As a remodeling business owner, l always tried to avoid having clients say to our lead carpenter: "But we discussed this with Paul ..." Inevitably it was about something they wanted done, or didn't expect to be done, and they wanted the lead carpenter to take care of it in a much different way than it had been defined in the written scope of work.
I thought I was good at setting expectations, but obviously there were times I wasn't good enough.
When the front-end work is handled well, those in production can simply get the job done without having these frustrating interactions with the client.
So early on I learned to take these actions to avoid clients having a different idea of what was to be done after the job began.
Set the Expectations Early
On my first call with a potential client and all the way through the sales process, I would stress that the front-end work is hard work. It's the process of determining exactly what the scope of work is, including the clients' reasons for having the remodel done, the plans and specifications, and, almost the most important point: what is not included.
I would mention we would work together, considering a lot of different choices about how to make the finished product the solution to the problems the clients wanted solved. I would tell them that this process is almost like having another job and they will likely get tired of all that must be done before the project could begin and be successful.
We needed to agree that if it is not written in the plans or scope, then what they thought was included is not.
I said all the above in a very caring way, pointing out the benefit of getting this clear sooner rather than later. It was actually a way of figuring out if we were a fit for the potential client and vice versa.
Document Every Interaction
When our designer worked with the client, she would need to produce minutes of every meeting. The minutes would address what was decided about anything connected with the work the client and designer were doing together. As the salesperson, I would read these minutes, partly to make sure we were staying within the preliminary budget and partly to be able to talk with the client about the progress that was being made.
As their work progressed, the information in the meeting minutes would get more and more specific. Instead of simply saying the primary bathroom floor will be tiled, eventually a specific tile and setting pattern was picked and documented.
The more that was figured out and documented at this stage, the easier the project would be to build. The more difficult it was to go through this process, the clearer it sometimes became that we were not a good fit for the client. That would mean suggesting they might work with a different remodeler, someone who was comfortable postponing making decisions until the project was underway.
By the way, we used to postpone decisions. It took some serious problems in the middle of the projects to convince us to stop doing that!
Estimate the Actual Project
I hated estimating. Every minute I did it, I felt like I was one minute closer to being dead and having wasted my life. However, I came to believe that all the money that can be made during a project is made before the project starts.
If the estimate was not done carefully and accurately, then the project would not produce the profit we were planning on. Garbage in, garbage out.
We ended up with an estimator on staff. She had to write a scope of work, with the help of the designer and me, that would carefully lay out everything that was included and was not included. By the way, the final item in our list of exclusions at the end of the scope of work was 'anything that is not expressly included.' We added that phrase in honor of a particularly challenging client who I think actually thought we could read their mind.
I would read the work of the estimator three different times as it was being prepared. These were when the scope of work was written, when the subcontractor and vendor names and costs were entered, and when the in-house labor and materials were entered. I had to slow down and read all this information very carefully because I had to own it.
When the plans, the specifications, and the pricing were all done and we had a contract prepared, we would invite the client into our office for the presentation. The designer and estimator were at the table for this. I told the client that the reason they were present is that they knew more about the client's project than I did.
I would do a broad strokes presentation, focusing on the motivations of the client and how the scope of work addressed all their concerns. I would also review the exclusions, focusing on that final one I mentioned earlier.
Then we would walk through the main points of legalese in the contract itself.
I would then ask the client what they wanted to do. The client had worked with our designer for weeks or months. The client had answered a question or two that the estimator had. I had been in contact with the client every two weeks or so, cheering the project on. The client knew us and trusted us to have their best interests in mind.
The client usually said "I'll sign the contract!" Yeah!
I'd walk the client through all the places in the contract that needed to be signed and initialed. I would also collect the first payment check.
Then I would tell the client that they were now going to be walked through our scope of work by our estimator and designer, saying they knew more about the project than I did. That this process would take quite a while, likely more than an hour (which I had mentioned when making the appointment to present the scope of work), but that it was important that the client actually understood what was included and what was not.
I'd excuse myself, returning after the review was done. I shook the client's hand, thanking them for having us work with them. And I would remind them that they needed to read our scope of work at home, to make sure that everything in the scope was accurate, and to let us know if they had any questions at all.
Office Pass the Baton
Now we needed to make sure the production manager and the lead carpenter for the project “owned” the information that sales, estimating and design had prepared. If they did not, then the client could take advantage of them regarding what the client “remembered” should be part of the scope of work, even if it was actually not!
The production manager and lead carpenter were given their own copies of the plans, scope of work, estimate and any related information, all of which had been assembled into a job book. They got their job books at least one week ahead of the office pass-the-baton meeting.
They were to read and question everything in that package. Everything. And to make notes about any questions that they had.
The designer, estimator, me (the salesperson), production manager and lead carpenter would meet to get all the questions answered. This was a very important meeting, because we had to be sure as a team that we all thought the information was complete.
Also discussed at this meeting were any insights sales, estimating or design had gathered about how to manage the client effectively. That was so the production manager and lead carpenter had an advantage they would have been lacking otherwise, making it easier for an “evil” client to take advantage of them.
Client Pass the Baton
Before the project commenced, we would have a final set-up meeting with the client at their home. Attending were the client, me, production manager and lead carpenter.
The purpose of the meeting was for all the players to get to know one another and to reassure the client that these production staff members “owned” the client’s project and all the information in the scope of work and related documents.
To help make that happen, any time I was asked a question by the client, I would defer it to the lead carpenter or the production manager. “Darrel, can you answer Mrs. Client’s question, please?”
By doing this, the client ultimately was reassured that they were working with good people who really knew their project, and they learned a bit about them personally.
I would also remind the client that through all the weeks of working together to plan, scope, and price their project that many, many things had been discussed, many of which were not in the scope of work. And that it would not be unusual if the client ended up during the project thinking that one or more of those cast-away ideas was in the scope.
I would tell the client that the only things the production manager and lead carpenter knew about the project were what was in the scope. And the scope that we all agreed to, including the client, was the job.
After making sure everyone was hitting it off, I would say to the client, “Well, it looks like things are going well. Our production manager, Nancy, and our lead carpenter, Darrel, will stay and review a number of questions about logistics. Know that I’ll be calling you every 2 to 3 weeks, checking in with you to make sure you feel good about the work we are doing with you. Please feel free to contact me at any time if you have any concerns that you think are not being addressed adequately. In the meantime, you have our best people working with you going forward! And thanks for having our company work with you.”
Part of what the production manager and lead carpenter would do once I was gone was set up a weekly meeting date and time. They would encourage the client to save any questions, if possible, for those meetings, so the workers onsite could get the project done more efficiently. They would prepare minutes following the meeting, copies of which would go to the client and to me. I would review the minutes for any job we had open, asking questions of the production manager if I had a question about something.
I hope you can see that a big part of preparing to do a project is getting very clear with your client about your expectations for them and what their expectations about you should be.
The key is to be proactive, to educate in a dynamic and reinforced way that the project is only as good as the clarity produced before the project starts. Clarity is needed about what the project is and, more importantly, how to work together successfully.
Very rarely did we have a client say, “We discussed this with Paul ...” And, if a client did, we would change our process as needed to make it less likely that anyone else would going forward.