There's a good reason the old joke, "This is a great business except for the customers," gets laughs from wood flooring pros. Installing, sanding and finishing can be the easy part of their jobs. Handling customer questions, complaints and concerns, on the other hand? That's complicated.
What does a concerned consumer these days do? Turn to the internet, of course. We went through months of postings in the consumer section of the Wood Floor Business online discussion forum to determine some of the most common issues posted by wood flooring consumers. Then we asked wood flooring pros to share their insights to these problems—how to deal with them, how to fix them, how to prevent them in the first place. Read on to see if you can prevent some of these common concerns from happening with your company.
Consumer complaints often have a common theme: The flooring (or stairs, or molding) doesn't match the way they expected. We asked Sprigg Lynn, president at Universal Floors in Washington, D.C., for his thoughts on these issues:
When you are trying to match colors, whether it's stairs or an existing floor, it all starts with customers' expectations. Don't come out of the chute and oversell it and say you're going to match it perfectly. Tell the customer, "I can come very close to that color, but I can't match it." Some contractors have egos and say flat out that they're going to match it—then you better deliver. When customers ask me why it won't be perfect, I say, "Look at the Washington Monument. Half is one color, half is the other. Nobody complained about that!" Some common issues are:
Matching an existing floor. If we're trying to match a new floor to an existing floor, we go over any pre-existing conditions that complicate the match. Maybe the addition has red oak, while the rest of the house has white oak. Or the original flooring is from 1930 and will take the stain darker than your new flooring, even though it's the same species. Or the original flooring has a beautiful patina that only an artist could recreate on a new floor. Or the original finish is poly but the customer wants water-base on the new flooring. The customer has to be aware of those issues, and based on that, we offer "good, better, best" options, with the best (and most expensive) option being to replace any flooring that doesn't match and sanding the entire floor. We tell the customer we're shooting for a 100 percent match but we'll probably get 90. With a super picky customer, you also have to address the question: Do you want it to match perfectly right now or one year from now when it has ambered or oxidized?
Choosing stain colors. When customers are picking stain colors, we are real sticklers about how we make our samples and having the customer sign off on their choice. Many people put the stain samples down on the floor and ask the customer to pick it … and two hours later it's all dried out and looks totally different. When we do samples we put down the stain and coat it with the actual finish for that job, because colors always look different when they have the finish down—usually the finish makes them slightly darker.
Matching stairs and floors. Stairs are a common problem area for matching colors. Only a few mechanics really know how to get stairs to match because they have a different sanding process. You're not running the big machine or the buffer on the stairs, so you have to adjust your color. We always stain one tread to see how we need to adjust the color. Usually the steps turn out darker because they aren't sanded as smooth as the floor. You might have to sand the treads with 100 on the palm sander instead of 80, for example, to get them to match. It's always best to err on the side of the steps being lighter, because if it's just slightly lighter, you can tint the finish to make the colors match (note that most finish manufacturers don't recommend tinting their finish).
Matching prefinished flooring with molding. Most prefinished flooring has "matching" molding—sometimes it matches, sometimes it doesn't. We like to make our own. When the flooring arrives at our shop, we pull dark, medium and light colors out of the box. It's important to have boards that represent the range of the flooring, not just a board that might be really dark or light or just some freaky board. Then we work on the color of the moldings in our shop until we have a match. Then we drill a hole in that flooring, label it Brand XYZ, connect the matching shoe molding to it and write down the process of what we did to achieve the color. It hangs on our wall so we don't have to reinvent the wheel next time.
With colors, no matter what your situation is, the idea is to always be two steps ahead of your process. Say you're trying to match a floor to another room. Don't wait until you stain the whole floor and then say, "Hey, that isn't the right color." Stain some sample boards, emulate your actual sanding process and put the finish on. If you're matching moldings, get all the colors right before the flooring and molding even gets to the job. Get ahead of the process so you can adjust it before you make the million-dollar mistake.
We asked Joni and Joe Rocco, owners at Parker, Colo.-based Artistic Floors by Design, for their feedback on how they handle finish repairs with their customers:
There are so many variations on finish repairs that we couldn't even begin to describe them all. One thing is certain: except for restoration projects, we only make repairs to floors on which we've worked. In the case of restoration projects, we only contract with the homeowner, not insurance companies.
Regardless of your technical procedures and skill level, it's inevitable that sometimes repairs will be necessary. They must be addressed first as a business owner, then as a technician. Most wood floor contractors won't encounter a repair on every project, but it's best to prepare for and manage expectations in advance by educating customers, using terms/conditions and a signed contract, and thinking creatively about the resources you're investing in the repair. Once a floor requires repair work, that same advice applies: manage expectations (sheen and color may not match), get those expectations in writing (terms/contract), and use resources available to you (Wood Floor Business Forum, NWFA technical resources and your network—from vendor relationships to technical trainers you have met). A few key points:
Educate consumers. Unfortunately, some of us will never meet the end user because we're hired by the builder/general contractor. In this case, take every opportunity to ensure you speak with the end user at some point, even if it's to deliver a mop kit and cleaner (with your contact information as well as cleaning and maintenance instructions attached) to the job site once the homeowner has moved in. If you are shaking your head right now, thinking, "That's just a problem waiting to happen," take it from us: We've made repairs to a finished floor because we weren't in front of the end user whose housekeeper cleaned the $50,000 floors with Method dish soap. We made a good margin on that project, so we chose to make those repairs at no charge, then asked that she no longer use the dish soap, explained why and delivered additional cleaner to her home. We learned that if we cannot communicate with the end user, we do not take on the project. If you won't operate on those terms, add repair costs into your initial job costs. (Using profit margin instead of markup will help with this.)
Set their expectations. We've developed a few systems and processes for site-finished floors that work for the majority of our customers and, based on their environment and lifestyle, we make recommendations and explain the impact kids, dogs and other potential damages can have from the time finish is applied (when can I walk on/add furniture/rugs, bring Fido home) to proper maintenance that keeps the floor beautiful for years to come. Part of our terms and conditions sheet that must be initialed by the homeowner states, "Employees of Artistic Floors by Design do not move furniture or appliances. I must have all furniture, wall hangings and appliances removed before the project begins so that there are no scheduling delays. Artistic Floors by Design recommends hiring moving professionals to remove and replace furnishings and décor and professional plumbers for appliance removal and replacement, due to water lines and the heavy weight of appliances. Artistic Floors by Design is not responsible for damage to furnishings left outside and/or inside my garage if that is the location I choose for storage." When they initial that spot, I make sure they understand that damages following the final coat of finish are repaired at an hourly rate plus materials. This incentivizes hiring professional movers, and we have a short list of good recommendations. We've had one instance in the past year in which the homeowner chose to move furniture back and ended up putting long indentations in the freshly finished floor by dragging a desk. The repair process took three half-days to complete, and we charged $900, which was paid in full by the homeowner prior to the repair work taking place.
To date, we have not had a client who has complained about dog claw marks because we explain the difference between a dry and cured floor; our top coat of finish is always a two-component, commercial-grade water-based polyurethane (unless we are applying a penetrating oil, which has its own education process); and we recommend matte sheens for high-traffic homes. We also offer textured flooring (in Labrador retriever country, Joe has gotten really good at hand-scraping wood floors).
Put commitments in writing. In order to receive a price, we must first have a meeting of the minds with our end user. For us, that means their initials/acceptance on a terms and conditions sheet that outlines everything from scheduling and payment procedures to relative humidity and other aspects of the natural product we install/refinish. If our price and timeframe are accepted, we place the entire scope of work into a six-page, legally binding work contract that details the responsibility of each party. This also helps us receive a 50 percent down payment and payment upon completion (which we define as "prior to the final application of finish"). Homeowners are usually relieved to sign a contract, but some of our construction industry peers aren't. Be sure your builders and general contractors understand that if they're willing to shake hands on a deal, they should absolutely have the integrity to put it in writing. Creating a legally binding contract requires an initial investment that far outweighs the cost to protect your business and family. Repair work is addressed in our contract and confirmed by emailed invoices. If the repair is caused by another party, we either use a separate line on the existing invoice (if the homeowner caused the repair work prior to the final coat) or invoice the repair separately (if the homeowner caused the repair work following the final coat or another contractor caused it).
Think creatively. If a mistake is made by you, it's likely you'll handle the repair at no charge; however, that doesn't mean it's a complete loss. Be smart: Social media is a powerful connector and reputation builder. Most homeowners think it's easier to kiss a boy leaning away from you than it is to get a contractor to come out and fix a mistake at no charge. A homeowner's testimonial stating that you took responsibility, explained what happened and why, and moved quickly to make the repair can go a long way toward your credibility in the community. These testimonials are gems, yet most contractors won't get one. Why? Contractors are concerned with the repair itself. Business owners think bigger and smarter. A savvy business owner knows very few people will write a review out of the kindness of their heart. You're going to have to ask for it and possibly even incentivize it. The fact of the matter is that a little reciprocity goes a long way, and the testimonial is worth a lot more than a free cleaning kit if it nets you more leads for the future.
We've heard it before: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results. Don't. Learn from your mistakes and experiment with how you can change your practices from the start of the transaction to get what you need and want out of the experience, whether repair work happens or not.
Understandably, consumers get overwhelmed by the many finish options available, and, for whatever reason, many seem wary of trusting the recommendation of the contractor bidding the job. We asked Kurt Vollstedt, president at Eugene, Ore.-based New Dimension Hardwood Floors, about how he handles this topic with his customers:
When I was a little kid, I vividly remember when the carpet guy was coming to our house to get carpeting installed over, as Mom would say, "those damn hardwood floors." She was saying that because she had to wax those floors all the time. Thankfully, we are past the era when people felt like that about their wood floor finishes (although some people still remember those products and think that about today's wax finishes!). These days, finishes may be vastly easier to maintain, but they are probably one of the most confusing parts of the entire wood flooring process for consumers. Some things I recommend:
Success comes from familiarity. When I worked at a distributor, I would often recommend to consumers that they just go with the finish their contractor liked to use, because that's what the contractor was used to and knew how to handle. We all know there are many differences in how different finishes are applied, how they react and how thick you put them on, and getting the end result of a good-looking finish is key.
Explain the "why" of your finish choice. Now that I'm on the contracting side, I also have certain favorite go-to products, but I don't just say, "That's what we like to use." For many jobs, we prefer to use a catalyzed commercial-grade water-based finish, but I don't leave it at that: I explain to the customer that it wears well and also allows us to get the job done faster since we can do two coats in one day.
That's our baseline, but of course our crews are trained to handle whatever finish they need to put down (with the exception of high-VOC finishes, which we won't apply). If we need to match existing floors that are in good shape with polyurethane finish, for example, we want our floors to match as close as we can, so we'll choose a poly finish and explain our reasoning to the customer.
When we're working with some kind of textured floor, whether it's wire-brushed, circle-sawn, hand-scraped, etc., or in cases where someone is very concerned about introducing any sort of VOCs into their home, we'll discuss options for penetrating hardwax oil finishes with the customer and the reasons why those might be the best option for their floor.
Dispell misconceptions. Consumers still have some common misconceptions about finishes. For example, I still encounter consumers who think that all oil-based poly finishes are more durable than waterborne finishes. And there are still consumers who hear "wax" and recall experiences like my mother's.
Discuss "recommendations" as opposed to "normal." When customers ask questions about the number of coats, I never talk about what's "normal." Instead, I discuss what's "recommended by the manufacturer." That way, it separates my personal opinion from what the experts who made the finish are recommending. For typical jobs with waterborne finish, we go with the recommended sealer coat and two topcoats. But if I look around a potential customer's home and I see five kids and three dogs, I'll talk with the customer about options for more protection, with a third or even fourth topcoat. We refer to three topcoats as "light commercial" and four topcoats as "heavy commercial." In those cases I will discuss the example of the University of Oregon Football Performance Center and what they chose when we did those floors. That's a practical example that helps them understand the concept and also helps build our credibility with the customer.
Spell out product choices in estimates. When I write an estimate, I try to make it as clear as possible what finish products we're using: what stain, what sealer and how many finish topcoats. If somebody doesn't spell out to the consumer what they are using as far as floor finish, I would avoid that hardwood floor company—they can get the least expensive stuff out there and say, "I've got three coats on there; that should be good." If it's spelled out, you should be able to compare what you are getting. We are on the upper end of the market and certainly lose some business because some people are not asking those questions, but then they probably weren't our customer to begin with. You don't get them all, and if you do, you've got a problem.
Variations on moisture problems—whether the floors are cupping or gapping—create many consumer complaints and questions. We asked Ralph Brookens, president at Brookens Wood Floors in Springfield, Ill., how he prevents and discusses moisture issues with his clients:
Here are some of the factors that help us avoid complaints about moisture problems:
The job site and customer demands should steer product choices. When I am first talking with a customer, right off the bat I want to know whether your home has a basement or crawl space—around here it's pretty much either or—and that will definitely factor into what product is going to go into your home. Some of the modern crawl spaces are really nice, with good air flow, but generally they tend to be more problematic. If the flooring will be going over a basement, we need to find out: Is it heated and cooled? Does it have good air flow? I'll walk around the house to see if it has drainage going toward the foundation and if there are downspout issues. If there are jobs I deem questionable, I'm going to lean toward an engineered product. Sometimes you'll see a crawl space with standing water, and that's a job you might not want at all.
To avoid problems with face cracking, we use only engineered products with a sawn face and a high-quality backing, but it's important for customers to know that even high-quality engineered products will shrink and swell with moisture changes. I am up front with customers that wood is a natural product, and during our winters, with very low humidity, solid or engineered floors will show gaps. How picky they are about gaps can also steer us toward color choices. I recently met with a client who wants us to stain her existing natural maple floors white—but she was already complaining about seeing the gaps (they weren't very big gaps) in her natural maple floors. I explained to her that making them even lighter was only going to make the gaps more obvious.
Discuss humidification and dehumidification ahead of time. Of course, we also talk about the need for a humidification system. I'll tell them the story about my house—when we bought it, we were waking up with parched throats even though we had the humidifier running. When an HVAC expert checked it, he said it was only one-third the size it needed to be to properly humidify the house. Once we upgraded, the parched throats went away. Also, humidification systems easily fall under "out of sight, out of mind," so we discuss the fact that those systems need to be properly maintained to work effectively.
In our area, when summer approaches, our humidity spikes, so we recommend clients have a dehumidifier running in their basement (ideally, one positioned over a drain) from May through September. When I'm in their house, I'll use my professional-grade hygrometer to show them the difference in humidity just in walking between the basement and the main living level in the home—it will usually be a difference of 4–5 percent (and even more during the summer).
Cupping and gapping aren't always a "problem." In a case like the lake house example, with a cupping floor, there was obviously a total lack of communication with the clients. Usually, I would ask them to wait until December, when the furnace has been running for a couple months, and see what the flooring looks like then. If the cupping disappears at that point, then it becomes a question of how they can make sure the cupping doesn't happen next summer. Cupping is always an issue of moisture from below, so that takes us back to the discussion of having an appropriately sized dehumidifier running underneath the floor. If the floor goes through an entire dry season and the cupping doesn't go away, that's likely a case where the flooring wasn't properly acclimated before installation, and that's when you have to get out your sander to cut it flat (that's something you'll want to do once the floor is at a moisture content close to a year-round mid-point).
Create realistic expectations. It isn't true that the customers in that lake home can't open their windows or must have their air conditioning running year-round (or that they can't have wood floors in their house at all), but they did need some education from their contractor before the floors were installed on what to realistically expect. If they were uncomfortable with those expectations, then before installation would have been the time to find a suitable product that would make them happy.
See more on this topic: Moisture & Wood Floors
A few of the stranger posts by consumers on the WFB Forum:
"Someone told us that beeswax is the old natural finish they used to use for that soft, buttery feeling. Can anyone share the pros and cons?..."
"We put in prefinished hardwood floors. I waxed them. (No, I don't really know what I was thinking.) Now, after several years, it looks cloudy..."
"So I've decided on an oil/varnish blend on our hardwood floors after a LOT of reading. The blend will be comprised of tung oil, a citrus solvent and varnish..."
"On New Years someone burned the hardwood floors with some sparklers. After spot sanding and applying a clear coat polyurethane finish, the area that was sanded turned white..."