruined also (laminate buckling up). At the time of the call, I found 3 doors that needed to be repainted. I took careful pictures of the dried coffee drops that were clinging to the bottom edges too and forwarded to the GC. When I returned to remove the doors, low and behold almost every door had paint missing, along with knife marks where it had been scraped. What she really wanted was the entire kitchen repainted a year afterwards. I redid the doors she messed up. Six months later, another batch needed to be done. I told here it was her maids fault for flooding with water, not cleaning up spills, and I was not going to re-do. I have never heard another word from her and it's almost 3 years now. Some people think "warranty" means that it repairs whatever abuse they can manufacture in a given time period.