Mastering Contract Terminology
The quality of our products and services has been a key driver in the growth of the hardwood floor industry. Whether you are a manufacturer, distributor or a dealer/contractor, commitment to quality must be — without fail — your top priority. But like any professionals who provide products and services, we are not infallible. This explains, in part, why hardwood flooring manufacturers began offering product warranties. By establishing these “assurance policies,” our industry helped ease consumer worries related to the installation and performance of hardwood floors.
Wood floor distributors and dealers/contractors quickly began using these precisely written warranties as selling tools. Speaking as a dealer/contractor myself, I admit that warranties can be very helpful in closing the sale. But on the other hand, they can also create doubts in the minds of the customer as to the quality of our products.
Far too often, written warranties are explained to customers as part of a verbal exchange. Unfortunately, their provisions are frequently glossed over during the conversation. Today’s salespeople must understand the warranties that accompany the wood floors they sell as thoroughly as they know the products’ features and attributes.
Thanks to the Internet, customers have begun to research websites devoted to today’s various wood products and check the credentials of the local authorized dealers who supply them. I’ve always encouraged training and education. But let’s take that two steps further. First, if you haven’t joined the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) by now, what are you waiting for? Second, if your company isn’t online with its own website, you are probably being passed over by many potential customers.
Unfortunately, the days of deals consummated by handshake are long gone, if not forgotten. These somewhat informal agreements are no longer realistic, nor do they adequately protect both the dealer and consumer. In today’s world, any customer order requires a signed contract before it becomes a binding deal. “Verbal orders don’t go; write it down” has become a commonly uttered phrase in our line of business. No truer words were ever spoken (or, perhaps more appropriately, written down).
Not surprisingly, verbal agreements sometimes promote alarming outbreaks of amnesia. Depending on the circumstances, this self-inflicted malady can be a convenient out for either the customer or the dealer. But under such scenarios, you run the risk of incurring additional expense to satisfy the client or increase the chances that the consumer will opt not to be a repeat customer.
Another instrument often abused in the sale and installation of hardwood flooring is the so-called “standard” contract. These contracts are usually non-specific, but contain fine-print disclaimers on the back of the document. It’s also worth mentioning that what a contractor considers a “standard installation” may not be perceived by the customer as standard at all.
If you’re equipped to achieve the needs and desires of the customer by customizing the installation, be sure to first customize the contract with appropriate amendments and changes. Identify, in written form, exactly which services you intend to render as well as what will be required of the client to complete the installation. This, in itself, will largely eliminate potential misunderstandings that might arise after the installation is completed.
On the other hand, I advise you to resist the temptation to overload the contract with too many disclaimers. Customers may view numerous disclaimers as warning signs that you are not confident about the ultimate success of the installation. When job site conditions are unfavorable for proper and correct installation, you should advise the customer and explain her responsibilities for correcting said conditions before any contract can be accepted and signed.
Promises are often difficult to remember, and sometimes not kept. The situations described below are not uncommon in our industry. They detail typical pitfalls that can develop as a consequence of relying on verbal agreements between the dealer/contractor and customer.
Discussions about maintenance requirements for hardwood floors. The customer firmly believes that hardwood is virtually indestructible, having experienced dents and cuts in her existing resilient kitchen flooring. Furthermore, she is under the impression that the manufacturer’s hardwood warranty covers such floor damages. The salesperson just nods in agreement. Promise her anything to close the sale, right?
Wrong. Before proceeding any further, the salesperson should supply the customer with a copy of the manufacturer’s limited warranty. The ensuing discussion should address product and finish performance, and the duration of warranty coverage. Be sure to expose the customer to the maintenance sundries you stock in the showroom.
The customer’s job site preparation responsibilities. The customer says she will be responsible for removing all furniture and appliances from the room(s) where the installation will take place. The salesperson then makes a price concession in the contract, based on her agreement to handle furniture removal, but fails to include a stipulation in the written contract. On the day of the scheduled installation, you arrive on site with one installer only to find that the room is still loaded with furniture and other items that the customer was unable to remove. The amnesia then sets in as the customer insists the removal of furniture was promised by the salesperson during the sales presentation.
Disposal of old flooring. Disposal of the old flooring and installation waste wasn’t clarified in the contract. This mistake could cost the dealer/contractor an additional trip to the job site and require him to find a source for disposal of the materials.
The date of the installation’s completion. The customer either interpreted or assumed that the installation would be completed by a certain date, and subsequently scheduled delivery of new furniture or arrival of houseguests with that completion date in mind. To meet her expectations, additional installers or overtime expenses may be required — costs that you’ll have to absorb unless you addressed the job’s schedule in the written contract.
Require your salespeople to be specific in the contract about the project’s starting and ending dates. This can be particularly important when the installation process requires a minimum of three days for sanding, staining and applying two coats of finish to the floor.
These are just a few of the mishaps that can arise when you rely on verbal agreements. In most cases, the salesperson won’t even remember committing to such items. Unfortunately, written documentation of what is excluded from the job can sometimes be more important than what is included.
Wood or Wood Knot knows that you are committed to the quality and integrity of your work, and that you have honorable intentions to keep your promises. Unfortunately, your customers may not hold themselves to the same standards. So, by all means, put it in writing. You will be richer for it. And on a lighter and brighter note, I wish each and every one of you a happy and safe holiday season. See you in 2001!