Knowing When to Cut Ties with an Unresponsive Custom Install Prospect

7/1/2013 4:45:00 PM
We’ve all heard the scatological phrase about doing ones “business” or getting off “the pot.” We’ve all been there. Should you try to get a few more years out of your truck or buy a new one? And, when we started our own businesses, we needed to make that leap into the great unknown of business ownership, suddenly responsible for sales, marketing, customer service, accounting, payroll, human resources, etc. Now, as a veteran owner, I’m making big decisions regularly in terms of accepting clients and projects. I’m trying to decide if now is the time to move on from an unresponsive client or if I should “sit” a little longer.

A few weeks ago I wrote about “Knowing When to Say No,” or deciding whether or not to move forward from the estimating phase with a client. Are they actually serious and going to pay for the time spent, or are they going to waste your time and money? Beyond that, I’ve been in a few situations where the decision point has come a little bit later but still before work has started.

Several months ago I met with a client who was doing a full renovation of a four-bedroom 2500 sq. ft. apartment in New York City. I had informed him that the initial base estimate would be free, but after that there would be a charge for each subsequent “significant” change, like a different control system or changing the system configuration. He agreed to these terms.

There was a second round of estimates, because he wanted to reduce the spec to overall cost. We produced the estimate, and I met with him in person to walk through it, bringing the invoice for the change fee with me. We had a productive meeting, and he liked the new proposal, informing me that he would forward the check for the estimate fee. Then he dropped off the face of the Earth. We sent multiple invoices via email and postal mail. Still nothing. We assumed we’d never see the money or the approval to move forward with the project.

Three months later the client finally called back. It turns out that there was a significant medical issue in his family and his entire renovation was placed on the back burner. He apologized profusely for not paying the invoice and even proposed providing a $1,000 retainer that we could use to draw down from for future changes or apply to the deposit. I sympathized with his situation, and we agreed to meet at the job site later in the week for a walk through with the architect and the contractor, and he would provide a check at that time.

Three days later we did the walk through together and at the end of it, he moved directly into a meeting with the contractor and architect about some plumbing issues. I politely asked him about the matter we needed to discuss. He said he needed to spend some time with the other team members, and he would get it to me in a few days. I hung out at the site for another 30 minutes waiting for their meeting to end, taking measurements, looking at potential paths for wire runs, etc. No luck.

It’s been two weeks and no check. The client seems so hot and cold—very into the project when we are together but avoiding paying the fees that he owes and completely disappearing after our meetings. I have to make some kind of move… but what? Where do I take a stand while still maintaining my professionalism and level of customer service? What would you have done?

+Todd Anthony Puma is president of The Source Home Theater Installation in New York City. 



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