Cracked tiles are removed and the mortar and tile are sent in for inspection, while the substrate is examined for possible failure.

An old tile contractor once told me that the minute the phone rang with a customer complaint, he might as well open up his wallet and start throwing dollar bills onto the street. “It doesn’t matter what the problem is, it is still going to cost me money,” he moaned.

Years later, I think about this statement every time I get involved in a dispute related to installation. There is merit to his statement. However, like many business related subjects, if handled properly and expediently, complaints can swiftly move from the expense side to the income side of your financial statement. 

On the surface, this sounds like a ridiculous statement, yet it is a factual one. The company that approaches customer complaints as business opportunities instead of a natural disaster is creating a roadmap to success. A policy must be established outlining the process to be followed when a complaint is logged.

At times, the problems on an installation can be more complex and may require experts from other industries. Here, the wood assembly is examined for possible code violations.

Perhaps the most important reason for developing a complaint policy is creating a paperwork trail documenting the dialogue that takes place between all parties involved. The form should include as much information as possible, including all products used in the installation. The client needs to be reassured the goal is to resolve the problem quickly.

An initial meeting and inspection should take place between the installation company and the client. This is where the client has an opportunity to explain the problem, and the contractor can thoroughly inspect the area of concern. They should have with them a quality camera to take numerous pictures of the area. This is not the time to get into arguments with the client. The client needs reassurance and a thorough explanation of how the process will commence after the inspection.

There are many reasons why a product may not be meeting the expectations of the client. Installation error, faulty workmanship by other trades, defective product, or inappropriate product selection for the area can be common causes for installation failure.

Once the problem has been determined, it’s important to find out everything you possibly can about the area in question. Common installation complaints on grout discoloration, or staining of the tile or natural stone, can be related to types of cleaning products, as an example. It's at this time that you leave the project and reschedule a visit where all necessary parties can be present.

Prior to arriving at the project with representatives from the product(s) manufacturers, a report in writing should be submitted to the client with the results of the initial inspection. This report should be provided to all who will be present in the second meeting, if a second meeting is required. For example, if an installation only had one or two cracked tiles, a repair could be scheduled, whereby the tile is removed and photos are taken of the substrate to determine if a problem exists. If none is found, the tile could be re-installed and no other parties would have to get involved. Or, a preventive remedy could be proposed, such as applying a crack isolation membrane over the area to prevent the crack from re-occurring.

It may be necessary at times to have the tile and the thinset mortar tested by the manufacturer. The distributor or supplier of the tile and stone should be involved in this process. The client should be informed that the process takes time and clear communication from the onset is imperative. A report should be given back to the client with the results of the finding. This can be a process of elimination. It is all about communication. If the client knows you are serious about resolving the issue, then they are more likely to be patient with you as you go about determining the real cause and finding the solution.

Many problems can be complex and the need may arise where experts are consulted to help determine the cause. This can be costly and should only be pursued after all responsible parties have agreed to do so. The costs should be discussed prior to the hiring of such independent third parties, and a payment plan based on the findings of the consultants should be outlined and addressed. For example, if the problem is determined to be related to workmanship other than the tile installer, it would be improper to ask them to perform work without being paid for it. Conversely, if installation error is detected, the tile contractor would be responsible for the repairs and possibly, the third party inspection and costs. The key here is for all parties to be reasonable. You are a team of experts who are committed to determining the source of the problem. You are not adversaries.

There are also times when the client has an unrealistic expectation for the product to perform. This can be a tricky situation. As gracefully as possible, communicate to the client, in writing, the results of the inspection. This includes the manufacturer reports that claim the product is performing as it is intended and that the installation was performed according to the standards of the tile and stone industry. All reasonable efforts should be made to satisfy the client, but there are times when it just does not work out this way. You should be able to sleep well at night if you know that ethically you handled this situation the way you would expect to be treated in your own home.

The most important thing about complaints is to minimize them from the beginning. This entails utilizing your employees for the scope of the work they are trained to do. Helpers should not be allowed to install tile until they are ready, no matter how busy the schedule may be. At all times your superintendents or jobsite supervisors should ensure that the crews are following ANSI standards for proper installation. It is also your responsibility, to the best of your ability, to ensure that the floor or wall you are installing on is suitable for ceramic tile or natural stone. Full knowledge of the TCNA Handbook is imperative.

As the contractor, it is your duty to hold all parties responsible on following through on their reports and to not let the process break down. It is also your responsibility to consistently keep the client in the communication loop. They need to be reassured that you care about the project and there is no greater feeling in the world when the resolution of these situations takes place.

Builders and general contractors who have subcontractors who handle job complaints professionally and expediently are highly likely to continue that relationship in the future. It is not always about price. Quality of workmanship and professionalism do come into play, and can be the difference between retaining customers or constantly being forced to find new ones. Satisfied homeowners are a contractor’s best reference. Unhappy ones can be your biggest headache. No one wants the call when a problem has been identified. But an organized, professional with a proactive approach is the only way to turn these potentially costly dilemmas into future business opportunities and profit.