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How can I avoid “wacko” clients after buying a carpet cleaning business?

The question: “How can I avoid complaints from customers ‘surprised’ that their old cleaner isn’t there? (And especially if they are irrational like this one?)”

Steve’s answer: “Never ‘surprise’ a customer that is new to you. Tactfully let them know you are ‘looking after’ their previous cleaner’s clients. And try to discover the problem ones so you can be ‘all booked up’!”

Hi Steve,

how-avoid-legal-issues-carpet-cleaning-in-futureA few months ago I was contacted by a small carpet cleaning owner wondering if I would buy his company. After much research, it impressed me as a positive business decision and we closed on the deal August 1st. I’ll call his operation “Bill’s Carpet Cleaning” which is a 1 truck operation so inevitably, I knew that much of the value was in the relationships the previous owner had with his clients. I took this very seriously as I knew it would present  a bit of a challenge.

On August 12th, we were called to clean an empty basement of a home that Bill’s previous customer had just moved in to. Upon arrival, it was very clear that she wasn’t thrilled to see an unfamiliar face! This is not something that offends me as I simply make sure I “extra-communicate” and assure the customer that we will take care of them. (Just like with Bill.) She walked us though and then left us to do the work. Everything about the job went as normal.

She had left during the job and upon her return we performed the “walk through” that you taught us in SFS went on our way. A few days later she called and “ripped my secretary a new one”! She claimed the carpet was still soaked and that there was a big red stain in one of the basement rooms. She absolutely demanded that we get to her ASAP!

I called her back and let her know that we would leave right away. We arrived to find that there was a rust issue in one of the basement rooms. My helper swore he put blocks underneath when he moved it but at that point it didn’t really matter. So I acknowledged the problem and agreed to fix it. Next, she went on and on about how wet the carpet was and and that there was no way the movers could bring furniture down the next day.

Steve I swear to you the carpet was bone-dry! I was walking in my socks (like you taught me!) and they weren’t even damp! I explained that basements in general having somewhat of a damp feel, etc. She wasn’t exactly nodding her head in agreement! So I explained to both she and her husband what a moisture meter does and demonstrated on my skin to show how it worked. I proceeded to walk the entire basement…exterior walls, interior walls, everything in  between. The tool didn’t beep once! She seemed a bit offended but kind of disappeared from that point on.

Her husband stuck around and watched as we treated and rinsed the rust spot which responded perfectly. I offered to leave an air mover so that it would be good and dry for the next morning. We were never contacted by this party again and our only conversation was a phone call to pick up the air mover a few weeks later when we were in the area. 

Steve, this afternoon I received a lengthy letter in the mail from a local attorney! The claims and assertions are endless and so ill-informed its almost entertaining … except this is real and happening to me! Basically the claim is that we left the carpet so soaked that it caused mold to grow and the fan that we set caused the mold to spread throughout the basement! There are copies of invoices from a remediation company right around $8,000.00! Plus the home owner wants an additional $13,000.00 for new carpet, pad, etc. AND they want all the money in one week or else!

The attorney’s letter also threatens that they will contact other “Bill’s Carpet Cleaning” clients that have been compromised and threaten that my total damages could be around $200,000.00! I have dealt with just about every type of personality and situation imaginable. This one has literally cold-cocked me. Again, Steve, we were never informed of any of these new concerns or issues nor given the opportunity to resolve them!

I know I probably need a lawyer, may need my insurance company to get involved, independent experts, etc. I know this isn’t going to be cheap in any scenario, which is incredibly unfair but I understand that it’s the world we live in! So Steve, I just need any sort of advice that recover from this in a timely and hopefully economical manner. And can you help me avoid issues like this going forward?

Ambushed in Albany!

Wow, Ambushed! Steve. That is quite a story. And yes… it sounds like you have a wacko. So what to do first?

Yes, you need an attorney. In a case like this your legal counsel will probably advise you to “fight fire with fire” Chances are these folks have found a hungry lawyer and he is on a “fishing expedition”. So when your attorney answers him it MAY go away. A few questions/ comments:

1. At any point during the call-backs did you take photos documenting the issues or your remediation efforts?

2. I would call your insurance agent to see to what degree the insurance company wants to be involved on this at this time. It is possible (but unlikely) that they would want their attorney to reply. If so, you have just saved some big money!

3. Before you go see your attorney develop a brief and clearly written time line/outline for them of the case. In addition, provide all billing records, etc. And any industry certifications and history of your business, number of clients, etc.3.

Now you also correctly asked what to do “recover from this”. My guess is you (and your business) are suffering more than just economically. Simply put, Ambushed, all successful entrepreneurs like you “live their business”. After all, it is their “baby”! And when someone attacks our child we can just feel devastated. I get it. But please… don’t let this crazy person “win”. (Remember, I’m not talking money here.)

That’s right, when you let her cheap shots dominate your thoughts and suck the joy out of your existence, she is winning! So try and move on. Focus on what you still have to be grateful for. After doing this exercise you will likely realize she is just “a flea on an elephant’s butt”!

Now Ambushed, part of “moving on” is analyzing the complaint and making changes in your Service Circle so it never happens again…

1. Anticipate their surprise. If Bill was a quality owner-operator then he likely developed a close relationship with his clients. So put on your SFS “Customer Eyeglasses”, Ambushed. No one likes being surprised. (My guess is when you walked in instead of Bill is when the train started coming off the tracks.) So I assume you have your “Bill’s Carpet Cleaning” calls coming in on a separate number that you purchased. So do you have a carefully worded script designed just for these calls?

2. Develop a special phone script. For example, are you still answering this line “Bill’s Carpet Cleaning”? If so, you might change it to “Thanks for calling Bill’s/ Name of your company . How may we help you?” If they say, “What happened to Bill?” or “Who are you?” give your dispatcher these lines to say, “On August 1st Bill retired and asked us to look after his clients. We’ve been in business for ___ years, use the same processes as Bill and for his clients we are are charging the same exact price for this first visit with you.” (Wait for response.) “Now Bill sent over all his files so let me look your last invoice up and then I may have a few more questions? And your name is…?” Now you are off and running with your SFS Phone Format!

3. Give ’em another chance to voice their concern. So if they don’t bite on your “dual name introduction” then AFTER you book the job your phone person could casually mention, “So I’ll be sending one of our best techs, Harold Smith, over on Thursday and 10:00 AM.” They may say now, “Hey, what happened to Bill?” And you basically repeat the above.

4. Document. When you hit any complaint be sure to document things including (with their permission) taking photos and noting down measurements such as moisture levels. On the other hand, stay balanced in your approach. My guess is this is the first wacko you have encountered in how many thousands of clients? So if you start getting adversarial with all complaining customers due to just one loser that would not be smart. But at the very least review your SFS Principles on dealing with a complaint.

NOTE: Always fill out a Customer Concern Sheet in front of the client. This is a positive Moment of Truth that shows you are taking their “concern” seriously but also sends a message that you are documenting as you go along! 🙂 And a few more “complaint resolution ideas” HERE. And even more “complaining client tips” HERE!

5. Learn up front who your challenging clients will be. My guess is this lady may have been a problem for Bill too! So why not ask him to give you a list of who his “Discriminating Clients” were? This way you will be forewarned or who knows… you MAY be booked solid for some of these losers! 🙂 Let me know how things are going!

Steve

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