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The friend who gave me my start in construction once told me that if he had to, he could build a house using only a hammer. But there’s an even more remarkable construction tool available to builders, and it’s one you can’t get from Stanley or Bostich. It’s called "effective communication."   My investment in acquiring good communication skills has returned impressive dividends. Because I communicate well, I can usually catch problems while they are small and manageable, and my customers tend to develop fewer unrealistic expectations. Surprises occur less often and jobs run more smoothly, making my life as a contractor easier.

  

In my experience, opportunities to establish and maintain effective communication with clients occur at seven critical points:

• early contacts

• contract signing

• preconstruction conference

• weekly site meetings

• payment collections

• punchlist procedures

• post-job relations

Early Contacts

My first contact with a client is usually over the phone, but I’m rarely able to evaluate any proposed work without visiting the site. Site visits take time, however, so when a prospect first calls my office, I collect as much information as I can about both the job and the clients. I follow a preset list of questions on a standard form, which I use to "qualify" the caller and to help me decide whether I want to pursue the lead further (see "Selecting Quality Customers: The Art of Prequalification," 2/95). If the job sounds promising, I arrange to meet with the prospect. During this initial face-to-face meeting (we usually meet at the prospect’s home, because most of my work is remodeling), I have four major goals:

• to find out exactly what the customer wants and what he or she

   can afford

• to set myself apart from other contractors bidding the job

• to begin building trust

• to identify and avoid problem customers At this stage, I use my professionalism to set myself apart from other contractors who may be bidding the job. I wear work clothes, for example, to convey the image of a "hands-on contractor," but they’re clean and neat. I also watch my body language, and I try not to talk too much.

Careful listening.

To find out what the prospect wants, I ask open-ended questions about the proposed work. If they want a family room addition, for example, I’ll ask them how they plan to use the room and where those activities currently take place. If it’s a bedroom remodel, I’ll ask them what kind of furniture they plan to use or whether a proposed closet will be large enough. I want them to talk about the features and benefits they’re most interested in, and if they have magazine clippings or photos to illustrate their ideas, I want to see them. Anyone can ask for a "kitchen" or a "family room," but those are imprecise descriptions that don’t really help me to build what my clients want. By allowing the homeowners to talk about their plans, I not only get a good feel for how well we will be able to work together, but I can often discover a hidden agenda that could lead to problems down the road. A proposed kitchen remodel, for instance, may be motivated by a real need for a more efficient space, but it may also spring from boredom or from a long-standing desire to build the "dream kitchen." In the first case, my work will usually meet the homeowner’s needs; in either of the other situations, however, I may never be able to satisfy them and may be better off declining the work.

Budget.

To evaluate the job fully and to gauge expectations, I need to ask the homeowners how much money they plan to spend. Some people will tell me; others will talk about a "range" rather than a specific number. For those customers who refuse to budge, I won’t waste my time pricing their job. If the projected budget is too low, I can begin to educate them about the real costs of construction and explore their willingness to change the scope of the project. I also like to spend some time educating the prospects on how they can get what they want. At this point, it’s a matter of briefly explaining product options and design features and drawbacks. If the client already has blueprints, we may go over them and make minor modifications, discussing the advantages of tile instead of laminate, or why a light fixture should be moved. But at this first meeting, I’m careful not to overwhelm the client with details.

Building trust.

Everything I do during the initial meeting, from arriving on time to listening attentively to what the homeowners have to say, contributes to building trust and confidence. I’m careful to treat their ideas with respect, and I try to defuse any awkwardness with a little humor. I’ve found that evening or weekend meetings are less successful, because everyone is either tired from the day’s work or anxious to get to other planned activities, so I try to schedule all of my appointments for regular working hours. Early morning works best, because everyone is fresher and clients can’t drag the meeting out if they’re on the way to work.

Red flags.

The final goal of this first meeting is to make sure that I am not selling myself to a potential problem customer. Obvious red flags are indecisiveness, fighting between spouses, and fixation on insignificant details. When I think I’m dealing with a problem customer, I politely excuse myself and recommend a competitor as I move towards the door. I follow up all meetings or discussions with a memo to the client recapping our discussion, carefully noting any changes, conflicts, decisions, and future actions. This verifies a "meeting of the minds" and it confirms that we were communicating and not merely talking at each other.