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 job!”

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 Northridge, Calif.

“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 work.”

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 itself.

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 want.”

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 women.”

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 says.  

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 you.”       

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.