by John Sciacca
When a custom install job totally falls apart, and you end up dealing with some nightmare client scenario, chances are that you could probably look back and realize that there were red flags lurking. The key is to be able to identify these warnings so you can spot and identity potential problem clients BEFORE you begin the work and then find yourself married to them for years.
Here are seven tell-tale warnings that I’ve noticed over the years in this biz:
1. They totally complain about the old installer.
I’ll be honest, I used to just chalk this up into the general category of, “All installers that aren’t me suck, so of course he’s complaining about the level of suck of the previous guy’s suckiness.” And, it’s true, there is some definite suck-level work out there that deserves actual installer bad-moutherey. And if you go into a house and see that their gear is piled up on a teetering, Jenga-style stack of soda cans (totally saw that), or that the terminations look like they were mouth-crimped by some guy named “Chomper,” or you get a third-degree burn touching any of the components because they’re so poorly ventilated, chances are there is some real room for some installer gripe.
But if the system looks fairly well installed, looks like good gear with a decent design and implementation and the home owner STILL goes on and on – and ON – about how the old installer won’t call him back, never comes around, etc., it is quite possible that you have a potential problem child on your hands. You see, the other guy might have done everything in his power to please this person, might have finally gotten things to the point that he is able to get his final payment, and then decided the best thing in his life is to never see this customer again. We had to fire a customer last year, and I know that he bad mouthed us to other installers. (I know because one of them called me.)
We took on another job recently that began this very way – with the guy detailing a laundry list of the previous integrator’s foibles – and ended with the guy complaining over every line of the bill I handed him and questioning all of the work that we did. Sometimes a complaining, old curmudgeon is just that, and there's nothing you can do to fix him.
2. “I’m gonna mail your check tomorrow…”
Money makes the world go round, especially when it comes to small business like most CI shops. Often times, things are purchased just-in-time for that project, and money to pay for the gear on that job is needed in a toot-suite manner to cover the costs on that job. Oddly, I’ve noticed that the smaller jobs, less-affluent-seeming customers are usually the ones that are the fastest to pay. I think they understand the concept of money-out/money-in and they rarely hold up the works. And, if they are slow on a payment, usually it’s a small amount that doesn’t cause a big crimp in the cash flow.
But the high rollers, those guys who have the jobs that you *really* want and *really* need, they have the power to break you. On nothing more than some arrogant whim, they can withhold a payment that can be in the high five digits that could cause a company to miss payroll, miss a vehicle payment or default on a mortgage. These guys can put you out of business.
And on these big jobs, you fight this delicate balance of wanting to please and work with and not alienate the Whale with the other part of keeping your business running. You might be tempted to order things without having the deposit in hand, or the “just go ahead and get started, I’ll send you the check,” or do the extra work on nothing more than a verbal instruction. But when you’ve repeatedly asked someone for the deposit check or second/third/whatever payment and there is repeatedly some excuse – “Oh, I lost the e-mail; can you resend it?” “Oh, the check is sitting right here on the desk. I’ll put it in the mail.” “Oh. I’ve been out of the country and haven’t been checking my messages.” “Oh, my wife handles all the bill paying. I’ll tell her to send it,” take that as a real warning. Stick to your guns, get that check before you start the job, and set up and stick to a payment plan that won’t leave you with your butt in the wind if this guy decides to slow pay you.
3. Veruca Salt mentality.
Have you ever seen the original Willy Wonka? The *good* one with Gene Wilder? One of the kids is Veruca Salt, and she is a “bad egg.” She spends virtually every scene screaming at her dad demanding all manner of things and ends almost every tirade with, “Now, daddy! I don’t CARE! I want it NOW!” Everything is a demand. Everything is a command.
Veruca Salt types usually run their own companies and are very successful. They are never used to being told “no” or “you’ll have to wait” or “that isn’t possible.” Everything revolves around them and their need for instant, immediate, no-excuses satisfaction.
People have a right to be demanding… to a point. And the level of expectation and demanding-ness certainly goes up in accordance with the price on the bottom line. But I’ve dealt with people on $250,000 jobs that are WAY more cool and easy to work with and understanding than ones on $20,000 jobs. If you like to be ordered around and treated like an indentured servant, and instantly respond every time master says jump, then you’ll love this guy. He likes to bark out orders, and watch people scramble around.
This is the guy that shoots terse, single sentence e-mails the night before saying that he’ll be in town for one single hour and if you are interested in getting – or keeping – the job then you’d better show up at the jobsite and be available. He has absolutely zero consideration for the fact that you might have scheduled other appointments weeks prior and the phrase, “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute on emergency on my part” means nothing to him. As far as this guy is concerned, he’s the only job you have, and certainly the only job that matters.
4. “Umm, what if we did this instead…”
This business is about custom and custom often involves some changes along the way, and that is an accepted and understood part of the job territory. And if you can’t roll with the punches and adapt and accommodate, then you’re probably not going to last.
This is the guy that just can’t make up his mind about *anything*. The guy that mid-way into a job suddenly wonders if maybe he shouldn’t have gone with a different system, or decides that some feature he read about on the internet sounds interesting, should he switch to that, or, I know we talked about this and that but I had a dream last night about the other, or what if we did…
This guy often requires revision after revision of proposals and system designs, totally eating up time, often wants to meet at the project over and over to discuss – more time – and will frequently end meetings with, “Well, now I’m more confused than ever!”
And, again, changes are fine – as long as they are understood, approved and paid for. The problem is, when the target is *constantly* moving and shifting, you are almost guaranteed to miss it, meaning that at the end of the job you are going to have a system that doesn’t satisfy and a client that is disappointed, confused, and blaming you. And even if you have stacks of signed change orders, this client often has selective memory and will often blame you for not being able to interpret his magical mental wish list of what he really meant to say.
5. The Interrogator
I’m fully squared-away on my knowledge of audio and video distribution, home theater design, automation, and what not. It is one of the topics that I can discuss with an air of expert authority. But even still, there are those clients that try to bully and intimidate with their questioning of everything you do. Every question they ask is pointed like an attorney cross-examining a witness at trial or an interrogation that could involve car batteries and genital clips at any moment. You just get the feeling that every answer you give is being filed away to be later recalled and twisted and turned around against you in some “A-HA!” moment. It’s weird and unnerving.
There are the totally normal and even welcomed questions from people during the course of a job. These are designed to garner insight and understanding and edification. Things like, “Why do you recommend putting the keypads at this height?” or “Why do you suggest 7 channels instead of 5 in the theater?” or “Do you really think I need the RF remote control?” These questions give you a chance to show off your expertise and create a knowledge-bond with the client.
But The Interrogator doesn’t ask to learn. He asks to entrap. Or something. “Well, why did you do *this*?” His questions always seem to have this weird underlying ulterior motive. Where he is tossing a soft and cuddle bunny into a minefield and then shooting bullets at your feet while you have to run out and save it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do business with this guy, I’m just saying that you need to extra-special watch what you say and do and tread lightly, because thar be icebergs ahead…
6. Won’t tell you their budget.
This guy is really just more frustrating than anything. The problem with him is, HE doesn’t know what he wants, so he can’t relay exactly to you what he wants, so you have pretty much no chance of hitting the bullseye! Oh, and PS: He pretty much has ZERO idea what stuff costs, so he doesn’t even have a baseline to go on. He paints a broad sweeping story of wanting surround sound and music in every room and lighting control and security and automation and… on and on.
But he doesn’t understand that something like, “I want a surround system,” means a system that could easily range from $2500 to 25,000 or more. Multiply this over the scope of the whole job and you could have a proposal that ranges from $10,000 to $100,000. So when you ask for a little guidance – you know, a budget to work in or the quality of the system ("Well, I don't want top-of-the-line! I'm not trying to build a concert hall!") – this guy plays all vague and coy. His favorite response is usually, “Why don’t you just work up the system and let’s see what it costs.”
Fine. But in my experience, you know EXACTLY how much you want to spend – or at least a pretty darn good idea of the range – and by not giving me any help here, you almost always end up with a system design that is way over or under what you actually wanted. Not being given a budget is almost always a recipe for either working up a proposal and then never hearing back from them again, having to redo it over and over, or hearing…
7. “You need to sharpen your pencil.”
If your biggest concern on a job is the bottom line price, then going to a custom installer is probably NOT the right thing for you. If you want to tell me how much you saw a TV for at Costco, that you found a receiver for an amazing price on eBay, that there are a pair of speakers on the Internet, that you expect me to match all the cable pricing at monoprice… whatever. All that stuff, pack up into a box, seal it up with tape, and Fed-Ex it off to “Get the Hell outta my store!” land. And ship that thing priority.
As I’ve written in the past, many people expect to go to a custom installer and receive Rolls Royce treatment. They want to deal with someone who has years of experience and that can explain all of the benefits and drawbacks of different technologies, discuss the specific layouts and needs of their home, and maybe even set up an in home site visit. And while they want all of this service, they expect to pay for — umm, what’s a really cheap and crappy car now? – uh, whatever the current Yugo is.
It just doesn’t work that way. If you want to push a shopping cart around and pick a TV off a shelf along with a system-in-a-box to go with your tubs of mayonnaise and 72-bar pack of soap and 50 pound chlorine tabs, great. If you want to deal with a part-time hourly wage worker who needs money for his car insurance that can offer no knowledge or professional assistance beyond, “This one looks pretty sweet,” buy your stuff and enjoy! But if you want a thorough product education from someone that has been doing this for years, that receives all of the latest industry training and that results in a professionally designed and installed system from someone that is going to stand behind all of the work they do to service and support you, then you are going to have to pay for that experience.
I can fully understand that a proposal might be out of your price range. There are a lot of ways to lower a price on a proposal. We can drop the quality of speakers or electronics. We can go to smaller or fewer interfaces. We can drop the size and scale of the job. But you looking at the bottom line and just arbitrarily saying “I want this, but I don’t what to pay that,” it makes me think that you think my prices are arbitrary and open to debate. And, seriously, when you tell me to “sharpen my pencil” it makes me want to walk into the back, hone that thing to a razor’s edge, and then come back and plunge it straight into your wallet.
Know any other Red Flags that people should be aware of? Let me know in the comments box.