Canadian Contractor

Steve Payne   

Blast from the Past: Frank Cohn's famous Clients From Hell column

Canadian Contractor Business

"She's bought her first house, and she wants to play Martha Stewart. Unfortunately, she has the budget of Wilma Flintstone."

Editor’s Note:  Below, back by popular request, the legendary “Clients From Hell” column (Canadian Contractor 2002) written by our friend and veteran Mississauga, ON renovator Frank Cohn (host of the Home Improvement Show on Newstalk 10101, Saturday mornings).  I’ve been promising to rerun Frank’s masterpiece for a while, since people still mention it to me, 12 years later (!!!) and finally found the time…  


By Frank Cohn

Over the 33 years of my working life in the contracting industry, I have compiled a list of people I won’t work for (I’ve heard them called “diseased clients”). The amazing thing is when I ask other contractors who is on their list, more often than not, it matches mine. Here’s my partial list for you to compare.

  1. LAWYERS (first on the list for a reason). After we finished decorating one lawyer’s office, he said to me how great it all looked. Then, when presented with the bill for the agreed amount, he looked me right in the face and told me he wouldn’t pay. Take me to court, he said. I did, and it cost him double.
  1. ARCHITECTS. Most architects I’ve worked for were more interested in their drawings than their clients. And when problems arose from their mistakes, more often that not it’s the contractor who ends up eating part, if not all, of the costs. Then there’s the architect who wanted me to kick back 10 per cent of the job. My solution? I informed the client and told her I would not deal with the architect, but with her if she wanted me to do the work. I got the job, and he didn’t get his kickback.
  1. INTERIOR DECORATORS AND DESIGNERS. They drive me nuts. They have little sense of what needs to go on behind their Architectural Digest drawings. Load-bearing walls can just disappear with some white-out, and so what if you have to drill 3-1/2” holes through the floor joists to move the toilet? And like the architects, the old “kickback” pops up again and again.
  1. TEACHERS. Teachers are great people, but they’ll either sink you in a sea of paperwork or else drive you nuts when every decision to be made is an effort. They are more of a mental drain than a cash drain, and if you’re not careful, they will eat up hours of time in consultations. When dealing with teachers, I rarely go in with a fixed price.
  1. SINGLE WOMEN. She’s bought her first house, and she wants to play Martha Stewart. Unfortunately, she has the budget of Wilma Flintstone. You feel sorry for her, and business is slow, so you give her a break and take the job to keep everyone working. The first day, you enter the house to find 8” x 10” paper notes taped all over the house. She doesn’t want “strangers” using the only bathroom. She reminds you not to let the cat out and expects you to vacuum and dust every day when you’re finished. And, oh yes, she’ll be taking three months off work so she can supervise. She can’t make decisions without consulting everyone she knows first. You end up doing countless extras for nothing,. The only hope is that you have some sanity left after losing your shirt.
  1. PEOPLE WITH TOO MUCH MONEY. Customers who have money intend to keep it. All of it. They will nickel and dime you to keep it. They’ll spend a fortune on architects and designers, will buy the finest and most expensive of materials, and then hoard every nickel as we contractors put it together. I have lost more jobs with this group than any other because of price or because I don’t jump high enough when they snap their fingers.

Are there exceptions? Of course. I have worked for clients in this list who are fabulous. But my best customers are middle class. They are hard working people who appreciate that contractors need to make a living, too. They treat us with respect.

To succeed in this business, you have to know what you are doing and do it well. And you need to pick your clients carefully.

Frank Cohn can be heard Saturday mornings on Newstalk 1010 Radio (Toronto ) where he is the outspoken host, with an encyclopedic knowledge of home renovations and repairs, of The Home Improvement Show.



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3 Comments » for Blast from the Past: Frank Cohn's famous Clients From Hell column
  1. ted says:

    Its great hearing Frank’s stories, since I have experienced them also over the last 30 years.

  2. Marten Burghgraef says:

    There are certain ethnic races I will not work for. Don’t want to mention names but they tend to find someone to do the work for 1/2 price, normally getting 1/2 quality or 1/2 work as well. The other ones I watch out for are the ones that as for their share of “contractor” discounts. They will buy the material using my name so they get the discount.

  3. Gord Benner says:

    Good afternoon,
    I have some stories on “Products From Hell” that I ran into when I was having my house built.
    I believe these stories may fall into one of two categories:
    Frank Cohn will be very interested to hear about them, or
    Frank will not want to “rock the boat” and will want to maintain the status quo as he goes about his business.
    I hope he chooses the former.
    If you would like to give me an email address that will ultimately reach Mr. Cohn, I can send photos and a brief summary for each of the incidents.

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