By Erin Golden
As any contractor knows, every client is different. Some want to be part of every decision you make on a project, no matter how small. Some prefer that you sort out all the details, while they step away and wait for you to produce a perfect finished product.
Regardless of how different clients might approach a project and their relationship with you, they do have a few things in common: They want the project to be done on time, within budget and according to specifications. If you want to stay in business, you must deliver on these expectations.
"Managing clients' expectations is one of the most important things that any general contractor has to do," says Clive Thurston, president of the Ontario General Contractors Association. "Expectations usually exceed budget, and that is always a challenge for us-to find a way to deliver what a (customer) wants for what they're willing to pay."
What is the key to happy customers? From the outset of the project, make sure you clearly understand expectations, and make sure everyone else involved in the project does, too.
Set up a meeting with the entire team-architects, interior designers, sub-contractors and anyone else who will play a major role in the project-and draft a comprehensive plan that covers all stages of the project.
General contractor Eric Owen, owner of The Better Living Solutions Group in Ottawa, says he meets with clients early in a project and talks through a general timeline, explaining each step in the process. He'll walk the client through everything from demolition on a remodel to initial, rough framing work, inspections and finish work, so nothing is a surprise. If there are bumps in the road, Owen and the client both understand the potential impact they could have on the project's timeline.
"The more the customer knows about what's going on, the easier it is to manage those situations," Owen says.
Communication is critical not only at the front end of a project, but throughout its entirety. Your clients will be excited to see their project become a reality, but it's important to be realistic and clue them in on the actual time it takes to build something, whether it's a new deck or a $1 million home. Many owners set unrealistic time schedules because they have not worked closely enough with the designer, consultant or builder, Thurston says.
"If a client requests an expedited project, give them an upfront and honest assessment. If you've got too many projects going on simultaneously, an accelerated deadline simply might not be possible. Of course, you might be able to pick up the pace, but the customer must be willing to adjust the budget.
Don't wait around for the customer to check in on the project's progress. Providing project updates can help clients feel like they're involved and part of the team.
These updates are particularly important when you're at a stage in the project when progress isn't always visible to the client, Thurston says. A new homeowner might not understand the time required for a relatively small element of the project.
"It's important that any contractor make sure they're regularly talking to the client, giving them updates on how the work is proceeding so they're not surprised," Thurston says.
To stay on top of various project deadlines for all your clients, you can look to software or Web-based project-management programs that keep tabs on orders, appointments and other crucial dates and information. For large projects, such as a kitchen remodel, Owen's company uses Microsoft Project and other home-building software.
These tools can keep you on track when you face project setbacks, such as inclement weather and late shipments. When these things occur, it's important to keep your customers in the loop, regardless of whether the setback will push the project back a few weeks, or only a few days.
Owen recalled one series of projects that overlapped for myriad reasons. His team tried to keep pace, but he ultimately had to tell the customers it wouldn't be possible to meet their timelines. Now, he wishes he'd had those conversations much earlier in the process.
"In hindsight, it might have been an hour of pain that would have saved me months of pain," he says.