by Paul Eldrenkamp
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.