Are you a difficult client?

Railing_2See how the wood fails to line up on this railing?

Would you accept this? But see how it looks in the bigger picture below? Not so bad?

So-called difficult clients will insist the rails be lined up better, even though it’s in a far corner of a deck and will soon be covered with vines. Easygoing clients (like the folks who own this house) will say, hey, it’s fine, it’s not rocket science.

Some people have a lower tolerance for imperfections in the built world and get very stressed out by the ups and downs of a remodeling job, and these people are often labeled “difficult.”

You may be a difficult client if you say things like this:

• I am much pickier than most people. • I lose my temper often. • I do not tolerate mistakes. • Workmanship these days is awful. • I’ll be watching these workers like a hawk. • You mess with me and I’ll sue.

Railing2You are not a difficult client if you say things like “It’s not brain surgery, it’s a remodel,” or “Remodeling is an art form.” I’ve heard these comments from homeowners, and they are not difficult clients.

If you are a difficult client, it’s a good time to do a remodel. That’s because in a slow market like we’re in now, remodeling contractors are not so picky about the jobs they take on. In a more robust market, contractors find ways to avoid working for difficult clients. That’s because difficult clients cause a lot of stress for a company’s employees, and in busy times it’s easier to find another client than another employee.

If you are a difficult client, you should either do the remodeling work yourself, or hire a company who is known for satisfying really picky people. Don’t get a referral from an easygoing friend. Get a referral from the most particular person you know.


You might even tell the remodeling company to assign to your job the project manager with the most complete set of people skills, not a newbie.

Finally, you might hand your project manager a copy of an article called How Homebuilders Can Deal With Difficult Customers, which came out in the July issue of Professional Remodeler magazine. Here are some tips from the piece:

• Listen to the customers’ complaint and acknowledge their right to make it.
• Avoid emotional reactions or phrases.
• Keep the focus of the conversation on the actual problem.
• Ask customers what type of resolution they want.

This last tip is a good one to remember. Before you state your complaint to the remodeling company doing your job, think about how you want it resolved and communicate that clearly.

Contractors dish about troubles with clients

5 Comments on Are you a difficult client?

  1. Peggy Deras, CKD, CID

    I agree with Susan wholeheartedly. Proper attention during the selection and interview process is almost guaranteed to eliminate this kind of misunderstanding between contractor and client about what level of quality is acceptable.
    The client must ask all the right questions AND visit some job sites to view (the best of) the contractor’s work. Anyone who skips this vital part of the process is asking for misunderstandings.
    Another concern, in the current environment, is builders moving in on the territory usually occupied by remodelers. Builders are not accustomed to working on projects whare they will be supervised or questioned.

  2. susan

    This can be a big subject. KPR is correct, that it’s often about the hiring process.
    For example, let’s take the misaligned deck rails. Was the whole job shoddily constructed or was this detail overlooked in an otherwise exemplary job? Maybe a helper put up the second rail and the contractor forgot to check his work…this one time. Those questions are factors. Is a client freaking out because of the latter situation? Then, that may define a difficult client, one who does not see the big picture, does not have tolerances for error and who chooses to stamp their feet rather than dealing with someone with respect and reason.
    Or is it the former scenario, a “not great” job with numerous areas to find fault, justifiably. Is the client still difficult by getting upset with this job? Yes and no, and here’s why.
    As KPR noted, and I’d like to confirm in a big way, it’s all about hiring a contractor up front. To invite someone into one’s home to wreck part of it, then put it back together, I would think it would behoove a homeowner not to hire SOLELY based on a) price b) a referral c) a gut feeling. The answer, which I rarely see implemented, is to have a tool box of as many measurable attributes as is possible to evaluate a remodeling professional. Be methodical, put the time up front, write out a list of questions that you refer to in each interview. The tool box may include the interview and evaluation of one’s demeanor (that gut feeling which does have a place), looking for professional achievements, professional involvement in industry activities, professional affiliations, checkable years in business, checking documentation to evaluate the level of detail included therein (very important), images of work, checking multiple references and asking tough questions, communicating your own expectations/needs/desires very clearly up front to see if there is a fit, if possible, visiting a job site, asking questions about price, and much more. Is this getting boring? It’s like the interviewing process…it’s not fun and exciting, like picking products, but it’s necessary.
    The goal is to lower your risk as much as possible so the job goes as smoothly as possible. One should seek to find the best “fit” which should take time up front.
    Both parties have risk with strange, new, personalities. Both are on their best behaviors too, at the start! It works both ways, as it does in every business.
    Bottom line, I think a methodical interviewing method would go a very long way to make a project flow smoothly, and even be enjoyable, yes, that’s possible! The thing is, homeowners have a responsibility to choose their remodeling professional wisely and carefully. If they don’t, anything can happen, which should be pretty scary. Choose wisely, but if you hire solely on one or two vague factors, or by price, it could be one heartbreaking surprise after another, and then, yes, they need to take on some responsibility for realizing they hired the wrong person/company and not putting the time in on the front end, and then just try to get through it. When homeowners get upset when the good contractor they researched doesn’t do the right thing, that’s a whole different topic. In either scenario, getting upset doesn’t help. It does damage, sometimes irreparable, and needless, damage. And there are ways to avoid surprises, and one of those ways is to be very involved, communicate in detail and with frequency, and be very observant, every day of the project if possible. I have no problem with that.
    KPR, I think your topics are provocative in a good way for good reasons, as remodeling is challenging to the best of us, homeowners and pros alike. It’s why I visit often from the other coast, there’s a lot of good stuff here, ultimately geared toward helping homeowners navigate the world of remodeling.

  3. Kathy Price-Robinson

    Helen and Sheila: Thanks for your very clear and sensible comments. You are both right. One should not accept unacceptable craftsmanship.
    I hope other readers will understand my main point: that some clients are more particular than others. And if you are more particular than others, it’s extremely important to hire companies that are the best in the area. People with very high standards (not unreasonable standards, just higher than the rest of us) will probably not be satisfied with a cut-rate craftsman or one who has not be thoroughly, thoroughly and more thoroughly checked out.
    My main message is one of self-knowledge and self-empowerment. In my opinion, there is too much focus on bad contractors and not enough focus on finding the good ones. I mean no disrespect for anyone who has been burned (and that would be all of us). The answer, I believe, lies in focusing more on the solution and not so much on the problem. I hope that makes sense!
    I do appreciate the passion and intelligence of your comments.

  4. sheila

    i gotta agree with Helen, here. this is about the 10th post about how neurotic, stupid, irritating and flaky “clients” are and how they are the reason everything goes over-budget, takes too long, doesn’t work out, or gets tense.
    it may not be “rocket science,” but it IS “engineering,” which is closer to rocket science than it is to abstract expressionism. plenty of contractors and workmen are sloppy, cheap, aggressive, flaky, and incompetent. objecting to that is common sense, not unrealistic and problematic. and even if you do your due diligence, sometimes the people you hire just do a completely crappy job. why does that make the person cutting the checks a jerk?
    i had a general contractor refer to those of us interested in solar panels “a bunch of Greenpeace a**holes,” while brow-beating me to replace some louvered windows i really wanted to keep with windows that would be slightly more insulated. i had a framer anecdotally explain how the building inspector will just come and say, “no, outlets need to be every 6 feet, so we’d just re-do ’em.” i had roofers, backhoe/septic contractors, insulation installers and others just never call me back about bidding the job. i had building inspectors require me to pull specs on EPDM, the material used on 35% of America’s roofs, to prove it’s up to code.
    sure, some clients ARE jerks, slobs, flakes, and uptight perfectionists, but certainly plenty of people on the other side of the transaction are also problematic. what happened to craftsmanship, accuracy and pride in a job well done? was the builder proud of that job, and are they gonna send their next prospective client over to look at it as an example of their work? if not, they should be mortified and fix it.

  5. Helen

    OK. You may call me difficult. But I would NOT accept uneven railings if I hired a PROFESSIONAL to do the job.
    When someone calls themself a professional and accepts compensation for their work, the expectation is that they are experts and they know what they’re doing. And I expect the finished work to look profesional. If I want the amature look, I would have done it myself.
    I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation. Do you accept your accountant to submit a tax return with a mistake? No. You expect the accountant to fix the mistake. Why should the construction industry behave any differently?
    I think the only way to raise the level of professionalism in this industry is for us consumers to stop accepting shoddy workmanship, tardiness and unresponsiveness. So go ahead, call me difficult.