As calls came in, I didn’t have a plan of action for answering—I felt I lost jobs and backed myself into avoidable situations. So, I sat down and wrote a list of questions to help me get the information I needed prior to a site visit, but more importantly, to qualify the client.
The questions must be general enough to apply to a variety of callers with their specific set of circumstances and experiences, but pointed enough to suss out the tire kickers.
Before entering into a work relationship with clients, ask the following questions:
1. What is the size and scope of the project?
I can hear very quickly whether someone has done any planning when I ask this question.
If they don’t sound prepared, but they sound serious, I dive deeper into the size. I need to know if it will fit into my existing schedule. For example, a small bathroom remodel I might be able to squeeze in.
I inquire about the full scope to be sure that there are no aspects that would add time in planning and/or execution for my employees, trades, or myself (such as an unfamiliar material or technique).
2. What is your timeframe?
This response can be telling.
If they want it done soon, say next week or next month, and sound demanding, this is generally a red flag. If they sound unpleasant in the first communication, they most certainly will be in the work relationship. And we all know that it’s a rare remodel that doesn’t require a special order (or two).
If they have a fairly specific timeframe and seem serious, I need to look at my schedule and quickly let them know whether it fits.
If they seem flexible, I continue my line of questioning. If they seem rigid to my response that it doesn’t feel like a good fit, I suggest that they call me back next year if they don’t find another contractor.
Note: I am generally unwilling to refer clients to other contractors because if it does not work out, it reflects poorly on me.
3. Have you chosen or started researching finishes?
If you have gotten this far and not already politely exited the conversation, inquiring about finishes is telling of client readiness.
Finishes are the most important component of our projects. They influence scope, and often dictate the timeframe.
If the homeowner has begun product selection, has drawings, or has conducted research, that is a bonus. If they have not started, and there are other red flags, it might be a sign to cut them loose. If they haven’t done much, but I feel good about them as potential clients, I suggest a preliminary planning package.
A simple plan with two one-hour meetings and a rough estimate is $800, and a more complex package is $1,500.
I explain that they will spend this money on the project either way, and it would be wise to spend it now rather than as a portion of a larger change order fee or point of confusion. These packages vary by client and don’t generate much revenue, but they do compensate me for my time and give me the opportunity to better express my level of experience.
If they commit immediately, I make an appointment for a site visit. If they want to think about it, I let them, but this generally means they will shop for a contractor that’s less experienced and willing to do it for free.
4. How will you be financing your project?
This can catch people off guard. If they haven’t considered it, they’re probably not ready.
If they viscerally react to my asking, they are not a good fit. If they speak candidly about it, I know they are serious. I may even make suggestions for lenders. If they say “out of pocket,” it eases up the timeframe and these clients, are often less stressed.
In qualifying clients with this set of directed questions, I also establish my own authority and have begun to manage expectations.
They understand that I will be compensated for my time, that I have a schedule, and that I have expectations of them.
After taking calls for 18 years, I know that each person has their own set of circumstances and experience, so having a basic framework in place helps me connect to the right clients.
Connecting with the right clients has better outcomes and contributes to my legacy and reputation as a builder that takes care of the community. When a contractor does not apply these tools to their process, they are more likely to develop a poor reputation because they didn’t plan.
We need to know our inputs and build to our finishes so that each day we continue to build a legacy that matters.
Mike Knoche owns and operates Straight Ahead Construction in Fairbanks, Alaska. His passion is building comfortable, healthy, and durable high-performance homes. He wants his legacy to be one of authenticity and trust in his community but also to help build a better global building community through his podcast, The Contracting Handbook. Here he speaks with builders and tradespeople from all over the world about the nuances of contracting, their universal experiences, and seeks to encourage trade recruitment.
I recently was turned on to Mr Knoche's wisdom. The Contracting Handbook Pod (soon to be published manuscript) Has completely changed how we at our company operate and manage our clients. There is something for everyone no matter the exact trade. If your have clients and want to do business better and on your own terms This is the place to be. Love the show, articles and what the future holds. Keep up the fantastic work! Thanks Mike!!
I first heard Mike describe these four questions on his podcast, The Contracting Handbook Podcast. And boy did they turn my business around! I’m very new to the trades so I didn’t really have a framework of how to approach clients and I messed up a lot, wasted my time, and didn’t have a guide of how to assess client readiness. Having rehearsed these questions, I know going to meetings with new clients extremely confident because I know I’m getting their project off to a great start by my thoroughness.
Asking age of home is critical. Also if they have remodeled previously. Both husband and wife if applicable must be available for meeting. Straight and direct answers again are critical. Cheap noises are big red flags.