"How many of you have ever had the Client from Hell?" builder Tom Stephani asked a standing-room-only conference hall at a builders' convention in Orlando.
Virtually every hand in the room went up.
"How many of you knew going in that it was the Client from Hell?" asked Stephani, a custom builder from the Chicago area.
Most of the hands went up.
Difficult clients, know this: The builders and remodeling contractors can see you coming.
You're the client who won't make a decision.
Or who makes it and then flip-flops half a dozen times. (And wants to debate the pros and cons in a phone conversation with the builder after 11 p.m.)
You're the client who has never picked up a hammer but who knows better than the builder where to buy materials, what they should cost and how to build in a flood zone.
You know this because your buddy who built a house last year told you all about it.
You're the client who had a bad experience with another builder years ago and you're going to take out all that pent-up rage on the builder standing before you.
And you're the client who's going to squeeze every nickel and dime, make the builder pay for everything, and make sure the builder knows he or she lost and you won. You're going to rub the builder's nose in it.
You, Mr. and Ms. Buyer, or Mr. and Ms. Remodeling Client, are what is delicately referred to as "the emotional homeowner." You're "the difficult client." You may be only 10 percent of the clients they deal with, but builders remember you as the piranhas masquerading as goldfish.
Oh, let's just spit it out: You're the Client from Hell, and the builders don't want to do business with you.
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Buyers love to tell home-building war stories: the contractor who did them wrong, the shabby workmanship, the mistakes the builder refused to correct. Those things happen. There are bad builders out there. Good builders don't defend them and don't excuse them.
But this is what the builders say about some of their clients. Not the majority, not even one in 10, but the occasional client who turns the building process into its own version of the Rocky Horror Show. It's a topic that comes up constantly at builders' conventions. This, difficult buyers, is what they're saying about you.
"There are danger signs you can see even before you talk to the people," says Tim Carter, a builder and newspaper and online columnist whose Ask the Builder column (www.askthebuilder.com) runs in the Times. (He offers a checklist on how to weed out bad builders: Page 3F.)
When he calls on a potential client, Carter's wary if the front lawn is too perfectly manicured, if the house is so tidy that "it looks like a museum, nobody lives there." Those are the signs, Carter says, of "quality freaks with extraordinarily high expectations." If they point out flaws in their current home "that are unreasonable _ a microscratch in the Formica top _ it's time to run away," Carter says.
Al Trellis, a nationally known consultant to the home-building industry, gets nervous when he sees potential clients' garages where "the floors are painted in enamel, they've got little peg hooks on the wall with numbers and a little chart that hangs on the wall, 14, that's where the pliers are. When you see a guy like that, that's not a guy you want to build for." That's the guy, he says, who tells the builder, "Oh, no, I'm not going to be picky, I'm really not! See, it's Item 36 on my checklist: Don't be picky with the builder. It's right here.' "
Other builders agree that the red flags start flying early. "In 90 percent of the cases you know in the first meeting or two" whether this is someone you want to work with, says David Lupberger, a Maryland-based home builder who speaks to industry groups about managing the construction process.
Famous Figures in the Hall of Shame:
+ The husband who yells at his wife to shut up and slaps his kids around while he's talking to the builder.
+ The client who starts telling the builder how the job is going to be run, where materials are going to be purchased, which subcontractors will be hired.
+ The clients who eat up excessive amounts of time with phone calls, expect the builder to drop all other jobs to attend to their project, berate the subcontractors and the office receptionist, and have adopted the Nike slogan, "Just do it," as a peremptory order to everyone else, whom they view as a slave or underling.
+ The clients who are too agreeable at the beginning, all excited, but don't seem to approach the process carefully.
"The ones that seem to be a slam-dunk fall apart as fast they appear to be coming together," Stephani said.
Clients from Hell are typically narcissists, people who think the world revolves around them, says Susan Edwards, a psychologist who works with the building industry. These are the self-absorbed people with an insatiable appetite for attention and an exaggerated sense of self-importance. (Think of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.)
Narcissists are "the psychological equivalent of accidents waiting to happen. Anyone driving on the same road (or any builder operating in the town) is at risk," Edwards wrote in a column for Custom Builder magazine.
Builders don't mind working with demanding but reasonable clients. "A demanding client is somebody who expects to get a good deal and expects to pay for it. They will negotiate in good faith," Stephani said. "A true Client from Hell will not negotiate in good faith. They want to take advantage of you. A Client from Hell doesn't want a fair deal. They want you to lose and they want to win."
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If Clients from Hell are so awful, and so easy to spot, why do builders do business with them?
"We don't like to say no to work," Lupberger said. "Or it's a case of, I don't have a whole lot of work, I've got to take it. Or we feel good enough about ourselves that we say, This is no big deal, I can manage this person. You sell yourself on it." Builders talk themselves into a bad client, ignoring what they don't want to hear.
Tim Carter once accepted a job even though he was warned by a competitor, a builder who had previously worked for the client and had a miserable time of it. "He begged me not to do the job," Carter recalled. But Carter took the job for the technical challenge: It was an extremely complicated home addition "and I wanted to see if I could do it. The job came out perfect, but it almost put me over the edge."
A job that should have taken seven months stretched to 18 because the client, a workaholic physician, took off only one day a month and insisted that all decisions and conferences take place on that day only _ except when she was too tired and announced she would make no decisions that month.
The client became "ultra nit-picky," and there were constant delays because she wouldn't make decisions, he said. "My biggest mistake was that I didn't run away from the job."
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Tom Cosper, of Cosper Construction Management in Dunedin, builds custom homes around Tampa Bay. He recalls a potential client who admitted she overpaid for her homesite and wanted to compensate by keeping construction costs down. When Cosper suggested she build a smaller, less expensive house than those around her, she responded: Oh, no, I want it just as big but less costly.
She wasn't interested in the money-saving proposals he offered her _ a less complicated structure, or laminate and carpeting instead of granite and marble. "Oh, no, no, no, no, no," she said, according to Cosper. "If I do that my home won't be worth as much as my neighbors'." She had done research, priced building components and talked to friends who had built houses and just knew she could bring in a luxury home for $80 to $85 a square foot. Cosper had just built a similar house for $125 a square foot. He told her, "I don't think we can build it the way you want it for the cost you want."
It takes courage to walk away from a job, especially in tough times. "You've got to leave a space for something better to come along," Lupberger said. "You'll be rewarded much more by the next job that comes along, and you feel God's peace when your gut says no."
"At the first meeting, clients are interviewing us, but we are also interviewing them," says Kathe B. Bierhoff, who owns Herr Contracting in St. Petersburg. "We do not take jobs from people who already seem hard to get along with. We do not choose clients who have interviewed many contractors, as that is a sign of major distrust. We choose to work for people whom we like and enjoy being around and who appreciate and trust our recommendations."
Lupberger often brings along his project manager when he interviews potential clients to get another opinion. That manager is the person who will be running the construction project on a day-to-day basis, and if he feels uncomfortable with the clients, Lupberger will likely walk away. Some builders bring their wives along to client meetings to take the temperature, "and we'll walk out the door and the wife will say, "What are you doing?' " _ in other words, Are you crazy? Walk away from this one!
Stephani has heard of builders who bury a $20,000 "aggravation fee" in their bids for the cost of doing business with pain-in-the-neck clients, "and it's not enough for spending 12 months with someone you don't like and can't stand."
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What is it about the building or remodeling process that brings out the worst in people?
Lupberger is generous. The process of building a custom home or doing a major remodeling project is "a time of high anxiety: financial stress, emotional stress, dependency upon strangers, marital stress," he says. "There's the fear factor. You represent an invasion" of their home and their life. Things always cost more than they expect and take longer.
He tells builders: "You know how to build, but you don't know how to take care of people." Builders, who have been through all this many times, think they're selling a product: a new home. What they're really selling, he says, is "a process. The client is buying an experience. Ninety percent of the complaints are not about the work, but about the process."
And it's amazing how different that process looks, depending on which side you're on. He recalled a builder who took an extra two weeks to finish a house, lavishing incredible hand labor on minute details to make the house as perfect as it could possibly be. The builder thought he deserved a pat on the back for his extraordinary efforts. The homeowner's viewpoint? "He was two weeks late!"
Explaining the process, mapping out a schedule of what will happen when, alerting clients to the slow periods and the points in the process that are traditionally sources of friction _ all can be helpful in managing the emotional homeowner.
Susan Edwards, the psychologist, recommends that builders check out potential clients' litigation history before they sign a contract. If the clients have a track record of suing everyone they deal with, that might suggest it would be wise for the builder to politely walk away now.
"Builders have to draw a line in the sand" with excessively demanding clients, Lupberger says, "because once you've got 'em, you've got 'em." Show them how you are willing to compromise, he said. "That's the distinction: The demanding client will compromise. The Client from Hell will not."
Stephani is blunt about it: "You shouldn't take every job that walks in the door." His recommendations: "Don't market to them. Don't encourage them. Send them to your competition."