All clients come to the table with a set of unspoken
expectations, some of which they may not even be aware of.
Because these assumptions will inform every decision they make,
it's important to bring them into the open and prioritize them
early on. This will help you decide whether you and the clients
are a good fit — and it will make the job go more
smoothly later on.
One of the most useful tools I have found for clarifying
expectations is what I call the "priority triangle": quality,
schedule, and cost. I want to make sure the clients understand
that every decision will require prioritizing these three
elements, and that they'll usually be able to control only two
of them. Do they really want custom cabinets delivered on a
tight schedule? If so, that will make keeping the budget down
more difficult. Are cost and schedule the priorities? Stock
painted cabinets cost less and arrive faster, but quality will
be sacrificed to some extent.
While the three terms may seem self-explanatory, I find it
useful to define to the clients exactly what I mean by them.
"Quality" refers to how well a product works, how beautiful the
craftsmanship is, or how broad a project's scope is. "Schedule"
usually means how quickly the project is over. At times clients
will want a project done by a certain event (a family reunion,
for example), or will want to schedule it to coincide with a
summer vacation when they'll be out of the house. "Cost" is the
simplest: It's relative to the affluence of the client, but
doesn't need too much further explanation.
The trade-offs between these three concepts are obvious to us
contractors but can be difficult for some clients to grasp. In
fact, reactions vary quite a bit. Some clients give a knowing
nod and — after thinking things over for a few minutes
— quickly rate their priorities. One couple I met with
had bought a new house that would need some work before they
moved in. Since they were living in a low-cost rental, schedule
wasn't an issue, and they were planning to live long-term in
the new place. When I brought up the triangle, they understood
immediately and told me their priorities were quality, cost,
and schedule, in that order.
To other clients, though, the priority request comes as a
surprise. One answer I get frequently is "All three are equally
important to me." That's a sign that they haven't remodeled
before, and that if I don't educate them on the trade-offs
they're likely to be disappointed. The good news is that if I
do a good job presenting the triangle concept, they'll have a
framework for decision-making that will carry on throughout the
course of the job, and that will help them feel — and
actually be — more in control of the process.
And then there are the clients who are absolutely dumbfounded;
the concept is just too new to them. When I get this reaction I
provide some examples to illustrate the principles. Often an
outrageous example works best: A $40,000 hammered-copper tub
would provide great quality but would inflate the budget, while
reusing the old tub sitting in the backyard would be cheap but
wouldn't provide the best quality. The point is that they need
to find someplace on the spectrum between those extremes that
fits within their priorities.
When explaining the triangle concept I usually start with the
trade-off between quality and price, as people tend to get that
one quickly. Then I bring in schedule. If they still insist
that all three are equally important, I have to decide whether
to keep pushing the point or let it slide until the next
If I continue to have trouble getting through, I look for
examples that I know will come up in their project. If it's a
whole-house remodel, can they be out of the house for a year or
do they need it done in six months? On a window-restoration
job, if we can do it in our shop on bad-weather days over the
course of a couple of months, they'll pay less than if they
need it done in three weeks. If they want a bookcase, I can
build and install it in one day, or I can build it in a week
and take two days to install it. From a quality standpoint, the
two bookcases would obviously be very different.
This conversation is also a big help when I'm trying to
prequalify potential clients. The triangle concept helps me
quickly determine whether I want to work with them. Some people
are focused on price and schedule and are less concerned about
quality. For instance, a house-flipper will be happy if the
siding looks good for a year, as long as the work is done
quickly and inexpensively. With folks like this, I thank them
for their inquiry but tell them that another contractor would
be a better match. I phrase this in a way that lets them know
I'm interested in their priorities.
No one likes to turn down work, but I know from experience
that the people who will be happiest with me are those who want
quality first and are flexible about the order of the other
two. This was true of recent clients who inherited a family
home and wanted it fixed up; their standards were high and they
wanted a place that would require little maintenance. They were
more concerned that the doors would be working smoothly in 10
to 20 years than they were with saving money or rushing through
A Flexible Framework
Once I begin working with someone, the triangle concept tends
to come up again and again, because every one of my jobs is
custom and a lot of choices need to be made. When we get to
specifying finishes and equipment, we can use it to help guide
those decisions. Having this framework is particularly helpful
to a client who hasn't remodeled before, as it serves as a map
through unfamiliar territory. In the end they always say, "Now
I see how it works!"
It's important to remember that new circumstances can alter
the balance between quality, schedule, and price, and that you
need to let the client continuously monitor priorities. This is
especially true when you run into unexpected problems.
The best way I can illustrate this advice is by describing
what happened the one time I ignored it. We had been asked to
install a new wood floor and had ordered some beautiful
salvaged yellow pine from out of state. The clients liked the
flooring but repeatedly told me that their top priority was
schedule. Since they didn't want to live in a construction
site, we scheduled the job for when they would be away on
Then the vendor called to tell me that the flooring couldn't
be delivered on the agreed-upon date. Rather than bother my
clients on vacation, I went ahead and did what I assumed they'd
want: I rented a truck and sent one of my guys to New York to
pick up the flooring.
We got the job done on time, but there were additional
charges. Even though it wasn't a lot of money, the clients were
very upset that they hadn't been asked to make the decision
themselves. In the end I had to eat the cost.
I do things differently now. When there's a problem, I talk
with the clients and we revisit their priorities. After all,
the triangle concept is all about giving them control.
Forgetting that is asking for trouble.
Walter Beebe-Center is a general contractor in
Eastern Massachusetts. He owns Essex Restoration, which
specializes in custom-home remodeling and historic