Tough Talk: How to Have a Difficult Conversation with your Contractor

The author’s studio.

You may think that as someone who deals with contractors on an almost daily basis, I am immune to the to the kinds of situations that would necessitate a tricky conversation with a contractor.  After all, if I hire a contractor for a job, personally, there’s a good chance we’ve already worked together on another project, and there’s an even better chance–if things go well–that we’ll work together in the future.

Yet, this is real life, and sometimes things still go wrong.  Recently, I hired a contractor with whom I’d already done a project to do some repairs and paint my studio, a circa 1870’s brick cottage in historic Old Louisville.  Promises were made, prices were quoted, and a deposit was made.  Soon after that deposit was made, however, the contractor took on a big commercial job and pushed my project to the back burner. When he did get guys out to work at my studio, they were not the same crew I’d seen on the last project, but new, less professional guys who seemed to be taking full advantage of their boss’s distraction.  The long and the short of it is, my project took 6 times longer than expected and the final invoice was more than double the quote.  And was I happy with the end result? No, no I was not.

But, what to do? I abhor conflict in any form, but especially when I feel taken advantage of.  So first things first, I set a meeting to discuss the invoice with him–a full week later.  For the next week, I let myself get angry, then I focused in on what the real issues were, and researched some conflict resolution strategies.  When we finally met, I used the outline below to calmly come to an equitable resolution, preserving what had been a good professional relationship.

Step 1: Don’t Point the Finger, Ask Questions

I started by saying, “I really want to discuss this invoice with you, but first I want to get your perspective on a few things.” I then went on to ask if the workers had, indeed, been different than those I’d worked with previously (they had).  I asked how long they’d been in the contractor’s employ (not long).  I asked how he thought they’d been doing (not bad, he had thought).  Then I asked him about the commercial job, and he willingly acknowledged that he had let that job take precedence, apologizing for having done so.

Step 2: Acknowledge, but Don’t Necessarily Agree

I acknowledged to the contractor that I understood why he would let a big commercial job come before my job, but let him know that it was a big problem for me in very specific turns (not being able to work, print, having to push back professional meetings, etc.).  He was contrite, easily recognizing the bind he had put me in.

Step 3: Brainstorm Ways to Move Forward

As a show of good faith, I wrote him a check for an amount that was larger than I wanted to based on his original quote, but still far less than the final invoice.  This let him know I was not trying to get away with not paying–he had completed most of the work adequately enough–and left me some room to figure out the next steps.  He suggested he would make an appropriate adjustment to the final invoice and also do some more small jobs for me so that I felt like I got my money’s worth.  I, in turn, said I would think about how much that adjustment would be and make a list of things I wanted done.

Though the situation is not fully resolved, I feel like we are moving towards a fair and equitable solution where everyone is compromising, the relationship is preserved, and I can release the unwelcome stress that this situation has brought to my life.  A  If you follow these steps the next time you find yourself in a similar spot, you’ll be able to work through the anger, the issues, and hopefully get to an outcome you can feel comfortable with.  life free of conflict is impossible–especially when renovations are involved!–but with the right tools, any problem can be solved.

Have you had this kind of experience with a contractor?  What did you do to handle it? Let us know!

Sources: Judy Ringer, Business Insider, Forbes

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