Photos: Shutterstock, iStock, Thomas Fähnrich, photocase, privat
This article appeared in MarktImpulse 2/19
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Let's keep this between us – have you ever thought, 'this customer is a bit odd'? Fortunately, unusual requests or impractical site rules are no reason to see red. Business Coach Alexa Kuhnke recommends taking a calm walk on the beach – on your customer's private island. Read on, to discover how to get there.
The customer comes first – that is one of those phrases that I don't dispute, but somewhat unwillingly so. I prefer, "the customer is your guest". A guest is someone I invite to come to me, with their request. The result is a relationship where we see eye-to-eye, a solid foundation, where a factual discussion can take place.
That is especially important when it comes to consulting. Because if that goes awry, then the job might not happen at all. Painting contractors ask me time and time again how and whether to set limits for customers when offering advice. We can find an answer to that together, looking at some examples.
The 47-year-old works as a certified coach with companies across all of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Luxembourg – and sometimes even from her own base at the Kiel Fjord. She gives seminars and supports individuals or teams with business coaching. She knows how important it is to get the right advice and is aware of the typical pitfalls.
This occasionally provides some respite, as the experiences of the tradespeople show, sometimes causing a smile or two, like in this example: In a small town, a woman wanted to paint the exterior facade of her old-style villa an extremely eye-catching pink. But the master painter tasked with the job found the color choice difficult. If the color had been for the interior, he wouldn't have hesitated to do the job.
But a dazzlingly bright-pink facade did not correspond to his idea of aesthetics and he also worried about his company's public image afterward. The villa was in a prominent position within the village and he feared that word would quickly get around about who had done the painting work.
His gut feeling told him to turn down the job even if it meant losing the money. He didn't want to be associated with something that he didn't approve of. But how to word all this to the client, without alienating her? We looked at the situation together to investigate whether rejection was the only option.
As a first step, I always recommend welcoming every suggestion a customer makes, no matter how extraordinary, and to take the time to understand the rationale behind the request. So in this case: "That's such an original idea! What do you like in general about the color pink? What do you want the facade to express? What impact do you want the house to make on others?" I call that "visiting the customer on their island". I got the inspiration for this approach from renowned motivational speaker Vera F. Birkenbihl, who has unfortunately recently passed away.
But to stay in the picture, we all occupy on our own island, surrounded by very personal feelings, experiences and ideas. Once a painter has understood what a customer wants to achieve on their island, then they are able to advise them appropriately on the technical aspects.
"It's a matter of pride; cleaning up a construction site and leaving no traces of the work behind! Of course, we often reach for the vacuum cleaner. However, in one customer's house, this request came for an unusual place. We had carried the construction materials through the garden to the house, via a paved path. We swept this down thoroughly at the end of the day, but of course, as we were moving things, some pieces of styrofoam fell off. The customer requested that we clean the path in the evenings with the vacuum cleaner."
Harald Hüttner, Hüttner Kreative Raumgestaltung GmbH & Co. KG, Erlangen
Back to our case study: The painting contractor has now "visited the customer on her island", to ask about her preference for pink and discuss the effect she wants to achieve with the facade. If the customer had answered that just really loved pink and wanted to share the beauty of this color with others, then he would have shown her color cards with shades ranging from soft to neon pink, along with example photos. He could have explained a little about the different color shades and their effects and waited to see which shades she chose. He may then have been able to guide her to a less garish version than the one her heart initially desired.
Fortunately, thanks to his "visit to the island", he not only found out that his customer had brought the idea home from India, where pink is the color of welcome, but also what the client really wanted to achieve with her bright pink house: "I wanted to create something really eye-catching in our sleepy backwater, really make an impression," was her response. "No one and nothing will steer me away from that." The customer's idea above all expressed her desire to be different and rebel.
The painter thought about his gut feeling again. After praising her creative courage, he told her diplomatically that he was not the right specialist to undertake the project. Instead, he recommend a younger colleague with greater willingness to experiment.
Clearly formulated requests open the door to technical discussion. Often customers invite you to discuss their needs, pulling an example torn from a lifestyle magazine out of their pocket, saying, "I want it to look just like that!" An image like that can prompt lively debate.
Let's assume that the customer brought a photo of a room that has marbled walls. As a specialist, you know that the technique used on the wall in the image only works on smooth substrates. And at the same time, you're looking at the customer's rented home, whose walls are covered in a difficult, textured nonwoven wallpaper – that unfortunately cannot be removed.
In such a case, I recommend praising the customer's initiative. Something like, "wow, that's so great you've been thinking ahead and brought some inspiration along!" Instead of simply saying straight away that this idea is impossible under such circumstances, think about the "island visit". Ask the customer what it is they like about the look and the effect they want to achieve.
Once you've understood the desired atmosphere for the room, you can use the photo as a basis to explain the ideal substrates for the desired technique and design and on which they are less effective. Ideally, you also have various samples to hand.
"We renovated many Kaufhof department stores in Germany. We had to coat up to 4000 m2 of ceiling area in just one night. We were allowed in the store overnight and in the morning it reopened with its new look. That was only made possible thanks to great logistics and our expert, motivated team. First of all, we covered everything and wrapped it all – all goods and sales displays remained in place. Even the many lamps and sprinkler systems had to be covered with masking tape. Then a group with airless devices sprayed the ceilings with paint. The team then tidied away the covers again. We were all back on the bus by sunrise and drove home."
Ralf Kirch, Werkstätten für Malerei und Anstrich, Monschau
Examine the customer's walls together. Following your explanation, they will have realized, that their desired look will end up being quite different to that of the example photo, when applied to the existing wall surface. If they continue to cling to their request, then it's their decision. However, if the customer moves away from what they initially wanted after hearing your specialist advice, you can provide them with two new suggestions that are suitable for their textured nonwoven wallpaper.
When dealing with customers, it is often not just about the color nuances or wall textures, but also about interpersonal relationships. As a painter, you access private family spaces, deal with stressed employees in offices or customers in hectic businesses – this always requires flexibility on both sides.
Some people find a team of tradespeople intrusive. Clients therefore sometimes try to maintain control by establishing rules. For requests like "No radio and no conversation in the house between eleven and one o'clock", it is worth asking why this time is so sensitive. Perhaps there is a baby in the house that is very sensitive to noise who takes a nap during this time?
Yet there isn't a justifiable reason behind every request. In one coaching session, a master painter explained how he was once working on a construction site where all the tradespeople had to wear black work clothes, simply because the builder felt this was reassuring.
Even if the motivation behind a rule like this might seem absurd or arbitrary – provided the request doesn't interrupt normal workflow or isn't too much of an ask, then I would advise to keep calm and cooperate.
"One customer had a longing for the North Sea, her home. Since there's no sea in Münster, she wanted to bring this to life on the facade of her house. In the shape of generous waves. Implementation was not easy. The building was three storeys high and approximately 25 meters long. The entire thing wasn't just to be blue-gray, she also wanted gentle waves in orange and yellow tones. She's still enjoying her entirely unique 'seaside home' today."
Jörg Hülsbusch, Malerbetriebe Hülsbusch GmbH, Münster
Has a customer set a time frame for the company that means more work, either in terms of time or effort? Is the customer hoping, for example, that the painters and their materials should be taken to the construction site via the second floor using scaffolding, instead of via the front door and the internal stairs?
Here, use open, friendly questions to uncover what concerns lie behind this idea. For example, if the customer is worried about their newly-laid, expensive parquet floor, then first of all, show a bit of understanding for their concerns.
Secondly, demonstrate your expertise and professionalism. Explain to the client in detail the preventative measures you'll take to ensure no damage is caused by the work.
If the client entirely refuses to negotiate the alternative access route, then this is not a case of simply shaking your head no, but instead calculating. Provide two estimates. If the client is willing to pay more as a result of the increased effort required, then it will certainly be easier for you to comply with their whims.
"When I was just starting out in this job, I painted a hairdressing salon overnight that was next door to a pub Already late at night, it kept getting louder and louder next door. My buddies were there enjoying themselves. Of course, they knew I was in a rush and wanted to annoy me. They even knocked on the window telling me to come and join them. But I turned down the beer with a heavy heart and finished the job."
Michael Harde, Malermeister Stegemann GmbH, Hagen