12 top tips for spotting cowboy customers

12 top tips for spotting cowboy customers

Mica May from Stopcocks gives us the lowdown on what might set alarm bells ringing.

At Stopcocks Women Plumbers, our longest serving plumber has almost 30 years’ experience. In that time, she and our other plumbers have come across some cowboy customers – though there have been a few cowgirls too.

These tips are things to look out for in a first phone call and during a job; sometimes one thing will jump out – so if a customer gives you the creeps just make your excuses and get out. Trust your instincts.

Other times everything will start off seeming fine and small signposts will raise your awareness, making you look out for more. In that case it’s probably best to look for ‘clusters’ of several of these things coming up together.

The majority of our customers at Stopcocks are a total joy to work with, but we have a suspicion that deliberate con artists and bullies probably target tradeswomen (which is definitely something we provide support and backup around to our franchisees). However, men are by no means exempt, as research by AXA shows.

We’ve had a ‘dream’ customer turn nasty right at the end of a job, a customer who wanted one of our plumbers to work shut in a loft with no ladder to get out, several (male and female) who’ve come on to or inappropriately touched our plumbers and, of course, customers who want to play games with the price. In most of these instances we step in and support or negotiate on behalf of our plumbers – it’s often easier for someone not directly involved to deal with these kinds of situations.

Warning signs
Do they tell you about several plumbers starting but not finishing work on their property?
Lots of our customers have a terrible tale of woe about what’s happened with previous plumbers and they get a sympathetic ear in our office because we know it happens. Cowboy customers tend to see themselves as victims and may have an unusually long list of people – not just plumbers – who’ve done them wrong.

Do they keep changing their mind?
Of course customers change their minds. People who don’t know or understand their options will need information to help them decide what they want. But we encountered one customer who’d taken over two years on their conversion because they just kept changing their mind and ripping everything out. This ‘perfectionism’ was costing them a fortune and ultimately affecting the quality of finish by putting everything out of order for the job to be done to the standard they wanted.

Do they give you the creeps?
Where is this on a scale of 1-10? Anything worse than a 7, just get out. Trust yourself.

Do they try to beat you down?
We know customers expect to haggle with us although they’d never do that in a supermarket; haggling is usual when buying cars, houses and skilled trades. There comes point, though, where the haggle isn’t reasonable and you start to feel resentful. Once past this point, you’re never going to feel right about working for them… but also they’re not going to stop. If you really do feel like a customer wants you to cut your own throat, you’ll have no option but to rush, which will affect the quality of your work and ultimately your reputation. Walk away, the customer will always be able to find someone cheaper. This is something we find some of our newer plumbers often really struggle with.

Do they insist they know better?
We get plenty of customers who like to show what they know, but there are some who don’t respect expertise or qualifications. You’ll never be able to please them.

Do they insist on cheap materials?
Keeping costs to a minimum is one thing but if they are insisting on the cheapest, they probably won’t want to pay you what you’re worth. If you’ve been clear from the beginning about costs the last thing you want is to complete the work and have them beating you down at this point.

Do they stand too close?
It’s creepy and could well be a sign they’re going to want more than just your plumbing expertise!

Are their requests reasonable?
Of course this is always going to be up to you – reasonableness is in the eye of the beholder after all – but this can include unrealistic expectations around the times you work or the time it will take to complete the job, or maybe they have a very tight window of availability or want you to go round immediately for something non-emergency.

Are they too nice?
We’ve had customers who ‘kill us with kindness’, feeding us so much cake we don’t have time to plumb. In itself this is harmless but you will want to get the job done and on to the next one. Also they may be subtly letting you know they’re interested in more than just your plumbing skills, or could use the time you spent eating cake against you. Refuse cake – or other over the top ‘kind’ acts that feel too much!

Are they horrible?
No one should have to work for people who are nasty to them.

Are they exceptionally picky?
An eye for detail and high standards is one thing, but there are some people you can simply never please, so be very careful with this one.

Is the house filthy?
Like working for someone who’s nasty to you, no one should have to work in filth or unsanitary conditions. Our plumbers have been known to clean a bathroom before starting work in it, but this shouldn’t ever be necessary.

Damage limitation
Women plumbers who join us as Stopcocks franchisees get these tips and our full support to help them spot the cowboys early. Of course, some cowboys and girls are great at camouflage and do manage to get through. It’s just not possible to see every trickster coming, even with eyes wide open.

We help to protect our plumbers with contracts as part of our backup and recommend them in these nine damage limitation tips:

  • Insist on a contract
  • Get each day’s (or week’s) work signed off
  • Get interim payments
  • Have terms and conditions for customers
  • Take photos of your work (including before and after, possibly even daily)
  • Have someone else know where you are
  • Have someone else to back you up
  • If there’s a problem, let someone know immediately and write it up
  • Get customers to respond to a text if you need written agreement quickly – and keep it!

Check out what we do to support our plumbers at

Related posts