Who, ultimately, is in control of a remodeling project? Let's think about that: It's the clients who are funding the job — you have to keep them happy if you want to get paid. They decide what they want done, how much to spend, and when they'll do the project. It's their house and they, not you, have to live in it — so if you don't do what they want, it can't be much of a service you're providing. As so many recent business books and magazine articles have said over and over again, your role is total customer satisfaction.
So it's obviously the clients who are in control.
But how do you reconcile this fact with the harsh truth that a client-controlled project is almost always a doomed project? In my experience, if the clients are in charge, I'm in deep trouble. Furthermore, irony of ironies, if the clients are in control, the clients themselves are in trouble. Forget about the contractor — how often have you seen a client-controlled project end happily for the clients?
I'm not talking about extreme control freaks who are hardly ever pleased with anything and are very difficult to work with. I'm talking about normal clients who are in the driver's seat primarily because we contractors put them there.
How do we put the clients in charge? I can think of two primary ways.
One is by not taking charge ourselves from the beginning. By being disorganized and unresponsive, by not keeping promises (or, almost worse, by not making any promises to begin with), by being too busy to put together a really good exit strategy for the project before we start it — in all these ways, we abdicate our position as the ostensible professional in the relationship. There's a vacuum of leadership, and someone else tries to fill it — the client.
The second way to lose control is the polar opposite — by being too responsive to each and every client request. This one's a little more complicated and potentially controversial, so I'll spend a little more time on it.
For a long time, the (well-deserved) reputation of remodeling contractors was that we did what we wanted — showed up when we wanted, and then selected products and construction techniques based on our own personal convenience regardless of what the plans and specs said — basically treating the clients' home as our sole domain and the clients themselves as a necessary nuisance.
Too Much Wow?
There's still some of this behavior within the industry. But, steadily, with the increasing professionalism of many remodelers, the pendulum has been swinging the other way. You now see more and more remodeling companies bending over backward to try to "wow" the clients with an extremely high level of service and accountability.
It's in our attempts to wow the clients that we're most at risk of putting them in charge, because one of the easiest mistakes we can make is to assume that to totally satisfy them we need to do whatever they ask. Let the clients wait until the cabinets are installed to select the countertop material. Let the clients use their brother-in-law for a plumber. Let the clients not pay the architect for any more drawings and have us build with the inadequate documentation we've got. Let the clients have us shut off our saws between 2 and 3 o'clock so the toddler can nap.
The truth, of course, is that doing whatever the clients ask is not the shortest route to client satisfaction — it's one of the more arduous routes, because it means the contractor cedes control. It can become an anything-goes atmosphere on the job site, and the first to suffer is your crew; then you, as the owner; and, finally, the clients.
A Good Set of Rules
The only way to maintain control and high levels of satisfaction is through structure. Our first job as professional remodeling contractors should be to provide a good solid framework for a project, from the planning stage through the punch-list completion and warranty follow-up. And what creates structure is a good set of rules.
It's analogous to a historic sports match-up. Imagine a truly great baseball game. A major part of such a game's beauty and appeal comes from being played within a construct of very clear and strictly enforced rules. Would you derive any excitement from — or even have any interest in — a baseball game played with no rules? The analogy, I think, holds for remodeling projects: They are much more rewarding and satisfying for all involved if there are rules that are clearly communicated, and gently and firmly enforced.
This is because clear, appropriate rules create a well-defined structure, and people whose house is being ripped apart by strangers are, in fact, intensely appreciative of this structure. And keep in mind that the people who are responsible for putting it back together — your crew — are equally grateful.
To serve as an effective structure, the rules need to be easy to remember and easy to enforce with consistency. This typically means they should be relatively few in number. They also need to be of clearly mutual and reciprocal benefit to you and your crew, and to the clients.
Most of all, they need to be your rules, meaning you need to believe in them to your very core. Otherwise, you will not enforce them with confidence and assertiveness. They need to be from your experience — heartfelt responses to the problems you keep having on your projects that you want to avoid.
Here are the rules I've come up with over the years in response to problems I was trying to keep from repeating:
We will do nothing illegal. We will not take cash so someone can avoid paying taxes. We will get permits as appropriate. We will not lie to authorities (or to anyone, for that matter).
We will start only when we are ready to finish. Prospective clients often ask, "When can you start?" They should be asking, "When can you finish?" My answer to "When can you start?" is this: We will start a project when we're ready to finish it, which is to say when we have sufficient information and resources; when we have the special orders placed, the contract signed, and the permit in hand; and when we have honorably fulfilled prior commitments.
This one rule gives us considerable leverage — adherence to this rule positions us extremely well for generating very high levels of satisfaction while also maintaining high levels of control.
If you ask us to do more, we will have to charge more and take longer. If the scope increases, the cost increases. If the scope decreases, the cost decreases. Likewise for the duration of the project. It's simple math, and hard to argue with: More work equals more time equals more money. The clients cannot ask us to cut the price without also cutting the scope, because that defies the rules of mathematics. The reciprocal is that if the clients choose to cut back on the project, we will cut back on price and duration.
Our strength is our team. If clients ask us to bring someone new onto the team — a favorite plumber or a brother-in-law who's an architect — they may be weakening the team, regardless of the strength of the new player. Do they want the established varsity team working on the project, or the untested pickup team?
These rules create our structure, and this structure enables us to do extraordinary things for our clients. Not one of the rules prevents us from hearing the clients or responding to their requests — they do not put us at risk of diminishing the quality of the service we offer. Not one of them puts our interests ahead of the clients', either, or the clients' ahead of ours. Instead, they create an even playing field.
I can't sit here and say that I never break any of these rules; just ask my crew. I can say, however, that whenever I lose control of a project and it starts going sour, I can trace the root cause of the problem directly to a moment when I did break one of these rules. Hopefully, I will learn from that mistake and have stronger resolve the next time around.
Once, at a piano lesson, I stumbled at a certain passage. I stopped playing and said, in frustration, "I always make that mistake." My piano teacher looked at me and said, "Well, why do you practice it that way, then?" The reason I kept making the mistake, of course, was simple: That's the way I always did it — and I was doing nothing to correct myself. My teacher suggested that, just before the troublesome passage, I stop, take a breath, position my fingers just right, and not play a note until I was sure it was the right note. Over time, I would learn to play the passage correctly without having to stop.
I've always remembered that particular lesson and have applied it to my business more than once. I've learned to recognize (not infallibly, but usually) the moments at which I'm most tempted to break one of my essential rules — to weaken the structure — and at those times I stop, take a breath, and wait until I know just what I want to say before speaking. In that way, over time, I steadily reinforce our structure — and the quality of the service we provide.
Paul Eldrenkampis owner of Byggmeister Inc. in Newton, Mass.
Fast, Efficient Hiring
Do you ever consider the time and effort you take to recruit, screen, and hire your staff? Running an ad is just the beginning of a long process that includes screening applications and setting up interviews with those who make the initial cut. Then, of course, applicants show up one by one to meet with whoever is conducting the interview. There is typically a discussion about where the applicant worked before, what his skills are, and why he wants to work for your company. The interviewer will probably spend a fair amount of time explaining what the company expects from employees and going over policies — work hours, dress codes, benefits, vacation, and pay. By the time you hire someone, you've likely spent many hours talking to people you would not want to hire or who may not want to work for you anyway once they know what the job entails.
If you're lucky, you may be able to hire people who have been referred to you by employees, subs, or someone who knows your business. While you have a better chance of finding a good employee through referrals, the problem is that you can't always get a referral when you need one. So, like most contractors, you probably have to advertise open positions.
Consider Group Interviews
Before starting my construction company, I had a previous career as the human resources (HR) manager for a large mental health center. One of my duties was to recruit and hire new employees. This task might have overwhelmed me had I not stumbled across an article in a personnel journal about how to speed up the recruiting process by performing group interviews.
Most people hear the phrase "group interview" and picture one job applicant sitting down to talk with a number of people from the company that's hiring. But when I say group interview, I'm talking about inviting eight or 10 applicants to come in at the same time and meet with a couple of people from our company. I used this method to hire people when I was an HR manager and continue to practice it today.
A group interview saves time, eases scheduling, and allows you to see potential employees in a different light than usual. Because most applicants have never done an interview like this before, we tell them in advance that other applicants will be present.
At the interview meeting, we tell the gathered applicants the same things we would normally tell them one-on-one — what we expect from employees and what the company policies are concerning behavior, pay, and benefits. We also give applicants the opportunity to ask questions. This part of the interview usually lasts about 30 minutes. After the group phase, we meet with each applicant in private. I like to do this in the order they arrived. We've already gone over what the company is looking for, so the individual interviews take only five to 10 minutes. This is the time for applicants to sell themselves and handle any personal or confidential issues.
Deciding whom to hire. I usually have my office manager or lead carpenter sit in on the group part of the interview. Afterward, I'll sit down with the other staff person who was there and compare notes. In most cases we agree about which applicants to proceed with. At this point, we may have further questions and want to ask an applicant in for a second interview.
Once we have collected all the information we reasonably can (which includes checking references), we do a "gut" test. Does our intuition tell us that this person is going to work out? Many of the contractors I know give carpenters a two-week trial before deciding whether they want to keep them on.
Faster and Better
The main reason I like the group interview is that it saves a lot of time: I can screen five to 10 applicants in 60 to 90 minutes, whereas the traditional process would take at least three times that long. When we set the time for the meeting, we usually give people a week's notice and schedule it at the end of a workday, so that most candidates can be there. This saves us from having to make multiple calls to coordinate the schedules of the interviewer and applicants. If someone fails to show up, it doesn't blow our schedule, because there are still the other applicants to talk to.
Some applicants may hear what we have to say to the group and decide not to stick around for an individual conversation. That's great, because it saves me from having to talk to someone who has already decided he doesn't want the job.
You can also learn a lot about people by observing them in a group. I like to step back and see how job candidates interact and communicate with each other. If an applicant is antisocial, he probably would not be a good fit for my company, because the team members have to interact with one another and also with clients.
I find it much easier to compare applicants when I have them there at the same time. And since it's not much trouble to add one more per-son to the group, I can bring in applicants I'm not quite sure about and risk only another five or 10 minutes of my time.
Jim Cameronis a general contractor and business consultant in Burlington, Vt.