Fitters Friday #1 – 10 tips to avoid unhappy customers who won’t pay

We’ve all had those nightmare jobs where it just seems like everything that can go wrong, goes wrong. Whether it’s a mistake from the manufacturing side, a sales error, or even just some misunderstanding on the customer’s part, it’s always a stressful situation dealing with unhappy customers on-site.

In the double glazing industry, like any other, jobs that don’t run smoothly should be expected. It happens to the best of us.

Imagine how the typical job would go in a perfect world…

There’s no scratches on the glass units…
Two of the window sills aren’t missing from the delivery…
You didn’t just run out of grey silicon and the only colour left on the van isn’t brown…
The customer has the bacon sandwiches waiting when you arrive…

When a problem arises on-site, it’s of less importance at this point who is at fault, as the main priority should be getting the issue resolved to the customer’s satisfaction. These jobs are fraught with danger if they are not handled right, and can lead to not only financial losses, but even worse a damaged reputation.

It only takes one disgruntled customer to take to social media and cause damage to the reputation you’ve worked hard to build up. For local installers, this is even more damaging, and it needs to be avoided at all costs.

But what can we do in those unfortunate instances where a customer is so unhappy they either refuse to pay or want a sizable compensation gesture to settle? Competition to win a job is fierce these days, and a typical small business can’t afford to build allowances for this into their margins.

There is no clear cut answer to the above question, as every job and customer is slightly different. But ultimately, the best way to deal with this situation is to take steps to ensure it does not happen!!

You must make decisions that are best for your business in the long run, learn from bad experiences and put systems in place to stop it from ever happening again.

As dedicated trade suppliers since 2008, we have seen all manner of jobs through our trade customers over the years. Below is a list of practical and easy steps you can implement into your business to protect yourself in these unfortunate situations.

A ‘bad job’ is by no means a reflection on your fitting ability or even the quality of the product. There are a multitude of reasons that things may not go smoothly on the day, so preparation is the best defence. These are strategies some of our trade customers have used over the years to ensure an easier life and a thriving business:

1 – Get your terms and conditions up to date

They aren’t glamorous or remotely interesting, but your terms and conditions of business are your lifelines in the event of any legal or financial action. There are some free templates out there to get you started, but it is strongly recommended to hire a solicitor to write these for you.

Finding a solicitor who specialises in this area will repay your investment many times over, and you can also have them write in any specific clauses for your own business model. Look back over those jobs that didn’t run smoothly – what lessons were learnt that can be written into your terms to protect both yourself and the customer next time?

Make sure your terms and conditions are reviewed regularly (you should be able to make any tweaks yourself after the initial draft is written), display them on your website and always make sure your customer receives these in some format and signs to say they have read and understood them.

Bonus tip: Don’t be tempted to copy and paste another company’s terms and slap it on your website. Not only is it illegal, it could land you with a sizeable fine.

2 – Send the customer drawings for sign off

Here is a simple rule of thumb – any paperwork you receive from your manufacturer should be sent on to your customer for them to sign off.

Ok, so the factory paperwork most manufacturers send over isn’t the most ‘consumer friendly’ document, but it’s still important to give the customer as much information as possible. Don’t rely on your own version of this confirmation as this could cause further confusion, miss important details and also creates more work.

Worse still, don’t give them nothing at all! If things go south on the day you’ll be wide open for a very expensive mistake.

You can use free pdf editing software such as PDF Escape to easily remove your cost prices and replace the manufacturer logo with your own. This is a useful tool as it’s cloud-based, so there is no software to download and you can do it from any device.

This small 5-minute task has saved many a job from a potential disaster!

3 – Have the customer sign a contract

Believe it or not, there are still a massive amount of tradesmen who don’t have their customers sign a contract. No matter how big or small the job, you should introduce this practice into your business as a water-tight, legal way of protecting your business.

Nowadays you don’t have to worry about printing long documents and posting them to customers etc, there are many online contract services available that make adding this process very simple…and fast!

Check out Hello Sign and Panda Doc for a couple of great options. Not only do these services make your offer look more professional, but they give you a legally binding contract with minimal effort.

Most of these platforms offer high-quality contract templates that you can tailor to your needs, but you can always have a solicitor write a bespoke one if you feel it’s needed.

Either way, a signed contract is a win-win for both parties. Not only will the contract give your customers legal protection and peace of mind, but it also obligates them to act respectfully towards you. Breaches of contract can include refusal to pay, attitude towards staff on-site etc. and all of these are legally enforceable if the contract is signed.

4 – Always take a deposit to cover the cost of the goods

Taking a deposit should be a given on any job, even on the smaller jobs. As a rule of thumb, for any job that is going to be completed within a day, it is acceptable to ask for 50% on order, and 50% upon completion and satisfactory sign off from the customer.

Beware of customers who only want to pay a smaller deposit upfront, e.g. 25%. This is a red flag and in our opinion, an unfair ask on the tradesman. A 50% deposit is a reasonable amount to cover the cost of goods ordered, and any customer who is not willing to accept this may be best left for somebody else to service.

For larger jobs that will span several days, a good method that is fair for both parties is to split the payments into three stages:

Initial deposit – 50% of cost of goods (Payable upon order)
Stage payment – 50% of cost of goods (Payable on the first day of installation) Final payment – the install cost (Payable upon completion)

This method involves you breaking out your installation cost as a separate line item, which means you may need to split your margin across the install fee and product fee. Here is a working example to see why this works well:

Full house window installation: Total cost to customer: £15,000 Initial deposit – £6000 (Payable upon order)

Stage payment – £6000
(Payable on the first day of installation)

Final payment – £3000 (Payable upon completion)

Customers find this an acceptable payment schedule as they are committing the stage payment (often the bulk of the total value) once you have arrived on-site with their goods. This ease’s any potential nerves about the items not being ready, you not turning up etc.

The final installation fee at the end is broken out this way because you are then not asking the customer to pay for the labour until you have carried out all of the work to their satisfaction. A few snags here and there are inevitable on bigger jobs, but in the unlikely event there is a dispute at this stage, this payment structure means you will be able to cover supplier costs until it’s resolved.

5 – Define lead times from the outset

One thing we advise you to be cautious of is taking an order based on lead time. This has always been a risky strategy for winning business anyway, but in a Covid-19 world, we have to accept that supply chains are simply not 100% reliable.

There are so many factors currently affecting manufacture time in the UK, it would be foolish not to plan for the worst when it comes to delivery times.

It may go against everything that is the norm in the industry, but our opinion is that a customer’s expectations must be set from day 1 when it comes to the reality of current supply. Honesty is the best policy!

Be cautious about committing to delivery dates as definitive, as everything is dependent on supply coming in. It’s fine to book an install date once you have an ETA, but make sure the customer understands this is an estimate. Don’t be bullied into offering a date that suits the customer but you know may not be feasible. It’s not fair on them or you.

Be especially cautious on extension and new build projects, as many customers push tradespeople for unrealistic dates, and then book in other trades based on the date you give them.

When the profile is delayed at the border and they have to push back the plasterer and electrician, guess who they will expect to foot the bill? Good job you had them sign that contract!

It would be better to lose a handful of jobs a year on this basis, than to take them on and have customers unwilling to pay, demanding compensation and burning more of your precious time in admin!!

Leave the rush jobs for somebody else, there’s plenty of windows and doors for everybody…

6- Build a good relationship with your supplier

Having a healthy working relationship with your supplier is a crucial part of running a smooth business. Many tradespeople neglect this as buying online has become more common…buying a composite door online, for example, is treated by some the same way as searching for a pair of trainers or a new TV.

Yes, there will be several outlets that sell the same product. The prices may differ slightly, but this is a service industry and you are not just buying the product.

Choose a supplier that is reputable, understands how aftercare works, has clout with the manufacturer to get you anything you need fast…

You should also speak to your supplier about any concerns you have. This could be feedback you have on the delivery process for example or even specific product problems you are having. A good supplier will relish this kind of feedback, and use it to improve their service.

When suppliers and trade customers work as a team, it always results in a more fruitful business for both parties. Treat your supplier as a business partner, not just a company you buy products from, and they will reciprocate this goodwill back to you.

If a job really goes pear-shaped and you need some help, a good relationship with your supplier can be invaluable…

7- Highlight any product nuances

We all know in the window and door business that all products have their own ‘nuances’, which is a fancy way of saying no product is perfect!

There is nothing more pointless than arguing with a manufacturer about the shortcomings of their products. They will simply argue that if the product is not to the end-users liking then perhaps they shouldn’t have bought it, and unfortunately, that responsibility will lie with you.

Instead, get to know your products and alert customers to anything that they may interpret as a fault when in reality it is just the nature of the product.

Here are a few examples we see regularly:

Colour match on schwarzbraun frames with a black slab

– yes people still order this combination! Show the customers samples and have them sign to say they understand the colours do not match.

Timber-core composite doors operation

– explain how these doors will move as it’s a natural product and the door must be double locked with every operation. Most customers aren’t told this and will be calling you to come and adjust every year!

No external handle on certain bi-fold configs

– We highlight this on the paperwork, but take 2 minutes to explain to the customer what this means in reality when they are sat in the garden!

Strengthening mullions on PAS24 sliding patios

– if a customer upgrades to document q or PAS24 spec, make sure they are aware of the cosmetic differences. Don’t rely on the brochure images!

These are just some examples, there are hundreds more and this step is made easier by working with a regular supplier and understanding the product.

8 – Have a thorough checking process

Don’t neglect the checking process when your goods arrive. Your driver should have a delivery note so you can check all items are present, and you also want to do a visual inspection to check for any visible packaging/surface damage.

Don’t let the driver pressure you into signing before you’ve checked anything! If he’s running late that’s not your problem, your customer is paying good money for the products and they deserve to be in perfect condition. If they aren’t, send them back and let the customer know. They will appreciate the slight inconvenience a lot more than finding out on the day.

9 – Never fit on the day of delivery

This one should be tattooed on the face of any installer just in case they forget, but still, installs are booked for the day the goods are due!

We get it, homeowners are pressuring us more than ever for the goods to be fitted ASAP. We have also seen a growing number of site deliveries where there are teams sitting around waiting for the goods.

This leaves a razor-thin margin of error and puts undue pressure on every party.

What if a machine breaks down?
What if a component doesn’t come in?
What if the van breaks down?
What if the delivery driver wins the lottery and doesn’t show up for work?

The last one may not happen very often, but the others happen all of the time! In any of these instances, there will be further costs being incurred in a lot of cases, and you are putting yourself firmly in the crosshair for the bill!

Give yourself at the very least a day or two so that you can plan for anything that may come up.

10 – Be open and honest about delays

This is again something most suppliers do not want to talk about, but we all know in this industry the current world situation has brought about some delays. We are a transparent company, and we are honest with our customers about any supply chain issues. You should do the same with your customers, most of them will understand.

This ‘honesty is the best policy’ mentality is being implemented across other retail sectors as the UK struggles to adjust to Covid and Brexit related challenges. Whilst we need to be careful to not use ‘Covid’ as a blanket exhaust for any issue (or a relaxed service), the simple fact is most customers will be understanding as long as you are open and honest.

The jobs we have seen get really nasty is where the end-user is not being kept in the loop, and they feel they are being fobbed off or lied to. In most cases, an open and honest conversation will be enough to appease them, and also help them understand the problem is not from your end but a Global supply chain struggle.

Hopefully, these tips will offer some value to your business. There is nothing revolutionary here, but implementing a number of these simple changes can have a compound effect on your business.

Many of our most successful trade customers use these principles and have a very minimal amount of ‘bad jobs’ or unhappy customers. Hopefully, you won’t get any at all, but when the windows turn up green and the customer swears they ordered grey, it’s good to know you have your ducks lined up…

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