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The Contract

The contract-signing phase is what really sets the stage for the entire job. The contract must be clear on the scope of work, all specifications, and the payment schedule. Along with photos and references from past jobs, I keep standard contracts and change orders in my portfolio. I don’t read every word of every document with my clients, but I will point out the most important sections to help eliminate any gray areas. The clients will never be more flexible than at the contract signing, and your credibility will never be as high. After all, the client picked you to build their dreams, but the stress of surprises and unexpected costs during the project will eventually take its toll. Warn them now about possible extra expenses, and your honesty will pay off later as the inevitable changes arrive. This is also the time to present the clients with a list of any product selections and other obligations they have to take care of before work can begin. I use a simple form that lists all of the decisions they need to make tied to a specific deadline (see Figure 1).

Client Deadlines & Tasks
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Figure 1.To keep work from grinding to a halt while homeowners decide on colors or other options, the author provides his clients with a list of tasks tied to deadlines. The list not only ensures that I will be able to order everything needed for the job in plenty of time, but it also makes the clients feel that they are a part of the process.

The Preconstruction Conference

I like to schedule a meeting for about a week before beginning work. This is the last chance I’ll have to prepare customers for what is coming and to eliminate potential misunderstandings. Most homeowners have difficulty visualizing the construction process, and they need to have everything explained to them. During this preconstruction conference, I go over the contract once again, but this time I have the benefit of being able to describe the work while walking through the job site. Answering questions about the project now may prevent conflicts later. I can explain, for example, that the entire living room won’t be getting new drywall just because a new doorway is being created to the family room. I also go over the schedule during this conference (Figure 2), explaining the importance of cooperative weather and the role of subs.

Job Schedule
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Figure 2.The author gives all of his clients a copy of the same schedule he uses to track job progress. Extra time for possible construction delays is built in to the schedule dates, and notations serve as reminders for required inspections. I also explain the delays that change orders can cause, since most customers simply don’t realize the way change orders can mess up the schedule. I also emphasize that any change orders must go through me, not my help or my subs. Work can slow down or stop when customers freely roam the site during the workday, so I take a few moments to establish times when the owners can meet me at the site. I do mostly remodeling, so the people I work for are usually living at the job site. Even so, I ask them to limit visits to the regularly scheduled site meeting or to check in before or after working hours. A friendly but firm explanation will usually get the point across, but I’ve had to board up a new addition on occasion to isolate it from the rest of the house. This preconstruction meeting is also the best time to designate a message center for written communication, and to go over any other rules for the project, such as the protocols for paging, phone calls, or change orders.

Weekly Meetings

I like to hold weekly meetings, and I impose an agenda to keep things organized and moving. The agenda should include project status (ahead of or behind schedule, and why), goals for the coming week, and a list of the questions that have arisen since the last meeting (Figure 3).

Weekly Meeting
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Figure 3.An agenda keeps weekly meetings on track and provides a written record of job progress, changes to the scope of work, and homeowner decisions. I’m careful not to bog the customers down with unnecessary details, since that’s the burden I was hired to bear. Be sure to include a short question-and-answer time to clear up uncertainties. It’s best to do this at the end of the meeting, since many questions get answered during the discussion of agenda items. Ask your customers to save all of their questions during the week for this time, unless something urgent comes up. Explain that unnecessary questions and interruptions during work time slow down progress and may affect the schedule and budget. Weekly meetings also keep me in tune with the homeowners’ state of mind, teaching me how to give them what they want and improve on what they don’t like. Do the daily cleanups look okay? Are my guys trampling on border plants? I can’t keep every client happy all of the time, but these meetings improve the odds.

Payment Collections

The way a customer pays is another form of communication that tells me a lot about the kind of job I’m doing. Cheerful payment probably means they’re happy with the job, but if they write out the check grudgingly, then I suspect there’s a problem. I find that the best approach is to simply ask what’s bugging them. The customer may be having a bad day that’s unrelated to the job, or they might be bummed just because it’s tough to let go of $10,000, no matter how good my work is. In some cases, however, there is a problem, and this becomes my opportunity to fix it. It might be something small, like the way a stack of materials blocks part of the driveway or the fact that the trim we’re about to install isn’t quite what they thought it would be. By tending to these concerns early, I can usually keep minor irritants from becoming major problems.

The Punch List

When the job is closing, I use a punch list to wrap things up and get the final payment. About a week before completion, I ask the clients for their list, and then add some items of my own. The punch-list process both reminds the clients of my high standards and reassures them that I will complete the job properly. I explain that I expect final payment when I’ve finished everything on the list; anything after that will be handled, but it will be considered warranty work.

Post-Job Relations

Finally, maintaining contact after the job is done is an effective way to get new work and good referrals. I conduct a satisfaction survey anywhere from a month to three months after the job, and do checkups at six months and twelve months. Mostly I make little repairs, like fixing nail pops or recaulking, but the cost is minimal and the payback is great. I stay in touch with customers via phone, cards, and drop-in visits. Occasionally, I’ll drive a bucket of balls or have a beer with a past client, or my wife and I will have dinner out with a husband-and-wife client, but this kind of entertaining is reserved for clients with whom I’ve worked well and for whom I’d enjoy working again. I typically get more than one call from clients with whom I’ve stayed in touch, but I get far fewer from those with whom I haven’t. As a rule, I make contact at least twice a year, even if I know my customer has no future plans for remodeling. Why? Because my work will be seen by their friends and family, and I love referrals. Communicating well makes my business run better. I get more work, make better profits, and enjoy a good reputation with satisfied clients. Like that buddy of mine, I could build a house with just one tool, but the tool I’d pick is "communication." Norman Allaby has been a remodeling contractor in Connecticut since 1986.