He’d just finished reviewing with his clients — a
married couple — the upgrades they had requested for their
inground spa. The man of the house was far less enthused than his
wife over the project, which came with a $15,000 price tag.
“Absolutely not,” Cohen recalls his declaration.
“We’re not spending another dollar on this
But then something unexpected happened. It was a Friday evening,
and as the man’s wife walked Cohen to the door, she stopped
and, in a low voice, made a confident prediction.
“She said not to worry because on Monday she would call me
with the OK,” says the president of The Green Scene in
“When I asked her what she meant, she said it just depends on
whether he wants a good weekend or a bad weekend,” he adds.
“And on Monday I got the approval to go ahead with the
Though it played out like a segment from “The Real Housewives
of Los Angeles County,” Cohen’s experience illustrated
a common scenario among swimming pool contractors.
Disagreements between spouses have long plagued builders and
designers, who frequently find themselves in the middle of
potentially explosive episodes. And it can make for a thorny
situation when the ultimate goal is producing satisfied clients. In
examining the role of pool contractor as marriage counselor,
it’s important to identify what issues couples most often
clash over, as well as how to successfully mediate those disputes
before they have a chance to submarine the project.
The issues and why they arise
Travis Leonard’s clients have quarreled over everything from
automation controls to decking to the shape of the pool
And though men often will defer to their wives when it comes to
color, texture and materials, he says, the overall design is
usually what each side is after.
“Honestly, I relish those [disagreements],” says the
vice president of A&G Concrete Pools, a Pool & Spa News Top
Builder based in Ft. Pierce, Fla. “They allow me to get into
the psyche of the consumer. Once you do that, it’s easier to
understand where they’re both coming from and what they
In Seattle, where Jim Bergstrom has been selling pools for Aqua
Quip for 15 years, most disputes center around placement of the
pool. Secondary issues, such as landscaping or adding a spa, will
arise, but the vast majority involve how the vessel will be
situated, he says.
“Husbands and wives definitely will battle to the point where
it’s uncomfortable,” Bergstrom says. “Even over
minor issues. Some people are OK with letting those kinds of
emotions out in front of strangers.”
Cohen, who actually conducts seminars on the topic, notes that both
parties may agree, for example, on the element of fire in their
yard. But how that element is employed could become volatile.
“Both sides may think their idea is better, and they leave it
up to the expert to tell them who’s right and who’s
wrong, which isn’t always fair,” Cohen says.
Why, then, don’t couples discuss the options ahead of time,
before they sit down with the contractor?
Theories vary: Some say spouses just don’t make time in their
hectic lives to discuss such issues. Others say homeowners believe
those decisions are part of the contractor’s job — the
pool builder has all the answers, and after all, that’s what
we’re paying him/her for.
Still others maintain that homeowners simply aren’t trained
to research pools like they are cars, for example.
The battleground and how to navigate it
Not long ago, one of Brett MacNally’s pool projects was
delayed more than two months.
The bottleneck wasn’t due to common hurdles like financing or
weather, but rather to more delicate issues.
“The couple couldn’t decide if the vinyl-liner was
going to have purple in it, for the Vikings, or yellow and green
for the Packers,” says MacNally, co-owner of Performance Pool
& Spa in Woodbury, Minn., a Pool & Spa News Top Builder.
“This was an unbelievable battle between these two —
but the woman won in the end.”
In fact, according to most contractors, the fairer sex generally
emerges victorious when couples come to blows.
But Cohen notes that most salespeople in the pool industry are men.
And as such, they tend to seek common ground with other men over
installing, say, an outdoor television to watch sports, or a
kegerator to dispense cold beer.
“As sales people, we have to be careful not to do the typical
male thing, which is quickly bond with the other guy,” Cohen
says. “You can’t appear to take sides. And ultimately
you have to realize that most financial decisions are made by the
Indeed, “Don’t take sides” is perhaps the golden
rule when it comes to mediating disputes between couples, according
to multiple pool contractors. As Cohen notes, it’s a delicate
situation when each side believes their idea is better, or better
fits the property.
“You have to be a neutral party,” he says.
“It’s crucial that the man doesn’t feel ignored,
while at the same time his wife doesn’t feel like
you’re taking his side.
Sometimes he’ll employ a democratic process … with a
catch: While each party gets one vote, Cohen wields two,
“because I have two decades worth of experience,” he
Another strategy involves walking them through the practicalities
of the issues while explaining why one project feature may not work
as well as another. To do this, Cohen uses a proven technique
called Feel Felt Found.
The concept is to first empathize by telling the client that you
understand how they feel. Then, present a scenario where someone
else felt the same way. Finally, explain how that situation turned
out well when the previous client followed the advice that
you’re now giving the homeowner.
“It’s a negotiation tactic that allows you to turn
whatever is thrown your way into a positive,” Cohen says.
“You tell them, ‘I understand how you feel about having
an outdoor fireplace in the backyard, and a lot of my clients have
felt the same way. But what they’ve found is …’
So you’ve agreed with them — I know how you feel and
it’s a great idea — but you’re also conveying
that doing it my way is better.”
Part of building trust means making sure the customer feels
comfortable with the contractor.
To help arrive at that comfort level, Leonard and Cohen use a
technique known as pairing, or matching behaviors such as the
clients’ language, posture and breathing patterns.
Much as we tend to behave differently with our work associates than
we would with, say, close family friends, contractors should be
able to modify their own conduct — including nonverbal cues
— to suit individual clients, Cohen explains.
“If you pair yourself in similar ways, their mind sees you as
a friend,” he adds. “Then a lot of the hesitation and
discomfort goes away, and they can just open up to
The bottom line, industry veterans agree, is that the
contractor’s role is to create harmony — not just
within the backyard, but among the clients themselves.