Managing and Meeting Customer Expectations Through to the Final Inspection
Customers' expectations are best managed with clear communication. First establish what particular look the customer expects. The look is most often associated with grade. Most consumer calls to the NOFMA office have to do with how their floor has not met expectations for how it looks. We hear, "My flooring does not look like... the sample in the showroom, the photo on the web site, that photo in the magazine, my neighbor's floor, the other flooring in the home.... There are too many different colors, too many short pieces, too many knots, etc."
Where a customer compares one floor to another, the flooring professional should be sure to clarify what the comparator is in order to avoid later confusion.
Showroom samples and pictures can mislead the customer and not show enough of a range of characters to illustrate the variations that might be expected in the flooring. The customer should be informed that "equivalent characters" are expected and may not look like those in the sample/picture but are equivalent in value. There are also regional differences among flooring products.
Northern or Upland flooring generally has brighter color and a tighter grain than Southern or Lowland flooring, which has a greater color variation, and is generally harder and more dense. The contractor who discusses these issues in advance with the customer will avoid the potential for problems based on misunderstanding later on, when it becomes expensive to solve the problem.
Wood is infinitely variable; no two floors will ever be exactly alike. A customer's floor may have similarities to another floor but will be different from any other floor. Once expectations that correspond with flooring grade are established, other issues will be avoided by getting properly graded material. The correct grade is assured with NOFMA certified flooring. After all, NOFMA is the only organization that certifies flooring and stands behind that certification with plant inspection. And, if necessary, problems in the field can be resolved by a NOFMA site inspection.
Grain, color variations, checks or cracks in the wood, knots, streaks, stain, insect-produced holes and galleries, roughness along edges and ends, and machine-introduced irregularities are all associated with the appearance, determine the grade, and give the flooring individuality. Fewer, smaller, lighter blemishes and irregularities of the wood flooring normally equate to a more uniform appearance and thus a higher grade. More characters and variation generally means lower grades.
The expectation of a "perfect" floor is not realistic. An allowance is made for an occasional grading mistake; the industry accepted allowance is five percent of the footage. The wise contractor will identify these few mistakes prior to installation and will address them during installation by cutting them out or placing boards in inconspicuous places. Higher expectations generally mean a higher grade should be used, which means there will be a higher cost of materials and more precise installation and finishing operations that take more time will be necessary. It pays to address those expectations ahead of time, before a job is bid.
Customers also have pre-existing expectations for performance. Performance is normally associated with how the flooring wears and changes appearance over time. Good performance is ensured by correct installation and finishing technique. Do the job correctly!
Consumers calling the NOFMA office relate performance to changes in their floors. They talk about cupping, gaps, movement; noises- squeaks and creaks, finish easily scratching, finish peeling or chipping, splintering and splitting. What is their expectation and what is a realistic expectation? Again, wood flooring is a natural product and all wood products react and change with the seasonal variation. Proper manufactured moisture content for a minimal range of change is also assured by using NOFMA certified product. The customer should be informed of the expected normal changes such as gaps forming during winter heating or slight cupping of plank flooring in summer. A floor that is perfectly flat, completely noiseless (no squeaks and creaks), without seasonal gaps, without blemish, is an unrealistic expectation.
Expectations relating to the actual operations of installation, sanding and or finishing should be addressed before the project is started. These expectations are generally the easiest to modify and make realistic. And covering them in advance will allow the contractor to account for any extra work that will be required in the bid. The customer should be given the basic procedures, such as how long the job will take, and how soon after completion normal activities can proceed. Don't promise an accelerated time line you can't deliver and always give a range for completion. For those who are interested, NOFMA conducts a biannual flooring school for you to learn how to become a better wood flooring professional. If you haven't participated in one of the schools in the past, there is much you could learn.
After the customer's expectations have been defined and/or modified, and the job completed; inspection for acceptance is the next step. The NOFMA Standard for Inspection is reported in NOFMA's Finishing Hardwood Flooring technical service manual page 10 or www.nofma.org , Finishing Hardwood Flooring, Over-all Appearance-What to Expect: "Inspection should be done from a standing position with normal lighting. Glare particularly from large windows, magnifies any irregularity in the floors and should not determine acceptance.
The perimeter and hard to reach areas (i.e. under radiators, around cabinets and cabinet cut-outs, closets, corners, etc.) are most likely to contain these irregularities.
Again, when inspected from a standing positions these irregularities may be present but should not be prominent."
Corollaries to this basic finishing standard can apply to appearance and performance issues. The overall look of the floor should be consistent with the grade of the product purchased. The higher grades should have a mostly uniform appearance allowing for natural color variations. The lower grades will have prominent and wide color variations associated with all allowable characters in the flooring. Of course, a piece may get into the flooring that does not meet the grade, the floor does not fail with the occasional occurrence and is considered acceptable.
Some other issues which can be considered acceptable as an occasional occurrence include: close ends, "H" joints, cluster of short boards, over wood, gaps, un-square ends, unfilled face nail, unfilled open character, nailing frequency mistake, handling abuse, minor cupping, noises and movement etc. The key here is "occasional occurrence"-If these issues are prevalent it can be a problem. When inspected from a standing position these and similar items may be present in the floor but should not be prominent. Additional irregularities are allowed for closets and hidden areas.
Prominent features may require individual attention. A broken or split board with loose pieces, a board with open shake (separation along the grain), a planer bite at the end, a prominently dark board in a NOFMA Select floor; these prominent characters, particularly the unsound ones may require replacement. A single loose board or a noisy area can be face nailed for repair. For the repair to pass inspection, it should not be noticeable from the standing position. Hide face nails, make precise cuts for board replacement, protect the surrounding pieces to not bring attention to the area, fill openings and color-match filler, apply an additional coat over the entire room to cover the repaired area.
If after the job is completed the customer refuses to accept the floor, you can call for inspection and a written report by a NOFMA Certified Wood Flooring Inspector. This new NOFMA certification is the only program that provides extensive training for applying the standard to make fair and honest assessments of flooring problems. A NOFMA-certified inspector will provide an accurate assessment whether the problem is with installation, product quality or unrealistic customer expectations. For information on the NOFMA-CWFI program contact the NOFMA office.
Chances are, the need of a third party inspection will be avoided if you know what the customer expects in their floor at the outset.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! Educate the customer to realistic expectations. Do your very best work in high visibility areas. Do not give the customer a reason to crawl over the floor. Remember, inspection should be from a standing position. Be sure to protect yourself by using only NOFMA certified products and the NOFMA inspector; if you don't, you are on your own.