How to Recognize the Waving Red Flags of Permanently Discontented Customers

Tom McNall

Floor Restoration Consultant

Over the years I have always striven to achieve a win-win situation.

In 99% of the cases, this is easily attainable. However, you will occasionally get the 1 % (not a political or gang related finger pointing) of customers that will not be happy, no matter what you do.

The exact reasons vary for their dissatisfaction, but I guarantee the overall motivation is going to be about money: whether they do or do not have enough money to pay for your services, or whether they want someone else to pay for your services altogether. This other “mystery payee” could be you, your insurance company or a 3rd party referrer. For this reason, I am always adamant about my people obtaining signed contracts.

“C grade” travertine tile sold and installed for “A grade price.” Note the gaping, ugly voidsA signed contract removes most of the “wiggle room” from the situations that disgruntled individuals will try to exploit to get out of paying the bill. However, when contracts are not signed, and customers are determined, simple wiggle room can turn into a full-fledged mosh pit of violent dancing around the issue. The key is to read the customer from the start. See what their motivations are, and what complaints they have about their stone, to see if they are going to be a customer who wants to shoot bullets at your feet to make you dance to their orders.

Red Flag number one is when a customer calls about a new installation, or if you have been referred by an installer about one of his or her recent jobs. Why is a new installation failing? Is it that the customer has never had stone before and is not aware of its need for proper care and maintenance?

Could it be that nothing is really wrong with the stone, or the issue is minuscule and the homeowner is hoping to have the installer, stone seller and/or supplier pay for polishing (or other maintenance service) due to their own inadequacies? Could the homeowner have been a “self general contractor” and is hoping to cut the price of installation down by complaining enough so that the seller will offer a discount to shut them up?

I cannot tell you how many times over the years that I’ve given a customer the price of repair on a fairly recent install (within 2 years even) and then have the installer call up, very upset, saying their customer wants a discount equal to the price I had quoted them. This can lose you friends in a business that is very close knit within the local communities.

Another red flag is when the customer keeps asking you about the quality of the stone they were sold and/or the quality of the installation. Usually I play defense in these situations – protecting innocent parties from companies that I know (from my own experience) supply excellent product and services. In this situation, I ask the customer where they bought the product, and continue to ask if they were offered several different options of material. Did they choose this stone in particular, only on price? Were they warned that it could be high-maintenance compared to a slightly higher priced product?

Here’s why I ask such questions.

Let’s compare buying stone to buying another more common natural product. Have you ever gone to a high-end grocery store and bought celery? Usually, the stalks will be full and healthy, (looking like Pamela Anderson’s blouse, if she were a stalk of celery). You can also expect to pay a premium depending on the time of the year. On the other hand, at the discount market, celery can be limp and not as fresh-looking. It also will be noticeably smaller and withered (like the Olsen Twin’s legs, to continue the analogy).

It’s the same with stone. If a customer expects a natural product to all be the same and that all stone should be the same quality, then their expectations are not based on reality, but more like science fiction. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, “I never hear owners of quality installations bragging about the great deal they got on their stone and install!” However, everyone with a problem with a new install either bought the tile at a big box store, a local “tile discounter,” and/or hired either their brother-in-law to install it or a “contractor guy” who “said” he could install tile. Word to the wise: “tile” is not stone. Ceramic does not lay the same as marble. Every ceramic installer thinks he can install stone. Stone installers KNOW how to install their product of choice.

I’ve had numerous sales guys ask me why I priced a certain job for them so high, compared to a similar job, and I will share the same answer with you, now. You need to factor in what I call the “Headache Tax.” The H-T is what you will need to deal with a customer who presents multiple red flags. The goal is that they will go and take advantage of a slower, more dim-witted competitor and thus save you the cost of multiple bottles of Advil and/or whiskey. OR, they will pay you the extra and sign your wiggle room-free contract, thus giving you the resources needed to make this difficult customer happy and your headaches disappear. Either way, you protect yourself and do not lose precious resources when that rare, shady customer tries to weasel out of the deal.

Until next month, keep your stick on the ice –and your money in your own pocket.

Tom McNall is founder and owner of Great Northern Stone, an Ontario-based stone cleaning and restoration company servicing Ontario and Chicago, IL. Tom also offers corporate and private consultations as well as speaking at conventions. Contact him at