A couple weeks back I posted an article about the customer always being right, and with that, came a large amount of emails and comments. While it was not a topic I expected to receive such an overwhelming response on, it made me understand that this is a topic that people feel very passionate about. One person in particular responded to me about a customer that wanted them to do something not only wrong, but unsafe, and was looking for some direction. A friend of mine had a similar experience that he requested my help with, and I felt it would be helpful to share his story, as a lesson learned, with my readers. I thought that this was a good example of how even though a customer may always be right, you may also need to educate them a little, so they can make the correct choices. (While this story is accurate in the details the names are fictitious.)
I got a phone call from Tony, he is a good friend of mine who started his own business a few years back and calls me from time to time for some guidance. This particular day he called to let me know about a customer he had that was building a restaurant. The owner of the restaurant, Steve, asked him to move some switches that were going to be in the way of a new cooler he was installing. Tony looked over the job, came up with a price, and turned over a change order. When he gave the proposal to Steve, Tony explained that this was a turnkey price that included all the required patching and painting. Steve told Tony that his price was ridiculous; and questioned why he would have any patching and painting costs.
Tony went on to explain to Steve all that he would be required to do to make the installation up to code. Steve told Tony that he “knows” about electric and went on to describe a cheaper, easier, and highly illegal installation. He further stated that he has had many electricians do this in the past. Steve went one step further and told Tony that if he didn’t do it that way that he would not pay him for the work he had completed to date.
Tony knew of my philosophy that the customer is always right and was perplexed on how to proceed. After all he wasn’t going to put his license on the line for this guy by doing something illegal. That is what led to his phone call to me. When I heard what Steve was requesting, I was alarmed and I told Tony that not only was that a code violation but that it is a life safety issue and someone could die from a job done that way. Tony told me that he had tried to explain that to the customer, but that the customer was very adamant that it was ‘his way or no pay.’
I asked Tony to set up a meeting on site with Steve that I would attend. While we were waiting on Steve, Tony was showing me the area where the switches needed to be moved. Just as we were walking out to the parking lot Steve came pulling up in his gorgeous Ford GT, he was dressed to the nines, and was obviously quite successful in his line of work.
After a brief introduction I walked Steve over to the area were the switches needed to be moved. Steve was confused about why I was there and why we were still discussing a situation that in his mind had been resolved. Steve barked at me that he had already made it clear that he was not paying extra money to patch walls for something as simple as moving a switch. Steve further stated that he has been in business a long time and knows the tricks contractors play to make up money and he isn’t about to fall for it. I explained to Steve that I had no interest in money, that I was there as a favor to a friend. I then complimented Steve on his experience and mentioned that he must be very proficient in his business practices his success was obvious based on the beautiful car he was driving.
I asked Steve if there was a problem with any of the work that Tony had done to date, excluding the switches that needed to be relocated. When Steve said no, that Tony had done a great job thus far-- but he still wasn’t paying a bunch of extra money to move those switches! I jumped in right there and let him know that we had two completely different situations. One had nothing to do with the other. He paused long enough for me to explain my position. If Tony did a good job on the rest of his restaurant then there shouldn’t be a problem in getting paid for the work he had done. The issue we needed to discuss was the relocation of the switches.
Steve then said that he could not open the restaurant until he got the new cooler set and Tony was holding up that process. That is why he was threatening to hold his money. I explained to Steve that the issue Tony had was with safety, not money. When Tony refused to proceed with the relocation of the switches as Steve requested, it was because that process was a safety hazard and did not constitute a professional or safe job. “Tony’s license is tied to every job for the life of the building, and if someone were to be injured, he could lose his license and be held criminally responsible, as could the business owner. If you really stop to think about it, Tony is trying to protect you and your business as well as his best interests”, I explained.
Steve, still thinking this was a ploy for more money, told me, “I don’t care! I just want it done quick and cheap!” I explained to Steve that I could only see two options moving forward. One: negotiate a fair rate for Tony to do the job according to code and have a safe working condition, or Two: sign a waiver, releasing Tony’s Electric from liability, and sub that portion of the job out to another contractor that is willing to put others lives in jeopardy. I explained to Steve that Tony is only interested in making him happy and helping him to get his restaurant done the way he wants it done in the most efficient manner. However, Tony was not going to violate any laws or put anyone’s life in danger.
Steve stepped back and asked me, “ how is it possible for this to really be a safety hazard? As long as the splice is good and tight and the wires are taped up well, then there can’t be any real risk.”
I went on to say that I would be happy to go into detail about the theory of electricity and how this particular practice could cause a shock and or fire hazard. I told him; “It doesn’t matter whether it truly is a safety hazard or not, it is a code violation, and therefore illegal. The fact remains that if for any reason there was a fire or someone were to be injured, the investigators would find this violation and it would be used as a tool to show negligence against the owner and the electrical company putting you and Tony at risk. Stop and think about it for a minute. How many fire hazards are there in a restaurant? If, God forbid, there was a fire that had nothing to do with any form of negligence, would you really want to be held accountable just to save a few bucks on this move? The investigators will make a report that states there were electrical code violations, and it will be up to you and Tony to go to court to prove that this particular violation had nothing to do with causing the incident. It may be hard to convince a court that you are not a negligent person if they can prove acts were performed that demonstrated a blind eye to safety. Even if you are successful it will cost you a bundle in lawyer’s fees just to prove it.”
I finished up with Steve by explaining, “Tony runs a professional company that looks out for the best interests of the customer and provides a superior product. He has spent many years building a reputation by providing the customer with the best possible solution to promote an efficient and safe electrical system. While we understand that you have your own goals and deadlines to deal with, Tony cannot compromise the moral foundation he has spent years building, to save a customer a few dollars.”
I then asked, “Steve, if you were buying a new computer, would you tell Bill Gates how to build it? More than likely you would trust the expert on how the computer was built. You may want to decide on what extras or options you need but in the end the core of the system would be built based on the expert’s experience. All we are asking for is to be extended that same courtesy. We are the experts when it comes to electrical installations, and this is part of your core system. You want to trust the expert.”
In the end Steve understood what I was expressing. I did spend some time going into the technical side of what could happen and why it was in his best interest to make the move according to the code. It was no surprise to me that once the job was completed Steve was happy, his cooler was installed correctly and to code, and he was able to open on time. Tony was paid in full; and everyone walked away with what they wanted.
The idea behind this story is: don’t compromise your ethics, or integrity, due to a pushy customer. You have no idea what stresses the customer is under, so you shouldn’t judge them based on a single interaction, and even when your customer is wrong they are your customer. If you take the time to help them understand why your proposal makes sense and the risks involved with cutting corners most of the time your customers will come around and start to trust you. It is up to you to educate them on the proper path and any risk associated with alternative options. In the end, if your customer doesn’t understand your proposal then it is your fault for not communicating the details in a way they can understand. You are the expert and it is your responsibility to help your customer to “always be right”, and many times that is through education and communication.