Smoother client relations
October 2, 2023 | 3:39 pm CDT

Matt Buell shares a few tips to make customer relations go more easily when doing custom woodwork.

Let’s face it, if you are a professional woodworker, the most important thing is having and maintaining clients. I have had many different types of clients over the years. Some clients cut a check for the deposit and tell me to deliver it whenever it is ready with no stress or timetables requested (those are my favorite and usually when I do my best work). In a perfect world, every client would be laid-back in that manner. However, people have a range of various states of mind and so do clients. 

Some clients are very involved and need to be kept abreast of every single part of the process for their piece, some clients can be very anxious about timelines, and some like to change their mind about the piece during the build. I’m going to go over a few strategies and principles that have helped me over the years that might help you maintain client relationships. 

Start with a contract
The first strategy is simple: a high-quality, well-thought-out work contract. My work contract has changed over time from experiences that have showed me what was best for my business and my clients. 

Most people think of a contract as something to protect the clients. I have also found that a quality contract also serves well to protect me. A contract is a legally binding statement of what you are responsible for and when you are responsible for it. It should also lay out how those responsibilities can change in the event of material problems, medical emergencies, or clients changing their mind. 

The contract is useful for these purposes, because sometimes people can forget where the line is. I’m not saying this recommending you should be eternally rigid by never being flexible. I am suggesting always using contracts because life can happen, and people can do all kinds of things. It is wise to have something legally binding in writing. It should make everyone more comfortable. 

I use a contract with everyone, including close friends and family. I recommend you do some internet research on contract templates for woodworking or speak with an attorney who is experienced in contracts. I assure you it’s worth it and will pay off in many ways. 

Honesty and time
Another major principle I find vital to client relations is honesty. I know this sounds oversimplified and generic, but I have found that no matter how bad it could make me look, honesty always yields the best results. 

If I’m running behind on a workpiece, I will call the client and let them know instead of surprising them at the last second. If the workpiece isn’t going as planned and we need to make adjustments, I call them instead of trying to sort it all out by myself.
It is important to let people be involved and aware. This builds trust. However, I do not lean in the direction of keeping the clients abreast of every single nuance of the process and provide pictures throughout each part of it. That is not sustainable, and it sets the tone that I am available 24 hours a day. That’s not realistic to real life. I try to maintain office hours and business hours. This way my home life can be peaceful, and I can be genuinely present with my family. Maintaining a balanced personal life is an important part of succeeding. 

Keep your word
Another principle I find important in client relations is being impeccable with my word. Many clients when it is the first time commissioning me can be anxious. I completely understand because they are usually giving me a deposit that is a large sum of money — sometimes, without even shaking my hand or meeting me face-to-face.

I find it important, especially with first-time clients to be professional and deliver a product that exceeds any expectations they might have. I can’t typically ease that anxiety during the process, but it is usually relieved completely upon delivery. 

Most of my clients are repeat clients and many that were anxious during the first piece become very laid-back and easier to work with on the next commission because I earn their trust. 

Be patient
This brings me to my last principle, patience. Please remember that clients are people. We all have bad days, we all get stressed, and we all get impatient. Practicing patience with people will always work in your favor.

In the long term, it is important your clients find you to be approachable, reasonable, and easy to work with. Sometimes you are going to need to be flexible and make a few little changes to the piece without holding to the contract and up charging them. Sometimes you’re going to have to take that call after regular business hours because I have found that clients usually work during business hours as well. Sometimes, the only time they can talk is in their off time, so I encourage you to be patient and flexible to maintain good client relations. 

Still, you will eventually come across a client who will not be happy, no matter what you do. My suggestion there is to just let it go with class. As I always say, remember this is a marathon, and it is inevitable that the unhappy client will be part of your journey. It is better to part with integrity than to give in to needing to be right or angry. 

I’ve even gone as far as to refund a deposit that I was not contractually obligated to refund just for the sake of being able to cut ties peacefully without lingering problems or arguments. I have learned my peace of mind has value as well. Being flexible, understanding, and patient does not mean you should be a doormat. 

Not really your own boss
Lastly, I encourage you to always seek out the experience of other professionals when dealing with clients. Getting their perspective and experiences can help you navigate the difficulties that come with the person relations of working for people.  

I always laugh when someone says to me “it must be so nice to work for yourself, and set your own hours.” My response is typically “I don’t work for myself. I have a revolving door of bosses and they are all very different, but they all need to be happy with my services.” 

I have found this mindset to serve me best as I continually learn how to navigate the aspect of client relations as well. 

#YoungWoodPro is a contest and an educational program sponsored by Grizzly Industrial to help novice professionals improve their skills in business and woodworking.

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About the author
Matt Buell | President/Owner/C-Level

Matt Buell of M. Buell Studio the host of the 2023 #YoungWoodPro contest and lead coach for the people who make up the YoungWoodPro audience. Buell has achieved national acclaim for his custom furniture and was honored as a member of the Woodworking Network 40 Under 40 Class of 2018.