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How long do you spend dealing with stupid customers?

Installing fences is a nice profession. You get to be outdoors a lot and you make great fences, which at times last for decades. You enjoy a lot of variety and you can put all your creativity into it. There are times when you have to keep your head together and others when the solution is more a question of crude force and brute strength. Truly a really satisfying job for a person. If only you didn't have to deal with customers. Grrr. Customers really are the dumbest creatures on earth.

As an example, we recently heard a story of a fencing installer who received a request from the architect of a planning firm, which had to devise a special solution somewhere for the city council. The fencing installer conducted extensive research, talked to a construction company and a blacksmith, visited the architect three times and then offered the architect a wonderful solution. The architect was extremely pleased and said that the fence would blend in nicely with the newly developed urban area. It looked like getting the order signed off would just be a formality – but then all of a sudden a public tender dropped through the letterbox, a tender which all fencing installers in the region could bid for. And what was worst: the specifications had been copied word for word from the quotation’s text.

We also know a story of a fencing installer, who received a request for an 8 metre long fence by 1 metre high plus a walkway gate of 1 metre by 1 metre. A relatively small job. He wanted to give the customer a price over the phone but the customer didn't want that. The fencing installer ought to come by and really would have to come by to measure everything because the customer had to be really sure that the fence would look good. So moving on, the fencing installer gives another sigh and schedules an appointment for a day when he needs to be in the area anyway. Instead of the planned 10 minute session, he is then kept busy by the customer for almost an hour. Each and every detail is discussed, down to the millimetre. As he finally walks off to his car promising to send a quote during the next week, the customer says coolly: “You'd better sharpen your pencil because altogether I've asked thirty fencing installers and whoever is cheapest gets the job.”

That last story is actually familiar to us in a hundred and one variants because every fencing installer regularly encounters customers who see the professional as some kind of swindler. Customers who are so afraid they are paying too much that they always keep moaning about the price. You could give them the material at purchase price and do the assembly for free and they would still feel like they were being ripped off.

Then there are the customers who first come to you for comprehensive advice. Yes, they want the best quality. Robust materials, a thick, anti-corrosion layer of zinc, stainless steel fixings and beautiful aluminium covering caps. Then, once you've done your quote, they come back with a printout from some website or other where they found a fence that looks roughly the same but for half the price.

And then, of course, you have the other customers who generally act very friendly. Who sign the contract with a generous gesture, already knowing that they will haggle something off the price when the project is finished. These are the customers who keep finding scratches and dents until you, with tears in your eyes, let them deduct 5 or 10 per cent from the bill.

The next time you have to deal with such a &#§ß! customer, your initial reaction is often to go on the offensive. You feel like putting the most expensive lawyer in the region onto him, or visiting him at home with your friends from the motorbike club. And then you start to draw up a list of things you can do to make sure something like this nnnnnever happens again. Because you're not going to stand for any more nonsense!

And there are things you consider doing to prevent customers from taking advantage of you. For example, you can charge for your advice. At professional opticians, customers also have to pay to get their eyes measured – so you too can do this in future.

You can write a bible's worth of terms and conditions for quotations, sales and supply. Which you get your customers to sign before making even the slightest effort for them. These will of course include the fact that you own the copyright on your quotation texts and that they cannot be used by anyone else.

But the first question, which you should really ask yourself in this context, is: How angry do I really want to make myself? How much negative energy do I want to expend on a customer I'm so angry with that I no longer want to work for them anyway?

After all, negative energy is still energy. It's energy that's no longer there for applying to positive things. Of course, sometimes you have no choice. Money is money and if a customer doesn't pay all or part of the bill because of all sorts of invented scratches, it might help to take him to court.

But even then, it's smart to think calmly first to see if it would be worthwhile. A court case can cost more money than it delivers. Even when you win it. “That doesn't matter, for me it was the principle,” we then hear. But in that case they were rather expensive principles.

It's often a better idea to just forget about a negative customer as soon as you can. Write off the time, effort or money it has cost you as a business loss. Running a business has its ups and downs, with small losses being part of it. Then you can focus all the sooner again on clients that are pleasant to work for. These are sometimes overlooked, but they do indeed exist. Some just get the barbecue going and grill sausages for your crews. Others come out with some cake.

The less time you spend on irritating customers, the more customers you can help and the more chance of there being another among them who does appreciate your work. <

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