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Managing difficult clients

May 1st, 2021 / By: / Feature

Marine fabricators discuss their best forms of defense

By Michelle Miron

Most businesses have encountered these people at least once: impossible-to-please customers who make life miserable for everyone who has to work with them. Maybe they are disrespectful to you and your employees. Maybe they demand price breaks where none are due. Or perhaps they critique every little detail, seeking things to complain about. 

The dilemma is that difficult customers sometimes have to be tolerated—not only for the sales they generate, but because of the bad word of mouth they might spread. Bad publicity about your shop posted on social media or disseminated through online reviews can seriously affect your business reputation if not properly addressed. So, what’s the answer? That depends on the situation. But the bottom line is, bad blood with unreasonable clients sometimes can’t be helped.

Yin meets yang

In the marine fabrication industry, customers are often painstakingly particular people with big bucks invested in their boats, vehicles, toys and equipment. The vendors, conversely, tend to be small family-owned shops featuring exceptional skill and experience, but only routine investment in legal protection. So what could go wrong? 

Vince Innocenzi, owner of Chicago Marine Canvas, says most of his customers have been top-notch over the past six years. That said, he’s still smarting over one client who left Illinois a few years ago without paying the balance of her boat cover bill. Along the way, she issued multiple complaints about her order, some borderline ridiculous—e.g., the amount of translucency in the clear thread used for sewing. 

Vince Innocenzi of Chicago Marine Canvas shows material samples to employee Kole Kerins in the company showroom. Innocenzi says his firm has invested in multiple product samples to ward off client misunderstandings about the final appearance of their custom products. Photo: Chicago Marine Canvas.

Innocenzi says he should have been tipped off about her ethics when she misrepresented an insurance claim to sideline money away from his business and into her pocket. 

“We made changes to multiple items, and she just went head over heels with requests,” he remembers. “Then there was a dispute about workmanship and the boat had left the state, so there was no way for us to assess or repair. She finagled herself out of the bill.”

Chris Shuman, president of Florida-based Custom Canvas and Cushions Inc., remembers a similarly wily customer. For nearly a year the guy avoided paying for a bowrider mooring cover that had already been pre-fitted perfectly to his boat. Shuman says the customer finally paid and took delivery, only to claim three months later that the cover didn’t fit. He then requested a refund and tried to dispute his credit card charges but was denied by the credit card provider. 

“People will try to lie and blame issues on us to get us to pay for them,” Shuman says. “In the beginning, we would exhaust every effort to make every customer happy. I learned that in some cases, you’ll go broke trying to please some people. We do the best we can, and I have a clear conscience.” 

Demanding but not difficult

Clients who want input into every element of their custom orders aren’t necessarily in the “difficult” category. In fact, says Russ Griffin, co-owner of Ohio-based Northcoast Marine Specialties LLC, demanding customers are his bread and butter. As such, he and his staff spend hours questioning them and learning their exact preferences before ever starting their projects. 

“We chose to cater to a market that few shops want to deal with—the demanding affluent,” he says. “Their attention to detail has gotten them to where they want to be, and they are willing to pay to get exactly what they want.”

Chris Shuman, president of Custom Canvas and Cushions, checks the quality of a boat cushion before it leaves the workshop for installation. Shuman prioritizes email communications with clients so his company always has a record of order specs and changes. Photo: Custom Canvas and Cushions Inc.

That’s not to say their specificity never tries the patience of Griffin and his employees. 

“The most difficult customers are engineers, or people who think they know something about fabricating canvas when in fact, they do not have a clue,” notes Griffin. “The second most difficult is the person on a budget. They will call you a dozen times to see if the estimate is ready. During the project, they will call every day to ask when it’s going to be completed.” 

Prevention is better than cure 

There’s no escaping the fact that certain customers will lack integrity, common sense or simple good manners. At the same time, fabricators have a vested interest in protecting their good name, which is why many take proactive steps to minimize their negative interactions with such people.

Shuman says he’s taken time to study up on state-level legal rights for businesses so he can’t be intimidated by false claims. “Lawyers overall are usually the worst,” he says. “They think they can get their way by threatening litigation and don’t expect us to know our protections as a business.” 

Shuman says he’s quick to respond to any potentially damaging reviews posted online. “It’s easier [these days] for problem customers to try to hold us hostage with a bad review … we’ve had several do it,” he says. “It’s important to respond even to the bad reviews. [But] realistically, a bad review lends credibility to your good ones. People realize you can’t please everyone; if all you have are good reviews, sometimes it can seem like they’re fabricated to boost your online rating.” 

In the interest of preventing customer miscommunications, Innocenzi says he’s invested in a wider array of material samples to give out or mail to customers who can’t visit his showroom. He also sends clients photos of work in progress, both to confirm their expectations and to make them feel a more important part of the process. 

“Experienced boaters may know what they want and how they want it, but new boaters may not know as much about how things can be done,” he says.

Griffin says he goes through a process with clients to fine-tune their likes and dislikes that may not be obvious even to them. This helps him design a product that checks all their boxes and solves any problems they may be having with their old products. His favorite queries include: “What do you like and dislike about your current canvas?” and “If you had a magic wand and could create the canvas to match your vision, what would it be like?”

Northcoast’s estimating software helps Griffin work through this process by organizing each order and disseminating its details to those involved in design, fitting, layout, sewing and installation. During manufacturing, clients can visit the boat or are sent in-progress photos so they can feel a greater part of the project. Final quality checklists ensure even greater accuracy.

Madelynne, an employee at Northcoast Marine, helps install a cantilever frame system onto a Sea Ray 380. At Northcoast, clients requesting custom work must complete a questionnaire that helps fine-tune their preferences before their projects are launched. Photo: Northcoast Marine Specialties LLC.

Griffin notes that he also keeps expectations in check by naming seasons—not specific dates—as production deadlines. That gives his shop more leeway when it comes to unexpected interruptions caused by product shortages, delays or employee absences. 

Innocenzi, Shuman and Griffin all advocate for warding off misunderstandings by maintaining initial orders and adjustments in writing, taking notes on customer conversations and securing customer sign-off whenever possible. For tracking purposes, emails and texts are always preferred over customer phone calls.

Difficult clients are a fact of life for any customer-facing business. But strategizing how to prevent situations that create conflicts with difficult clients can help fabricators with their balance sheets and their mental health. 

“A lot of our customer issues arise from poor planning or communication on their part,” Shuman says. “[But] as long as the customer is being respectful and reasonable, I’ll do nearly whatever it takes to make them happy.” 

Michelle Miron is a Minnesota-based freelance writer with a 30-year background in journalism and marketing content.

SIDEBAR: Dealing with difficult customers

Ask for 50 percent down and 50 percent upon installation. And show customers samples before getting started; that paints a clearer picture in their minds of how the final product is going to look. High-end customers, especially, like to be a part of the decision-making process; it’s more fun for them than just buying a finished product and makes the project more unique to them.”
—Vince Innocenzi, Chicago Marine Canvas

Trust your gut. If you meet with a customer or see a situation that doesn’t feel right, or you get a feeling they will be difficult, don’t take on the project even if you really need the job. Another one will come along. The ones I have thought I shouldn’t take have all been nightmares.”
—Chris Shuman, Custom Canvas and Cushions Inc.

Make every customer become a demanding customer because you’ll always have their business. Make every customer feel as if they are the most important. Take the high road and fix any issue the customer has regardless of the reason. By doing that, you’ll attract the best clients.”
—Russ Griffin, Northcoast Marine Specialties LLC