When do you walk away?

Cheryl Kees Clendenon general remodeling and building, In Detail Says 16 Comments

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If you think it is expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.

(said so well by one of my tweeps on twitter)

This sums it up well, don’t you think? Last week I got a call from a potential client who was referred to me by a tradesman. I sit up and take notice on all referrals.

This particular client wanted to have some “wow” bathrooms and needed some help in his kitchen. I said, “ok, you have come to the right place!”. He then proceeded to tell me, by the way, the cabinetry is all built, the fixtures bought and the contractor needs information right away on lighting placement, electrical in the kitchen and what to do for countertops. I  marvelled at the idea that the cabinetry was built when none of the rough in was completed. What the heck? Who would build cabinets with no field measurements or rough in? I ask, is it me??

I asked him very politely if he really needed my help because it sounded like he had a lot of design decisions made and purchased. No, he says, I need help making it all work together. At this point, I felt confident I could be walking into a potential problem situation. But, I am a sucker for someone who says, ” I need your help”. So that is how I found myself going over the next day to see this house being remodeled.

The client is very nice and desires a wonderfully designed home. But, can I do this after so many decisions have been made, the slab torn up to locate plumbing, cabinetry sitting at the house, floors and carpet decided upon?And obviously time is of the essence. Is it feasible to even try? I don’t know the answer but I am giving it a shot because the guy really needs help.

What triggered the decision to look for design help now? Is it possible that people do eventually realize a year ( yes, a year!) into the design process that they have no cohesive interior plans? This client had an architect draw “plans” but there is no interior materials or details.  No “landscape” as one of my clients terms it. And how should a designer respond to this? I tried to explain to the contractor, who also is very nice and agreeable, how important it was for me to understand what had been already selected ( and paid for), the types of materials and such and what was “negotiable” and what was not….before I said a word about anything.

But as industry professionals, I ask you, how do we get the message across to potential clients before they spend a boat load of money on fixtures, flooring, cabinetry that may not be right for the look they ultimately desire? And, when do you cut bait and run?

I can’t do it myself. Not when someone is pleasant and genuine and I see for myself all the issues that must be addressed. That need to help someone, albeit getting paid to do so, is what keeps me going truthfully. Maybe even contributes to my insanity sometimes. ( do ya think??)

I will keep you posted. It is a challenge for certain but I think I am up to the task and that the client is open minded to changing where needed to affect the look he desires. I am never one to molly coddle my clients. But in this situation it is vital to both the client’s ultimate satisfaction as well as to my reputation to be direct and truthful and lay out the limitations or possible limitations in achieving the ultimate design goals.

Speak to me about how you would handle as a professional or your thoughts if you are a client!~~Cheryl

Comments 16

  1. You’re a lot more committed than I am. I wouldn’t touch a situation like this with a ten foot pole. Besides, I make a living off the markups I put on cabinetry, tile, flooring and the rest of the finishes that go into a project. I hope you got a retainer and an agreement for a fair hourly fee!

  2. I am a lot like you, in that if someone comes to me genuinely seeking assistance after realizing they are in way over their head, I want to help. And like you, I am well aware that I don’t know exactly what it is that I am walking into…
    I think the challenge is exactly that which you posit: get everyone on the same page, open the discussion up and put everything on the table from the start (because this is what should have been done originally). The client will have the hardest time with this, because of perceived investment already – they need to be clear that often one has to let go a bit to gain in the end.
    If you can’t get to a very comfortable point with this regrouping process, it will never work out well. Then you should bail. But as above, be paid (in advance) for what you have into it at that point…

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    Thanks all for the comments! I tend to agree with you sarah and paul but I was called on my cell number too. Took me by surprise. I think I add to my stress by dealing with stuff like this but I am getting a good fee for the advice. And, as Rich points out so well, I am definitely being brutally up front with client and contractor about potential issues that may arise. Shocked that a local woodmode dealer would order cabinets like this but hey guess everyone needs to make a buck right? And, the client is genuinely nice and needs help. May also lead to other work in the interior for rest of my design folks. Good reality check though to hear the feedback!!

  4. Sounds like what this potential client wants is a stylist not a kitchen designer – e.g. someone who’ll say wood floors, cherry cabs and brown-toned granite could look gloomy or lighting needs to go in a certain place so they don’t get dark spots. Maybe you could, if you felt it wouldn’t compromise your K&B design business, just hire yourself as a consultant or project manager here and make it clear about the parameters of that job description?

  5. I know a lot of cabinetmakers, and I have heard of somewhat similar situations, in which they have been asked to come in and clean up a mess made by someone else. I heard about a guy who had done some work with veneer, I believe, but had not used the correct glue. The veneer had now peeled off, and the owner was desperate for the help of a cabinetmaker to make it right again. The person who told us about this stated that all he would do was wish the guy good luck with his problem. He felt for the guy, but he knew, too, that the problem was such that he might not be able to fix it correctly, and that if he did not, he would then be liable for an error not of his making. Life is just too short for that sort of thing, he told us.

    In your circumstances I think it would depend on how willing the client was to make allowances for (1) the fact that so many of the decisions have already been made and (2) any mitigating decisions you might make to get the kitchen to where you, as a designer, feel it should be.

    I can understand his reluctance to part with the cabinets he has just spent an obscene amount of money on, and because cabinetry is the heart of any kitchen, much of the design is now already done. And it may not be at all the design you would have come up for him. And the other aspect of this, as you’ve already alluded to, is that the contractor will now be expected to fit his kitchen walls to the kitchen cabinets, which is exactly opposite of the process used. First the kitchen is built; then the cabinets are measured for and installed to fit that space.

    Personally, I would just walk away from that particular job, but that’s just me. What I do whenever people ask me to make something for them is to ask them why they want me to do it. Quite often the answer is because they think I will be cheaper, and I then have to educate them about the costs of custom work.

    As for the other aspect of things, I do think people have to be realistic about what they are capable of and not capable of. There is a lot that goes into a good kitchen design, and I do think most people would benefit from a good kitchen designer, especially one who will listen to the client and then make for that person the kitchen he would design, had he the designer’s talents. This is kind of a convoluted statement, but Confucius said, “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”

  6. Yes, this is a tough call, especially when there is a call for help. I don’t think that a client truly understands the amount of jockeying we have to do to make something like that work.

    It’s not dissimilar to changing a party theme in mid-stream from Mardi-Gras to a child’s Easter-inspired party.

    Sure, we can use the streamer-festooned invitations which were already bought. We’re going to have to order or change the menu, but changing gold to pink is another matter entirely…

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    Kelly! great analogy! That is wonderful way of puttiing it! Joseph. thank you for the insight! I met with contractor today and actually have come up with a “wow” idea for the master but involves relocating things….but heck concrete is already torn up…some plumbing costs…but will, in the end, give him the wow he wants AND we can use the cabinetry already built! As for kitchen, I laid out the lighting and am just going to have to do the decorative items like pendants, countertops and splash. And, I do get paid by the hour on design work. This has been a great comment section for sharing!

  8. I think your decision to get involved is the right one.
    The “damage” is already made, the customer is desperate and you are being paid for your services.
    Help the guy out of this chaos and educate him as you go along so that he does not do this nonsense again. You may gain a customer for life and be the much needed hero here.

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      Thanks Miguel. Yes, you are right. Exactly my thinking as well. Not easy task but am excited about some of the ideas I came up with today…perhaps he will be excited as well. And, if I do make him happy, then he may refer me to others as well.

  9. Thank you all for your great insights as well as the good discussion. I had another client read some of this and she said…”wow, never really looked it at from that perspective before” ! So thank you all again!!

  10. I read this post the other day but didn’t comment. I have been thinking about it though. If someone needs help and they are open to my ideas ~ great. I have had calls for people that want to use my trade discount and I would simply be a go between ~ NOT! But if there is a genuine request for services, yes, I would work with them. I have worked with them. I have had people who thought they would really be able to do it well and then realized they did not have a cohesive plan and fell apart. Usually though there is a common thread between their purchaes since they liked all that they bought (for the most part) but don’t know how to put it all together. Since we are trained to see a common thread, it can be fairly easy to bring it together. Now, if someone changes completely mid-stream (I’ve had that too because they saw a picture somewhere and wanted that now) that may be a different story. I had one client have to sell some of her purchases and donate others so she could start over ~ that was a costly mistake. Wow, that really came pouring out.
    Paula Grace ~

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    Paula: I think this touches an issue many designers must face. The balance of “wanting” to help and do the job we love to do with the reality of “can” we do it and make it work out well in the end if we are presented with a “half done” project from the start. And, for me, almost impossible to walk away if the client genuinely needs help. I am also though, not a pushover to be agreeable. I tell it like it is based on my experience….that is what they are paying for….and if the client does not agree, he is always able to work with another designer. Right? Thank you for coming back and posting!!

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