Contractor’s guide: How to deal with difficult clients in residential construction projects

Bernd Wolfram
Bernd Wolfram
May 21, 2021 | 5 minute read

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Difficult clients. You can’t avoid them as a contractor, right? Some people cause trouble because they are on your back all the time, wanting to control everything and keen on nitpicking wherever they can. On the other end of the spectrum are indecisive customers who don’t know what they actually want, which can lead to just as many problems as someone who always knows everything better. In the end, the danger is that difficult clients can negatively impact your business when issues are not sorted in a way that is satisfactory from their perspective. In the worst case you'll have to handle disputes leading to costly rework.

However, following a few key rules and guidelines around communication will go a long way to, ideally establish a client contractor relationship in order to avoid problems in the first place or resolve them should they occur. Read on and be best prepared for any kind of difficult client that might come along.

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Avoiding problems and disputes before they occur

The best strategy for dealing with difficult clients in home building and restoration projects is to avoid problems in the first place. You will notice early on if someone is prone to causing issues and you can lay the groundwork for a (more) trouble-free process by getting a few things right from the start.

Communicate in a transparent and honest way

Create transparency through honest and consistent communication, which will also contribute to managing expectations and making clear what is possible and what not. Sometimes, when people are the opposite of easy going, it can have to do with trust issues. Counter that with proactively addressing anything that might at some point evolve into a problem. This includes information relating to cost and the timeline allocated for projects. Provide information in an open and precise way and your client will hopefully become more trusting.
Tip: Managing expectations and defining a clear vision is easier when you visualize contracting job info that would normally be difficult to understand in written form


Document your projects

Make sure that you track every important decision and every note of approval by your clients. Project tracking is an incredibly vital element of a contractor’s work and, with modern tools, has become so much easier to accomplish. Anything that can be proven avoids problems and discussions later on should your client’s recollection “divert” from what has actually happened. Naturally, the first step of this process is a contract to be set up with your customer which includes all the standard details about the given project.

Make yourself understood

This might sound somewhat trite, but when talking with your client, it is key to consider their level of expertise with regard to renovation and restoration work. People who never had to do with this business might be confused when you use certain special terms. Remember, many of us do not want to admit when they don’t understand something, which can cause misunderstandings that are carried through an entire project and could lead to problems. Effective project communication therefore also means to explain things in a way so that everyone can understand what is being spoken about.


Set boundaries

As a contractor, you naturally have to set some boundaries to make sure that difficult clients do not take advantage of your time and commitment. Be friendly but firm when it comes to your working hours and make it clear that, e.g., you will not take out-of-hours calls when projects are still in the planning phase. Your customers will respect you all the more when you show some self-confidence, particularly when a client has a dominating personality which needs to be countered with a firm stance from the start.

Read more: How to Get Paid on Time as a Contractor

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How to deal with difficult clients when problems occur

You have done everything you can for things to run smoothly; you have documented every step of the process, communicated on a regular basis and explained everything in detail – and then still, your client gets angry and you have to handle the situation. Here’s how.

Be quick and focus on the solution

When issues occur, you have to be on the offensive, in a positive way. React quickly, start a constructive conversation with your client that focuses on finding a solution. By the way, it is not advisable to try e-mail for this. Now really is the time to sit down together.


Ask questions

Make sure to give your customer enough space to explain their point of view. Asking them what they think has happened and how they see the situation shows them that you are interested and want to understand. Also ask them about how they would like to see the situation solved. The mere fact that your client feels on board, will work towards alleviating the situation. Basically, any kind of question instead of only presenting your explanations will already have a positive impact on your customer.


Apologize and don’t blame

As a general rule, if you have made a mistake, don’t be afraid to apologize. Again, a few simple words expressing that you are sorry can go a long way to take the heat out of a situation and calm difficult clients down. Should you for legal reasons be concerned that apologizing comes with taking responsibility which might potentially result in further issues, a subtle tweak of language can do the trick; just let the customer know that you are sorry this thing happened to them to show your concern. It is also important that you are not drawn into the blame game and start making other people responsible. Your customer will not be interested in hearing that some important material was not delivered in time, or some other trade caused a damage.


Stand your ground

This is a fine line you are walking but when trying to handle the situation with your difficult customer, it is important not to be afraid to disagree when and where necessary. This can be done in a calm and friendly way and focus on jointly working on a solution. Should claims and disputes be made that are simply not right, this might be the moment for all your documentation work to come in. If you can back up what has happened with actual proof, you are automatically in a better place.
Extra tip: Having all your documentation in digital form, especially sketches as the basis of the residential project, makes it easier to provide proof on the spot. This is also critical if you want to make sure that the documents you show aren't missing critical updates.


Empathize

Being empathic could be the most important ingredient in your toolbox when dealing with difficult clients as a contractor. Try to put yourself in the position of the other party. Wouldn’t you also feel upset when something distressing has happened to you? Empathizing with someone and being understanding makes a big difference. The person opposite you will automatically sense that and be positively impacted. This naturally takes the tension out of any situation. Use this psychological fact to your advantage.

 

Handling difficult clients and avoiding disputes: in a nutshell

Consistent communication, managing expectations and thorough documentation are the cornerstones for handling difficult clients. magicplan app can help you to transparently explain to customers how the end result is going to look alike and the process to get it done in time.

In addition, a lot hinges on the “soft factors”, i.e., how things are done. Being understanding and showing an interest in your client’s situation are key because, after all, contractors are in a people’s business. What everyone wants to avoid is getting embroiled in legal disputes and/or customers turning to the internet to voice their grief and negatively impact your reputation – and open communication with your client while creating a common ground for jointly solving problems can go a long way to handle tense situations.

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