Interior Insights: How to Provide Great Service to Difficult Customers

Oct 16, 2012

Over the past 10 years, I can only think of only a very small number of instances where I’ve had any sort of conflict with a customer.

We live in a society that falls back on the customer-is-always-right mentality, but I’m here to tell you this is far from true. Some people are malcontents and there’s absolutely no other reason for their behavior.

Thankfully, my dealings with this type of customer have been few and far between, but regardless of how often you cross paths with a difficult customer, there are a few factors you need to address to mitigate any potential problems in your working relationship with them.

Make the services you’re being hired to do very clear to the customer. I’ve upholstered hundreds of vehicles throughout my career and there are things that I take for granted as common knowledge dealing with vehicles that some owners have absolutely zero concept of. Very carefully outline with the customer exactly what you’re doing for them and inform them of their options. If a customer requests a service that you feel won’t complement their vehicle, let them know. Keep in mind that you’re the expert and they’re seeking your council and service.

Many customers, especially those with limited experience with custom upholstery, may have ideas that are just plain impossible to accommodate. Relate to the customer exactly why their requests are or aren’t possible.

For example, I had a new customer bring in several pictures from a magazine showing an absolutely beautiful interior done on a 1957 Chevy two-door hardtop car. The colors, design, proportions and craftsmanship were all top-notch and outstanding. This particular customer wanted me to recreate this exact interior inside of his car. Therein lay the problem-his car was a 1969 Chevy Camaro convertible.

The man was adamant that it had to be an exact copy. Just the sheer size difference made this task impossible. The 1969 Camaro door panel is less than half the size of the Tri-Five door panel. The door handle placement provided and installed by the builder was way off, and the armrest placement in proportion to the size would have prohibited the door from closing.

Sometimes what a customer sees in their mind and what’s possible in real-world applications don’t match. After explaining this to the customer, we settled on recreating the style and  material choices, and he was elated with the results.

Be confident in your offerings and in your price point.

Be realistic with what you’re offering in comparison to your pricing tier. Everyone starts out at the bottom, like it or not. A customer will never complain if they feel they’re getting their investment’s worth in return service. There are a number of shops across the country that command absolute top dollar, have more work than they can handle and a client list to die for.

In the fledgling years, don’t even attempt to offer comparative pricing or even levels of service to the guys out there who have paid their dues and suffered to achieve the place they occupy in the industry. Offer services and pricing that equal your experience and skill level. Even with all that said, there will still be bumps in the road.

About eight years ago I did the interior of a 1940 Ford sedan delivery for a customer. The interior was an all-leather single-tone solid blood red that the customer provided. The guy had sketches and a list a mile long of features or options he wanted. There was nothing over-the-top or difficult that he wanted done. I did, however, have to make about half a dozen of the headliner bows for the car.

Outside of that, it was a pretty standard traditional-style interior. I completed every single item he had on his extensive checklist and recreated the interior from his sketches very closely. When the customer picked the car up, he looked it over, gave several compliments and paid the bill. All appeared to be well.

About three weeks later, he called me mad as a hornet, cussing me on how horrible the interior was. I offered to fix any problems but he had absolutely nothing specific to complain about. He followed me to several shows, handing out my business cards, showing people his car and cursing my name.

The funny thing was I got so much business off of the guy showing the interior I did in his car and giving out my cards, it was unbelievable.

At one particularly large show, I had a bunch of people come up, shake my hand and compliment my work in that guy’s car.

You’re the expert being sought after. Conduct yourself as such. Offer clear and concise terms and offerings. Past that, take every opportunity you can to let your work speak for itself.