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The Nightmare Referral and How to Handle It

When dealing with difficult clients, how can you free yourself without harming your reputation?

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I recently participated in a working lunch with a few company owners I know. In attendance were Mark Feinberg of Home Theater Advisors, Leo Simeos of Elite Smart Group, and a fourth who will remain nameless (we’ll call him Steve). By the end of the meal we were telling stories about our nightmare projects and clients, and things we wish we had never gotten involved with. The fourth member of our group shared a doozy!

About a month ago he got a call from his client’s neighbor. We’ll call her Charlotte. They had recently renovated their apartment and were not happy with the AV company they used. They wanted a change. Everything in the apartment was DIY — Caseta lighting, iPads in docks on the wall, Nest thermostats, IR kits for video control, the Origin Acoustics in-ceiling mounts for the Echo Dot, but not the Valet system to power it, and so on. All they needed was re-termination of all the shielded Cat6A jacks. The original integrator had left 2-3 inches of unsheathed wire between the keystone jack and the sheath, and the client’s husband, we’ll call him John, a former engineer, wanted them terminated properly.

They had everything running back to a central closet, but the weird thing was that in the closet they had run all the wire to faceplates with jacks. These faceplates (about 30 of them) were on a wall that was hinged so it could open and John could get to the wires behind. I wish I had pictures to post here, but  Steve never took pictures. And neither he or I can find anything like it online. It almost looked like the pictures we see of how NOT to do centralized lighting — with all the wireless dimmers in one closet on a wall, but instead it was all keystone jacks.

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After thinking about it, he called Charlotte back and told her the project just was not the right fit for his business. He would never wire a closet like that and just couldn’t support it. She pleaded with him to just help them get everything terminated properly and put it back into the faceplates so John could finish up the AV closet (he was doing the rack, all connectivity, all networking, etc). She told him what great things her friend said about his company and how she really just needed this wrapped up. He caved. He told her it would be time and materials, but he would not be able to give a fixed price or even a cap on time, as it is just not something he had done in the past so he had little basis for it.

Over the few days the team was there she kept asking for other little things to be done, which, since it was a time and materials gig, he told the team to take care of. Things like reseating the iPads in the docks and tightening up the wall mounts for them and replacing all of the screws in the iPad mounts so they matched (really?).  She also asked that he neaten up all the wires behind the door, and even purchased c-clamps to bundle the wires to the wall. He warned her that that would create thicker bundles and that the door may not close as well. She wanted to go ahead and do it.

Mistake #1: He should have put that in writing immediately, but instead waited until the final day wrap up email. The other challenge he faced is that she would approve things — like rearranging the faceplates a little bit to better match them to how the wires entered the wall and therefore making things neater behind the door. But then John got home and was furious that the keystones were not in the EXACT places he wanted them. Steve’s team had to go back and remove every Decora strap and move the keystones to John’s specific locations.

By now Steve had learned — he insisted John provide an exact schematic of where he wanted everything before they would even start. Charlotte had wanted them to “use their best judgement,” but clearly that wasn’t going to be good enough for John. This was a change order, since Steve had cleared moving things around with Charlotte first and, fortunately, he insisted on the initial bill being paid before taking on this work.

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A team of two spent a day rearranging all the jacks to get them in the exact order John wanted, along with labeling each jack. After all was said and done and everything was moved around, Steve got an email a few days later that John was not happy that the door would require bolts to hold it closed, because the wire bundles pressed outwards on it. Steve is now in negotiations with them to settle this once and for all. I recommended that the two options I would give them are to cut the zipties, remove the c-clamps, and spread out the wires for free with the caveat that John MUST be on-site and sign an approval on the spot, or refund a half-day of labor and part ways. I’m not sure what else they could do. Steve will still make good money on the project as it was all labor, but his reputation is now at risk.

So, after all of that, what have we all learned? Nothing we didn’t already know, but Steve had slacked on some processes and procedures.

  1. First and foremost, stand your ground. Steve knew this was not a project he should be involved with. He should have politely turned it down and stood firm when she pressed to do the work and threw her friend, Steve’s client’s, name around.
  2. ALWAYS put things in writing. He should have put together a daily summary of what was accomplished, any changes made, and any concerns about the project. Instead he did things verbally with Charlotte on site and in a summary email at the end.
  3. Get signatures. It is not enough to put it in writing. Also get sign off on each of the issues they ran into or could predict (for example, I am fairly certain that when John opens that door and messes around with wires, punchdowns will get compromised or jacks will pop out of faceplates or wire strands will break), as well as any change Charlotte approved (which almost every one John came back and overturned).
  4. Get paid daily. Fortunately, Steve was paid for the bulk of the work before he started the re-arranging of the faceplates, but it could have gone south sooner. On time-and-material jobs, especially ones you are nervous about, there should be daily invoicing.

We could use some advice from the collective braintrust.  Anything you all see that could be done differently to protect Steve? Aside from the above?

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