Contractor’s Corner: Dealing with product complaints and mill tolerances - Feb 2019

By Dave Stafford

The real successes of an installation don’t always have to do with the actual products and the end result. Along the way, there will be challenges, and the success lies in how you cope.

The screaming started as soon as I picked up the phone. “I waited eight weeks for this? Tell me how you’re going to fix this disaster!” Jim, the project designer, was usually pretty wound up, but today was exceptional, even for him. I finally got him calmed down enough to get the specific details.

The first thing to do when there is a product complaint is to defuse the anger and frustration of your client by listening and giving assurance that you can make things better. In spite of their shouting, don’t take it personally. It is all in how you handle it through managing expectations, working between both the mill rep and the client-and how to deal with legal issues, should it come to that.

MANAGING EXPECTATIONS
Managing expectations means having to do a preliminary diagnosis, much like a doctor’s intake exam. Where does it hurt? How long has it been hurting? What is the pain level on a scale of one to ten? And so forth. In the case of flooring, is this a visual issue or one of safety? How widespread is the problem; is it systemic or localized to a specific section or area? And is this clearly a product issue or one of installation? The sooner you are able to get past the shouting, the quicker you’re able to get to a possible solution. After all, that’s what everyone wants-a solution and for the problem to go away.

After an on-site inspection with Jim, I agreed there was a problem and let him know I had contacted the mill rep to request a technical inspection. In this illustration, the interior designer’s complaint about carpet was not safety but a visual problem. There were two issues. The color was way off, and the carpet pattern itself elongated and seemed to generate visual waves when viewed across the carpet’s length and width. Fortunately, Jim had a cutting from the mill that was to be a control sample. When compared under existing lighting, the coloring was more of a dirty green rather than a blue palette. During the stretch-in installation, pattern matching had been done, but the pattern run-off had not been adjusted prior to seaming. The result was a severe waviness that was disconcerting.

The mill’s inspection determined there was a defective yarn bundle that resulted in color change well outside mill parameters; however, there was no defect in the carpet construction and the pattern was within mill tolerances. The mill would either replace the carpet or provide a credit. We gave Jim a choice-accept a mill credit and keep the carpet or have replacement carpet delivered in seven days. He didn’t want a credit since, “I’d be gnashing my teeth over this every day.” So we successfully installed the new carpet and modified our installation of that pattern.

BEING A SUCCESSFUL MIDDLEMAN
Working with the client and the mill frequently puts you in the position of middleman, keeping order for all. This is especially trying when the mill says there is “nothing wrong with the product…it is within mill tolerances.”

Once, to a senior tech rep who said this, I jokingly replied, “Is that my ‘tolerance’ or yours we’re talking about?” I got a frigid look, and he said, “This is a man-made product; we’re not going to be perfect. It is what we call ‘commercially acceptable,’ okay?” He had trouble defining that, too.

Suffice it to say that a flaw or defect, especially one that is not significant or does not impact performance, may be within mill standards. It will be up to you to guide your client along a reasonable path. What will be absolutely unacceptable to a residential homeowner may be okay with a commercial client.

Mary Jane ordered a linoleum tile for her newly remodeled kitchen area but was incensed with the amount of pattern and color variation after it was installed. The mill rep inspected and said the variation was within mill tolerance. I thought Mary Jane was going to have a stroke on the spot! She then countered with, “Here is a picture from your own literature… that’s why I picked it, and please notice the lack of variation shown.”

The mill rep replied, “Well, uh, I see what you mean, so let me check, and I’ll get back to your dealer.” After leaving Mary Jane, the mill rep admitted that there was a lot of color variation but said, “Your installer should have mixed up the boxes better to avoid this ‘shade’ issue. Tell you what, I’ll offer a ‘customer appreciation credit,’ so you can figure it out. I’ll even replace the product at 40% of cost.”

I went back to Mary Jane and said we would replace the tile with the understanding that “there are always going to be variances in the product,” and that’s what we did, with Mary Jane standing over the installer the entire time asking that certain tiles be moved around to “better reflect the visual harmony of the space.”

Contrast that experience with a large open commercial space that was being converted for a government agency tenant. The owner was on a tight budget and had selected a solid color 36-ounce commercial cut pile for direct gluedown. Though continuous dyed, the side match color variation was abysmal, even though the rolls were installed in proper sequence. The mill rep looked at the job and offered a large credit or feather dyeing to fix the problem. The facility manager had not yet complained; with my heart in my throat, I mentioned the color variances to him. “Yeah, it does look like a patchwork quilt, doesn’t it? Hell, don’t worry about it, we’re going to cover it up with work cubicles anyway. Nobody will ever notice.” Breathing a sigh of relief, I quickly let the mill rep know we would just take a credit in lieu of onsite dyeing.

The most critical step is keeping in touch with your client with a progress report while mill procedures are followed. The client is going to get anxious and want to know what’s happening with their claim. If you receive a phone call with a preliminary report and an adverse outcome, you should prepare your client with a quick phone call. That will also help you gauge how receptive he might be to a discount to live with a defect.

Unfortunately, not all claims are handled quickly and can be “slow-rolled” to duck the liability. I have found this most often with smaller mills faced with a clear case of defective manufacturing and significant dollars for replacement. In one case, some 6,000 yards of carpet was installed in corridors, and the client was very happy until it started raining. “Dave, I swear the carpet looks like it’s bleeding! My owners are tracking red stains into their unit; looks like someone stepped in blood. You ought to see Ms. Myers’ white carpet.” I ended up seeing Ms. Myers’ and a lot of other condo owners and their corridors.

I got a lukewarm response from the sales rep who referred me to mill customer service. While I was prepared with our order number, roll numbers and a description of the problem, I was not prepared for their lackadaisical response. “It does sound like there might be a problem [really???], so we’ll have our technical expert take a look.” When pushed, they admitted they out-sourced this service. The only break for us was their expert had a stellar reputation and impeccable credentials. He did a detailed inspection, and his written report outlined a “crocking issue where one yarn end [red] was not color set, and the dye released when exposed to moisture [and I am oversimplifying].” It was a clear case of a mill defect during the yarn dyeing process.

Then the dancing began.

I was sent up and down the mill hierarchy trying to get resolution, all the while fielding almost daily phone calls from the client. After several weeks and escalating threats to sue, we finally got a written agreement to “replace all carpet and pay for take up, disposal, new carpet and installation.” This one is still on my top ten list in terms of aggravating claims.

FIRST STEPS WHEN PROBLEMS OCCUR
The mill rep is an integral part of product complaints, mill tolerance explanations and final resolution for you and your client. A knowledgeable mill rep with a solid reputation knows how to get things done and will serve you well. Your first phone call should be to him when there is an inkling of a problem. Have the order specifics in front of you when you call, since you may have to leave a message. State your purchase order, mill reference numbers, date of delivery, mill invoice numbers and a succinct description of the problem.

It is also true that taking care of product problems are a matter of negotiation. The amount of credit or correction in the field will usually depend upon how loud the client is screaming, the amount of business you do with the mill and what is actually possible.

When you have a more serious issue with a defect related to overall product performance and big liability, it may also be prudent to call an independent flooring inspector. As good as a mill tech rep may be, he is still being paid by the mill and may not be as forthcoming as someone completely independent.

Over the years, I have used a number of technical inspectors. I hope you will take the following suggestions to heart: use an inspector with specific expertise within the flooring segment where you have the problem; check out their references and ask around about them; ask for a copy of their detailed professional experience including their certifications. Since you will be paying directly for their consultation, ask about their rates, how it’s calculated, minimums, retainer fees and expenses. Do they have any experience in going to court as an expert witness? Are they known for being a “straight arrow”? The inspector must be a proficient writer, able to clearly express his findings; a certain amount of tact is okay, of course.

Legal issues and big dollar claims may be in your future. The good news is this unhappy state may be minimized by how quickly you jump on each complaint. It is crucial that you train your personnel to ask for help when confronted with a problem. The natural tendency is to ignore or minimize a problem, hoping it will just go away or resolve itself. That approach rarely works and makes what could have been simple expensive and complex.

THINGS TO REMEMBER
Here are some tips to keep you out of hot water and a legal morass. How serious is the product defect, and is it correctable by the mill or through installation excellence? A candid conversation with your mill rep will solve a great many problems. Keep your client in the loop while the mill makes a decision. Maintain contacts or even a retainer relationship with a high caliber independent inspector, just in case. If you have to hire an inspector, be very clear on what you want inspected and where; there may be unrelated deficiencies in other areas. Do everything you can to avoid a legal solution; better a settlement of $7,000 than $50,000 in legal bills, even if you’re right. As one lawyer said to me, “Just remember, it doesn’t cost me anything to sue you; you’ll pay at least $10,000 to fight this.”

Finally, give the mill the benefit of the doubt. They’re really not out to get you. They manufacture products every day; you don’t. Be reasonable and look for a solution that will work for you, your client and them. That way, everyone wins.

Copyright 2019 Floor Focus