Managing Trust and Communication Issues with Clients

A few anecdotes about the interpersonal side of the custom woodworking business. August 12, 2014

Question (WOODWEB Member) :
A few months back I was about ready to take a deposit on a little kitchen. This semi-retired engineer type saw a job I did about 18 years ago at his friendís house. I got several pages of his personal contract for the cabinet job emailed to me. The content was not all bad. We had a meeting at my shop to go over final details and such it was at that time that I asked him to please sit down . I said I'm taking a risk but I think you have trust issues and he nodded yes. Basically I told him if I was going to do his job we had to work together as a team and there has to be trust between us or it simply won't work out. I said call a friend and do whatever you need to do but I write my own contracts. He did call the HO he saw and the guy told him to let go and he could trust me. The next day he came in and I sensed surrender on his part and from that point on it was all good. Sometimes we have to counsel clients on more than design. I have had at least two couples break up before the job was done over the years.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From Contributor H:
I've had a few customers over the years tell me they pay bills on their terms - usually 60 to 90 days (and longer in reality). My response has always been that I bill on my terms and if you want to do long term business with me that is how it is going to work. Some of these people have gone elsewhere while others have understood. I have not lost any sleep over those I've lost. I probably would have lost a lot more sleep if I'd done work for them.

From contributor W:
I had a fellow sitting in front of me at my desk and the deal was done, the shops were finished and all he had left to do was write the check and off we go. His wife and the designer had left to pick appliances and hardware and here he sat, and sat and sat. I figured he needed a minute to gather the courage to write a large check so I turned and started working on something else on the computer. A few minutes later I began to hear the pen thumping on my desk so I turned and said "look if you do not trust me do not hire me." Man did he looked surprised! I continued to tell him "I am about to go up into your life, I am going to go behind your doors and drawers, I am going to see what magazines your kids read, what kind of pills you take and all the little secrets that make up your family, so again I say if you do not trust me do not hire me, it will only make my life miserable!Ē He wrote that check real quick. I still donít like building for engineers though, especially the young ones right out of school.

From the original questioner:
What I have learned is the engineer types take more time and move more slowly and are for the most part immovable from their grandiose ideas. I suppose you could say they are just as anal as we are. Perhaps that is the attraction, but in the end an investment of time and an opportunity to educate the client present a challenge I can't seem to pass up and typically good jobs come from these relationships.

From Contributor M:
Iíve said for years being in the construction industry (mostly residential), your 10% craftsman, 30% businessman, 30% therapist, and 30% marriage counselor. Just as stated, you see all the habits, routines, rituals, good and bad parenting, all of it. Forget about the marital issues that surround the project itself. I have left the space, or the job, for a period several times to give a couple some space. If they want me to stay and mediate I tell them there was no line item in my bid that covers that expense.

No news to any, but I feel if you donít become very masterful at steering you will have a difficult time in many complex jobs where you work intimately with the customer over a long period. I remember one of my first experiences with an engineer as a young person working in my late teens a supply house. I had been through trade school, had a family history in industrial mechanical work (process piping, heating systems, and the like), and had an engineer walk in who was having a new home built. He said, and I quote, "I would like you to do a heat loss on this set of plans for me and I would like to buy the boiler, all the parts needed, and all the tools I will need to install the job". When a teenager began to explain to a grown man that he had no idea what he was getting into it didnít go well. He informed me repeatedly he was an engineer and designed major systems for large buildings every day. I asked why he needed the heat loss and for me to tell him all the parts and tools? At the time I could do a heat loss in the field with a calculator and note pad. The manager at the time swooped in and put the kybosh on the sale. It was a good primer for the future. We've worked for several engineers over the years and thankfully all has gone pretty smoothly but I do chalk a bit of that up to being very easy to deal with and pretty good at the masterful part.

From Contributor O:
I've had no engineers to over complicate things, but I have had my share of long rambling, drunken voice mails, some even with tears, from a wife that had a long list of problems. We worked together for a year or so. They could not agree, and she could not decide, so they ended up with a curved stairway and no handrail. Trouble was, the bar was up the stairs and their cocktail hour started around 11:00 am.

Another indecisive woman brought in her interior designer that then began to berate her for not knowing how many leaves she wanted to see in a carved panel. The designer was brutal, and the issue was totally non-important. Just let me do what I feel is right, and I guarantee you will be happy. But no, they had to tell me how to carve. I did throw a guy out of my shop that was about 25% of a lousy year when he wanted to see the difference between a 3/32" and 5/64" radius on the edges of his desk.

From Contributor M:
For me personally, the best jobs are those run by the wife, however I have had a few occasions where that has backfired and have spoken with many others in the trade who feel just the opposite. For me, typically men make simply the worst design decisions Iíve ever heard of, engineer or not. Function over form rather than a balance of the two and whatís worse is that they are more often simply not interested in hearing another perspective once they get locked on to one of their cockamamie ideas. Thatís when a man and a woman seem to collide on a jobsite.

The woman wants a job that works and looks nice, the man more often than not will concede aesthetics for his perceived concept of functionality. I am of course more bias to the looking nice side so at least itís a two on one and as a rule majority wins. My best jobs are the ones where the wife has a bit of design sense, a sense of fashion, and the husband is completely happy with staying out an earning the money. Had a great customer at one point who if I asked him for any input he would say "this is her project, Iím leaving it all up to you two, unless she is bothering you, letís just have a beer when youíre done".

I love the notion of the game face and standing completely outside the process just giving minimal input and staying out of it but unfortunately that doesnít happen for me virtually ever. I choose my customers as best I can but in the vast majority of cases it becomes a very long relationship as projects grow and grow. While it is always undoubtedly business, it becomes difficult to strictly stick to the game face when youíre working on a project for a customer who's telling you the child who was wandering around your job as a toddler when you were building xyz is now heading off for their first year of college. Maybe some can maintain a level of shrewd business, Iím simply not.

From Contributor J:
I have read each post here and chuckled through each. I've never built a kitchen but as a furniture maker for the past 30 years I can relate to each scenario. Makes me think we should all throw in together and write a book! A year ago I took a job designing and building a set of seven counter height stools for a single guy (engineer). Things started off quite well, we agreed upon the design, the materials and the price. I built a mockup so we could look at the stool in the kitchen of his brand new and very expensive high rise condo. I left it with him to try out and we agreed to give him a week to play with it before building them. Enter (Sweetie) and Sweetie decided she wanted the stools in black instead of natural cherry. My engineer asked for the change. We revised the contract and the pricing and I went to work on the stools.

Just as I arrived back at the shop after picking them up from the upholster my phone rings. Sweetie has decided she thinks the stools should swivel as my engineer explains. Can I turn them into swivel stools, he asks? I said no, I can't. The design won't allow the change and the contract terms have been met with the seven now sitting in my truck. So my engineer asked me to design a stool just like the ones I am buying but with a swiveling seat. I explained that I would but only after the first seven were fully paid for and delivered to him. He agreed and so I redesigned the stools to include a self-centering swiveling seat, wrote a new contract with a new section that eliminated any possibility of a repeat of the changes Sweetie had injected on the first order along with pricing that was higher than the first order due to the added costs and to cover a little bit of my aggravation to boot!

My engineer, signed and wrote a check and I went to work again. At delivery my engineer explained that he'd proposed marriage to Sweetie and she'd said yes. Then in the same breath he told me that Sweetie wasn't too keen on the condo and her house was too much for the two of them so he was going to build her a house! I asked what he was going to do with the 14 stools and he shook his head and said "I guess they'll go with the condo." He then asked if I'd be willing to work with him to design and build the furniture for the new house. I beat a hasty exit while I explained that I had a great deal of work and wouldn't be able to do anything for him for at least two years. I suggested he hire an interior designer, and let Sweetie run the show and he sort of sighed and smiled. I drove the two hours back to my shop smiling, laughing and shaking my head. I never did meet Sweetie!

From contributor N:
I've been making cabinets and furniture this last year for a few engineers. One had a home cabinet shop, the other sits at a computer all day, the other one also sits at a computer all day. All of them would rather have me build what they want rather than attempt it on their own. After they have seen my work and my shop they tell me go for it. Engineers don't bother me at all. Dad is a Nuclear Engineer he does wood work, its solid and will last forever but it looks like something from Popular Mechanics. My son is also a Nuclear Engineer and worked as a cabinet maker for four years to get through engineering school he doesn't tell anyone he's a cabinet maker or woodworker, but if asked he will tell you he worked in a cabinet shop. Engineers I find are often the best customers.