Keep The Customer Satisfied

Keeping the customer satisfied can be kinda difficult…

Paul and Artie new this simple fact way back in 1970 (that year again!)

I have a friend in Wisconsin who learned that lesson the hard way.

Very sharp contractor, does very well for himself and his employees.  Excellent reputation, does outstanding work.

So why did he wind up in court?

Simple – he did exactly what his customer wanted him to do.


Pull up a chair and listen….

The customer was an architect (uh-oh!), and was building a studio in a FROG – otherwise known as a Finished Room Over Garage. And it needed to be heated.

Now anyone in the heating business knows a FROG can be a BEAR to heat.  Mr. Architect told my friend exactly what he wanted.

“All I want you to do is cut into the ductwork and run a couple of lines into the studio.  That’s all I want.”

My buddy, being a smart guy, voiced his misgivings.

“Not sure that’s going to provide enough heat.  There’s a good-sized heat loss up there (he had done the math!), and your existing system’s just not sized for it.”

Mr. Architect was not fazed.  He was, after all, an architect. He had letters after his name.

“It’ll be fine.  I just want to take the chill off.”

Okay, you’re the boss.

The following spring the two parties met in court.

The architect had paid for the work, but sued my friend because the FROG didn’t heat.  Not only that, the rest of the house wasn’t heating as well as it did before.  He wanted it made right.

My friend said he did exactly what the customer told him to do.

His Honor had just one question for my friend.

“As a professional, did you know the installation wouldn’t work when you agreed to do it, yet you did it anyway, and took the money for it?”


“Okay, you have 60 days to make it right. You’re a licensed professional in this state, sir.  Act like it.  Next case!”

My friend’s emotions started with shock, then shifted to outrage.

“I did exactly what the customer wanted.  How can this be my fault?”

Then the judge’s words started ringing in his ears. You’re a licensed professional in this state, sir.

Act like it.

Outrage shifted to understanding.  Who’s the HVAC professional here?  My friend realized taking money for something you know won’t work, even though it’s what the customer wants, is at the very least unprofessional.

At the very worst it’s unethical.

My friend, rest assured, is a VERY ethical guy.

“I realized that, as a professional, I should’ve refused the job.  I knew it wouldn’t work, but hey, go-along to get-along, right?.”

“Now I do two things.  First, in all contracts we include comfort and efficiency options and upgrades, with complete descriptions of what they will and won’t do.  Each option has a box after it.  One says ‘Accept.’ The other says ‘Decline.’ That way it’s in writing if the customer chooses not to do something.  They can’t complain afterwards and say they didn’t know.”

And the other thing?

“If I know it won’t work, I don’t do it. Period. I’m the professional, not them. It’s like going to the doctor, telling him you need your appendix out, and that you want it taken out through your butt. Would he agree to do it?”

Not any doctor I’d want to see!

Moral of the story – doing what the customer wants it a good thing.  Unless what the customer wants is wrong.

Then it’s a bad thing.  And it takes a professional to know the difference.

Otherwise, you get to sing along with Sammy Davis, Jr…

Man, I miss Laugh-In!



5 Responses to “Keep The Customer Satisfied”

  1. Verrry Interesting! Thanks John.

  2. I’m still trying to get the picture of my appendix being extracted through my butt out of my mind.

  3. “The customer was an architect (uh-oh!)” Gee, thanks. Some of us architects have feelings, you know!

    On one hand, I’ve got to stand up for my profession… On the other hand, there are plenty of, um, well, “those” architects running around! I’m the grandson of a plumber on one side and a HVAC guy on the other hand, so as a kid who wanted to be an architect, I got plenty of warnings how to not be “one of THOSE architects.” On my projects, houses get real Manual J calculations, drain lines have room to run downhill without taking a sawsall to structure and there are no “magic” 4″x120″ ducts.

    But in thinking about this case: BOTH of these guys were “licensed professionals” and they both should have acted responsibly. (and covered the issues in writing at very least.)

    It looks like a key issue that you mention in your write up is the part about “Not only that, the rest of the house wasn’t heating as well as it did before.” That seems like the key problem – the homeowner/architect might have agreed to the FROG being half-as.. er, compromised heating-wise, but if the contractor knew that he was going to mess up the rest of the house, that’s absolutely where he should have drawn the line. (and if he made modifications that he didn’t realize would impair the rest of the system, well, that’s a different big problem…)

    If this was a “normal” homeowner, then I think the judge’s ruling was fair – most people don’t have much of a clue about how ventilation systems work and have to trust the contractor to do things right. A hat store salesperson can say “the customer is always right!” But as professionals, part of our duty is to tell people “no” when necessary. (Ask Dr. Conrad Murray about that issue…)

    But the homeowner in this case really should have had a good grasp of the implications of the proposed work (that’s part of OUR license, after all). Believe it or not, HVAC is part of our education and part of our licensing tests. Not that you can tell working with some of “those” architects, unfortunately.

    The contractor does bear some responsibility for “doing something he knew wouldn’t work”, but nothing like 100%. All other things being equal, at worst 50%/50% sounds more fair. Both parties were licensed professionals, and both knew better than to “do something that they knew wouldn’t work.”

    In the end, the judge’s decision was probably governed less by the specifics of the situation and more by legal issues like state laws governing home repair/construction and the terms of the contract. Most of these expect that the contractor will deliver a system that is “fit for service” (or similar legalese). If you really, really have to half as… er, knowingly do something “compromised” you’d better have it all spelled out in writing and maybe check with a lawyer…. or just not do it at all.

  4. Hi Tom –

    Excellent points! And no offense intended to architects…

    I think your last paragraph speaks to the issue my friend faced…the fact the homeowner was an architect just added to the irony. That’s one of the lessons learned from the whole ordeal, and why he now has “accept” and “decline” in all his paperwork.

    He has taken full responsibility for this situation — he admits he should have known better and has learned a very expensive lesson.

    As my old pappy used to say, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that really counts!”

  5. If you read “those” AIA documents closely, you’ll find that if the designer made a mistake and the contractor didn’t catch it and bid for it, it is all the contractor’s fault. That how “they” roll.

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