The Customer Thinks You Charged Too Much. What Happens Next?

Blindsided by an angry homeowner’s ultimatum, Pennsylvania pumper Philip Renno searches for a solution he can live with.

The Customer Thinks You Charged Too Much. What Happens Next?

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You know the feeling in the pit of your stomach when a customer calls to complain about your bill? The customer’s voice is raised on edge; he or she might toss in a few curse words for good measure. This catches you by surprise, and for a moment you are tongue-tied and unsure how to respond.

This isn’t the type of call you receive often. In fact, most of your customers love you and wouldn’t think about questioning your bill or your business ethics. You’re a straight shooter and an honest business owner in your community. So in the face of heated — maybe we can say irrational — criticism, you’re inclination may be to apologize, waffle, even make a knee-jerk offer to reduce your bill.

Philip Renno was still reeling from such a call when he left a voicemail message for me. He said he was grasping at straws, looking for advice about how to handle his irate customer and realizing he might have made the situation worse by his initial responses that sent mixed signals and infuriated the customer even more.

While I’m not a pumper out in the field dealing with unhappy customers, I wanted to hear Renno’s story and reassure him if I could. And the Pumper community might be able to learn something from his experience. When I called him back, I learned Renno, 41, grew up on a dairy farm and has operated Renno’s Custom Spreading & Septic Service in McVeytown, Pennsylvania, for 15 years.


As is probably often the case in these circumstances, Renno described a convoluted situation involving several people and probably a good deal of misunderstanding on the customer side of the service call.

Renno was called by the homeowner to clear an obstructed graywater drain. When he arrived, he was dealing with the owner’s wife. This wasn’t their home, but a home they rented out to a relative. The relative’s girlfriend was on site and paid the bill of $775.

The job required six hours of Renno’s labor, three hours use of his Water Cannon Inc. - MWBE jetter and two hours use of his vacuum truck with 1,200 cfm blower and 5,000-gallon tank (built for the agriculture industry). The long discharge pipe was filled with thick sludge, and the blockage was eventually traced to a large root intrusion.

As Renno was working, the owner’s wife was frantically authorizing him to do whatever was necessary to fix the problem. She was happy when he finally produced the stringy root mass, and the girlfriend of the tenant paid the bill without question. Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of it. The relative/tenant arrived home, heard about the bill and complained to the homeowner. The homeowner then chewed out Renno.

“It just almost shocked me out of my boots. I don’t like people upset with me. … He really laid into me,” a still-shaken Renno said. “If someone is not happy with me, I can’t stand it and will do what it takes to make it right.”


The property owner thought Renno’s hourly rate for manpower and equipment was way out of line, and told Renno he could rent a jetter and vacuum truck and pay someone else to do the work necessary for far less money. Hmmm. That doesn’t seem plausible, or rational, but that’s not the point. The point is the customer was lathered up and spouting off.

“He said, ‘Look, you cash that check and you’re never doing any business with me or my family again.’ … I’ve had people hot with me before, but lots of times they’ll calm down if I give them a little time,” Renno said.

Looking back, Renno says he believes he made two mistakes:

  • Not pausing at some point to explain that this job was more complicated and costly than usual. “The bad part was the owner was not present on the job and the relative said, ‘Get it done,’” Renno says. “At some point two or three hours into the project, I should have discussed the price or other options.”
  • Falling victim to clumsy communication. Surprised by the irate customer, Renno went too far in trying to satisfy the customer by talking about lowering the price. Then a half hour later, after realizing he couldn’t discount his bill without being underpaid for his labor and his equipment costs, he texted that to the customer. He says the mixed messages made the situation worse.


Renno thought long and hard about his next step. He even consulted the deacon at his church about how to react to a hostile customer.

On one hand, if he cashed the check for the full price, he would get paid what he felt was fair, but lose a customer who he’d pumped several tanks for over the past five years. The irate customer is a prominent person in the community who could also tell his friends and family to no longer use Renno’s services, which could have a detrimental impact on his business.

On the other hand, he could negotiate a lower price and not be paid adequately for his service. But doing that devalues the important hard work of pumpers who invest so much time and money in training and equipment. Success in this and any small business depends on doing a good job and ensuring you turn a profit. By lowering the price, he may keep this customer, but one might argue whether keeping a customer like this is a good thing.

Renno decided to take a different approach. He planned to write a note justifying the charges on the itemized bill and returning the uncashed check for the work. He says protecting his reputation is worth more than what any one customer is going to pay him.

“You (send a check) for the amount you’re happy with and I’m sorry for the misunderstanding,” Renno would say in the note. “Some people would say I’m admitting I did something wrong by giving him a break, but I don’t feel that way. I’m leaving the choice up to him. I feel that’s the best way.”


Ask 10 pumpers their strategy for dealing with a customer complaining about a bill and you may get 10 different answers. I’m not sure how many would go along with Renno’s unconventional solution. I didn’t offer him any specific advice but said I would share the story with readers and ask how they approach irate customers.

But I did leave him with one observation: It’s unfortunate and unfair and it seems unjustified for consumers to assume they can bargain for services rendered by a pumper. Do you think most folks try to knock money off a bill for work by other home services provides such as a plumber, an electrician or a HVAC installer?


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