A good chunk of my so-called “free time” over the last 12 months has been spent dealing with the gut-remodel of a 1935 colonial my wife and I purchased last year in anticipation of our move back to Vermont. Now that the project is complete, I’m more convinced than ever that there is no faster, more effective way to develop empathy with your remodeling clients’ experience than to become a remodeling client yourself. Once every five years ought to do it, and you might even be able to write it off as an education expense.
Why is empathy with your clients important? Because what Yogi Berra once said about baseball—“Ninety percent of this game is half mental”—applies equally well to remodeling, which is less about the “stuff” and more about the client experience. As critical as craftsmanship is to a remodeler’s reputation and to the success of any project, it pales by comparison to a host of other, less tangible issues that shape a client’s experience before, during, and after the work is done. And there is no better way to learn what those issues are than to experience them yourself.
Remodeling is a complex undertaking, and there are important lessons to be learned every step along the way. While every client and every project is unique in some way, here are three takeaways from our experience that I think apply universally to some degree in all cases.
Seeing is Believing. Two dimensional construction drawings might be the best way to convey details to carpenters and trades people, but it doesn’t cut it for most homeowners. Most people aren’t as good as you are at visualizing what a 2-D image will look and feel like in three dimensions, so anything you can do to simulate 3-D is a plus.
Although a virtual reality experience would have been cool, we successfully navigated our way through several critical design decisions based on both hand-drawn or digital renderings. In the worst case scenario, you may need to mock something up at fullscale; onerous as that is, it’s better than finding out that what you just built doesn’t match what the client thought they saw on paper.
The Whole Truth. A remodeling project is a mine-field of opportunities for clients to find out that they didn’t get what they thought they were getting. This problem arises, not so much because remodelers deliberately misinform or withhold information (there really is no future in that), but because they communicate with clients as if they were speaking with another experienced remodeler. This leads to decisions based on incomplete or misunderstood information.
If you think you’ve dodged this particular bullet, it could be because someone else intervened unbeknownst to you, as I’ve written about in the case of our near-miss experience with wafer LED’s. More likely, however, is that your clients are 99 percent happy and are reluctant to complain about the other 1 percent. In fact, eliminating this residual unhappiness is what I think differentiates remodelers with merely “happy” clients from those with “raving fans.”
What Comes Next. Remodeling is a start-and-stop affair, but most people expect steady progress. Demolition and framing quickly create dramatic changes that reinforce that expectation, but progress during systems rough-in is harder to see, and to clients it seems that the job has come to a standstill. And occasionally, it actually has, due to scheduling conflicts, delivery delays, and a host of other issues.
The exact sequence of events may vary, but the slowdowns and stoppages are inevitable. Most remodelers do a pretty good job of anticipating and working around them, but they often forget to tell their client. This creates uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration that, though it may not bubble over into a confrontation, inevitably colors a client’s overall experience.
Turnabout is fair play. I think you will find, as I did, that being a client is endlessly instructive. Things you take for granted as a contractor become tangible experiences you can’t avoid as a client. That makes a lasting impression.
Or as Yogi said, “It’s like deja vu all over again.”