No remodeler can be successful without at least basic skills in sales and marketing, estimating, production, and business and financial management. Expertise in these aspects of business is virtually useless, however, without the ability to communicate with everyone involved.
The remodeler’s responsibility is to get everyone to the same place — successful conclusion of the project. Good communication sets expectations and performance standards for multiple parties with various skills: employees, trade contractors, suppliers, inspectors, service professionals, customers, even the public in general.
Before you can effectively communicate your expectations to others, you must know exactly what you’re trying to tell them. What do you expect of them after this communication? To complete something, feel something, plan something, understand something? What do you want to happen? If you can’t define your expectations, it is silly to expect others to meet them.
Familiarity certainly helps streamline internal communication, but even exchanges of information among staff must be clear and concise. As for customers, you probably know a lot more about construction than they do, so it is easy to overlook communicating information that remodelers take for granted. On top of that, aligning a customer’s expectations with the remodeling product is always a massive task. A customer’s vision of festive holidays, an enviable home, creative floor plans and great value are "soft" expectations that must be met with hard construction. Communicating the difference between customer expectations and the construction process early results in a satisfied customer.
We communicate in three ways: through written, verbal and graphic mediums. I believe that you must use at least two of these channels to communicate any point clearly. This month we’ll focus on written communication.
To be understood clearly, written communication must contain basic points. Keep in mind the Five W’s: who, what, why, where and when. Adding an H (how) helps detail the construction process. An effective communication flow applicable to any task should:
1) Identify the task.
2) Explain the desired outcome and time line.
3) Specify the resources required.
4) Explain the implementation process required to complete the task.
5) Establish measurement standards for the task.
Faith is not enough
Many comments or requests are made in good faith but left unconfirmed. Putting the comment or request in writing would have documented it, confirmed mutual understanding and cemented the expectation. It’s solid business practice to get customer signatures on all finalized written communications, including change orders, shop drawings, selections sheets and time sheets in time-and-materials jobs.
Include contract addendum details, a pre-construction conference to discuss work protocol, regular construction meetings, and various inspection walk-throughs during the job. The NAHB Home Builder Press has an upcoming book, The Paper Trail — Remodeling Systems and Forms for a Well-Run Remodeling Company, on such systems and sample forms to activate them.
Early in my career, a customer held a floodlight along a painted drywall ceiling and complained about the lack of uniform finish. I knew the standard he expected was beyond accepted residential construction technology, but I didn’t know how to explain it to him. Since then, the NAHB has published Performance Standards for Residential Construction, which specifies that "paint should be viewed from 6 feet in natural light" to seek defects. I wish I had been able to show that to the guy with the floodlight. Now our company’s remodeling contracts includes these standards as an addendum to let customers know what to expect in a final product.
Building the paper trail
An attorney once admonished me, "Leave a paper trail!" This was sage advice. All communications should be saved in one job folder to build a job history. Assigning responsibility for each entry and having a consistent system decreases the number of omissions and communication errors. An office administrator could not possibly know what agreements were discussed in the field without a paper trail back to the office. When available, e-mail is a simple way to confirm understandings and keep a permanent record.
No matter how careful you are, you’ll discover things you wish you had done differently or specified more clearly, especially when you’re implementing a consistent process for written communication. Consider the remodeler from Lake Hopatcong, N.J., whose written contract for restoring a bathroom stipulated that tile selection was to be made by the owner, who subsequently picked a hand-painted tile wall mural to the tune of $8,000. It was clear in the remodeler’s mind that the choice would be a much more conventional selection, but the client could not read his mind. After much heated discussion, the remodeler relented, the owner got the tile of choice, and the remodeler learned an expensive lesson about being specific.
With a paper trail, it’s relatively easy to find out what went wrong and how to prevent such a misunderstanding next time. The price range the remodeler expected was not specified in that contract. The simple insertion of "Tile selection by owners not to exceed $3.00 s.f." would have eliminated the possibility of misinterpretation by communicating a clear price range to the customer.
Lack of clarity is an expensive oversight in construction. Think about what you want to communicate. Write clear, well-defined instructions and evaluation parameters every time, as demonstrated in the note to a lead carpenter above, and repetition and accuracy will become ingrained.