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NOBODY likes to break bad news to customers about the state of their chimney, their fire or stove – but sometimes you just have to do it.

Chimney sweeps will be fully aware of the type of problems which can be encountered when conducting a site survey before sweeping and there are many, many things which could require us to advise the customer.

The flue liner can be destroyed in parts or corroded, or too small for the stove. And the stove itself may have been fitted by a dodgy tradesman, not in compliance with installation regulations. Incorrect materials could also have been used for installs or remedial works, or not used properly. 

“We need to be careful in how we break bad news to customers,” advises Lawson Wight, Guild chairman.

“Sweeps see so many situations that it can be easy to ‘tell it as it is’. And forget the customer’s point of view.

“What I mean is that we want to inform the customer, but not frighten them.”

Lawson cited the example of new homeowners who are already under financial stress. The last thing they want to hear is that money needs to be spent to make their chimney safe to use.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t tell them – we definitely do. In fact, we have an absolute responsibility to inform them. But the way we use words matters.

“Think about an obese patient seeing a doctor. The doc who says, ‘you will die unless you lose weight’ will be less popular than a doctor who says, ‘you could die unless you lose weight but the good news is that we can provide treatment to stop that happening’.

“Very often customers have invested time, money and emotion in choosing their fire or stove. They may have used it without any perceived problem for months or years. It sits in their house as a piece of ‘living furniture’. If we wade in telling them it’s all rubbish and wrong the situation can deteriorate quickly, especially if it’s a new customer.”

Lawson said that it was important that correct terms were used when talking with consumers. It’s especially important that new chimney sweeps learn this aspect. For example, too often the term ‘illegal’ is used for problematic chimney and stove infrastructure – which is unnecessarily frightening for the customer. The correct term in such cases is ‘non-compliant’ because it refers to compliance rather than legality. Or perhaps ‘does not meet installation regulations / safety regulations’.

“I’d encourage our members to think about how they break bad news to the customer,” added Lawson. “In the first instance we are simply the messenger – delivering and recording the information. It’s not really our place to get too involved in our own opinion at this stage.

“We need to make sure people understand what’s gone wrong and how it might be fixed by presenting options as to how problems can be professionally remedied. Lastly you may then consider offering choices as to who might carry out any work.”

At the end of the day, we are passing on important safety advice, the better we communicate that advice, the more likely we’ll get a good result.