How to Handle a Super-Picky Client

Bob Goldstein Headshot
A Reclaimed White Oak Custom Built Wood Floor Medallion In A High End Florida Custom Home’s Elevator

I've been a wood floor man for 45 years and have worked for the full spectrum of people, from picky designers, to deranged architects, to nouveau riche McMansion owners. My dad taught me the same lesson I have passed on to my sons: Do the best job that you are capable of, no matter if it's Mrs. Jones' entry foyer or Mr. Moneybags' yacht! Listen to people with an open mind and see if you can or are willing to bring their ideas to fruition. (And if you think someone is just plain nuts … run!) Simple.

The truth is most people will compromise if you convince them that you are indeed the expert in your field, and that how you plan to proceed is in the best interest of integrity and long-lasting value. This can work even for the most difficult customers. Following is an example of one difficult client we managed to win over on a recent job.

I got a call from a potential client about installing wood flooring in the dream home they were building on the Atlantic Ocean. Over the phone the husband, who I will call Dr. John, said that the flooring had been purchased already and he needed a price for installing it.

I rode to our appointment on my motorcycle; on arriving I saw a diminutive Chinese woman sweeping the garage. "Very beautiful machine," she said. I thanked her and asked if the homeowners were in. "You are who?" "I am the wood floor contractor." "Oh, good, you are early. My husband will be here shortly." This was my introduction to the woman I will call Mrs. Doctor Too. Her husband is an MD; she has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Important lesson: Never judge a book by its cover!

We went inside. The ocean could be seen from every floor of the building through massive windows. All of the woodwork was custom-made from reclaimed wood species. There were massive open beams taken from tobacco barns and cotton mills. I was struck by one odd fact: The place was immaculate! Keep in mind this was a working construction site. More about that later ...

Dr. John showed up precisely on time and informed me that the wood flooring consisted of 61?2- to 101?2-inch-wide wormy chestnut, tobacco barn white oak in the same widths and reclaimed American walnut as wide as could be found-no end matches. In keeping with the "green" build I suggested oiling the floors with zero-VOC oil and using adhesive with no solvents. I commented on the fact that the walls were a bit wavy and that could be a problem for baseboards; it turned out there were to be no baseboards. Every wall, door and window terminus and opening is radius … Glad I mentioned it. We were to undercut every wall as well as every door casing and fit the flooring, leaving room for proper expansion. They even wanted the elevator cab to be net-fitted to the walls.

I told the doctors I would work up a proposal. On the ride home, I decided that I would take on the challenge if they were willing to pay the premium for that kind of work. I turned my Blackberry back on and there was a message from Dr. John. I called, and this was the gist: "I want you to know in advance that my wife intends to look at each and every board that comes in and 'assist' you in selecting where that board belongs ... She will follow you like a puppy, looking over your shoulder and expecting that her word is the last on each and every decision. If we decide to award you the job, you must do the work … no subcontractors." Another lesson here: Time to add a pain in the asset factor to the proposal.

I completed the proposal with added caveats: everything being predicated on the condition of the wood once we get to see it, job-site conditions related to HVAC and working with and around other trades and so on. I e-mailed it and received a phone call from Mrs. Dr. Too: "Mr. Bob. I must tell you that your price to do our floor is very much higher than the other people we talk to."

"I think my price is quite fair considering all of the extenuating factors of the job."

"Mr. Bob, do not make excuse. We did not think the other persons would do a good job. We like you do the work, but would like better price. If that not possible, we like you do the work anyway."

"I would like very much to do the work for you." Long pause.

"You come tomorrow, I sign contract and give deposit."

Now, we've worked with reclaimed flooring before and for the most part it was at least structurally sound. Here the walnut was OK but the other two species … there was rot so bad the wood would crumble in your hand, empty unsound knots the size of lemons to oranges, mold and a huge number of planks with splits running the length of the board. Mrs. Dr. Too had bought it online, and the folks who sold it to her basically said, "It is what it is," and, as they had been paid in advance, "Have a nice day!"

With the doctor by our side we began going through the material. We glued and clamped the broken boards, squared all of the ends and grooved the ends so we could assemble the floor with spline. We pulled out all of the rotten wood and hoped we wouldn't run short

When we got to racking out the rooms, Mrs. Dr. Too was right there in the fray carrying boards, placing them in the rack, then standing back to look at them from every angle. We learned early on not to suggest too much. She would readjust the rack. When she pronounced it good, we had to stack it in the right sequence so we could spread the glue and nail each row. We spread only enough adhesive to install two rows. This process was repeated for what seemed like 100 years. She would make the same comment, "Mr. Bob, you are so strong, in good shape!" (I kept waiting for the, "… for an old man" part). At the end of each day after we had cleaned, swept and vacuumed our work area, Mrs. Dr. Too would painstakingly cover the entire room with kraft paper-including the subfloor!

By our keeping calm, not being confrontational, listening and discussing the what and why of the installation process, Mrs. Dr. Too became more of a partner in the process than a seemingly belligerent client. The trick is to think like a teacher, remembering that this is all new to the student, and patience is key! (A plus is that it is hard for clients to complain about a particular board when they chose it!)

The finish process was a bit easier, as we had suggested oiling the floor and Mrs. Dr. Too understood that no one could walk on the floors during this process. We took our lunch to the second story patio each day so we could sit and watch pods of bottlenose dolphins play in the surf. Waiting for finish to dry was never so extraordinary!

Friends, I've got to tell you: When the floors were finished, oiled and buffed to a muted glow, they looked amazing. Over the weeks with Mrs. Dr. Too we actually came to enjoy her company and her stories about growing up in China and how she feels so blessed to be an American now. She's one picky lady, but I, for one, am glad this hardworking woman is an American, too! With her permission I built a medallion out of leftover oak for their elevator at no charge-just a thank you for working with us.

Here's the elevator medallion Bob made from leftover reclaimed oak flooring as a thank-you to his client:

A Reclaimed White Oak Custom Built Wood Floor Medallion In A High End Florida Custom Home’s Elevator


Business Briefs

Family Foibles

Familytree Web

If you are in business with a family member, be sure to avoid these four common problems:

Overstepping bounds: Being family can make some employees feel entitled to overstep their official work roles.

Taking work home: Bringing personal issues into the workplace and vice-versa can create tension and an uncomfortable environment for all employees. It's important to separate work life and personal life, especially for couples.

Hiring someone you can't fire: Family employees must be held at the same or even higher level of accountability than other employees, even if that creates an uncomfortable situation in your personal life.

Unfair pay: It is unfair to neglect the rest of the team's income because you want to give special treatment to a family member.

Dr. Rhonda Savage is an internationally acclaimed speaker and CEO for a well-known practice management and consulting business. For more information, visit or e-mail [email protected].

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