The Custom Installer: It All Adds Up

This past winter, my wife and I spent three wonderful weeks touring Italy. Although traveling abroad always provides interesting experiences, we stumbled across some peculiarities that really showed we weren't in America anymore. For one, the cost of a cappuccino is directly related to where you drink it. Stand at the counter, and it might be $1.50. Take that cup to a table and sit down, and the price can triple!

Our biggest eye-opener, though, came in the small town of Sant' Agata Bolognese. Since we were there to tour Automobili Lamborghini, we chose a bed and breakfast nearby. Before arriving, I e-mailed our hostess to say we wanted to tour Lamborghini (and, what the heck, Ferrari, too!). "No problem," she replied.

Running low on cash (travel tip: credit cards and traveler's checks aren't as welcome in small towns), I needed to make a collect call to American Express for an emergency transfer. "Signora, may I use your phone?" Again, "No problem."

Over breakfast, she asked if I knew anything about Internet phone service. I showed her Vonage's Web site, and, when we were finished, asked if I could check my e-mail. "No problem." My American mind translated "no problem" as "no charge," but it turned out she really meant: "No problem - I'll add it to your tab." To say that the 60 Euros (more than $80) in extra charges caught me off-guard would be a gross understatement.

What does this possibly have to do with custom installation? Through the course of a project, it's common for changes to arise. The customer might decide to add music to a room. "And let's get that universal remote we talked about. Plus, grab a DVD player for my bedroom - and will you wire that system up for me?"

As an installer, providing outstanding customer service is a priority, so my response is always: "No problem - we'll take care of it!" These are small requests, and they truly are "no problem" to handle. But those additions can really stack up, totaling thousands of dollars in extra charges.

Some "small" thing like adding audio to a room requires running the wire plus adding a controller and speakers. And if adding the speakers means you'll need a different amp from the one originally spec'd, this "minor" change will add hundreds of dollars to the bill. Throw in the universal remote, the DVD player, and the cabling for the bedroom (plus labor charges), and you can see how the dollars really add up.

Admittedly, some customers are very cool when they see the bill with these added items. They recall the changes and have no qualms about paying. Others feel like they've been duped by the old bait-and-switch. "Why is this so much more than your proposal?!" Explaining each additional charge always feels adversarial and can end up souring the whole relationship, making it a lose-lose for everyone.

The solution is a change-order form, which gives the customer a clear list of all additional charges to justify the higher invoice. The other benefit? When the home­owner sees that a "minor" addition is going to cost him $1,000, he can change his mind now instead of being flabbergasted later. This simple thing can save many headaches - and the customer won't have to worry about getting the final bill standing up or sitting down.

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