"It's not going the way I thought it would."
Those nine words can send chills down a remodeler's spine, and they arise too often on projects—sometimes despite the contractor's best efforts. Ensuring that customer expectations match with the reality of the project depends on the remodeler's ability to communicate and understand the client's viewpoint.
That empathy must begin before the project gets underway, with the contractor helping the clients understand the remodeling process and their responsibilities in making things run smoothly. Once the job starts, the remodeler learns if the customer truly understood what they discussed. In addition, new problems can arise as the home's new shape become a reality each day—or fails to achieve that due to unexpected assumptions.
Remodelers point to four key areas where client expectations typically go astray once the job begins:
1. Insufficient communication. Call clients every morning even if existing work is just progressing. Clients like knowing every aspect of this major investment, if only to reassure themselves if something isn't progressing as they envisioned.
Alan Hanbury, CGR, CAPS and president of House of Hanbury in Newington, Conn., uses a multifunction job board to facilitate communication. It features a whiteboard for writing erasable messages, a cork pad beneath for attaching written messages and a slot on the side for holding folders, magazine pages and other references.
2. Scheduling. "It's the most out-of-control element," Hanbury says. Remodelers are particularly at the mercy of their subs, who seldom call in advance to say they're blowing off the job that day. "I stress to customers that if I say a sub is showing up that day and they're waiting on him before going out, call me if he's not there by 9:30," he says. "The worst situation is when a person sits home waiting all day and then calls the next day to complain. If you don't tell me right away, I can't fix it."
Communication about activities also can overcome those points in the schedule where nothing appears to be happening. "When they don't see big changes, they get concerned. We pulled 150 feet of wire that day and they want to know why nothing happened," says Mike Carden, CGR, CEO of MUI Corp. in Birmingham, Ala. A printed schedule or morning discussion can ensure that clients don't expect significant visual progress that won't be happening.
3. Allowances. The concept of budgeting for allowances to create an estimate should be discussed before the contract is signed, as many clients don't understand it, Carden says. "I stress that they can buy anything and if it's over the amount we figured, we have to add that cost in, and if it's less, they'll get a credit," he says. "I make it clear that I guide their selections but I don't select anything."
Remodelers likewise should strive to make the allowances as realistic as possible, based on the client's stated preferences and existing home conditions, which indicate their taste. Carden also has increased his paint allowance overall, as styles have become more intricate.
4. Change orders. Surprises behind walls must be documented well, and their ramifications for the schedule and the budget must be made clear immediately, Hanbury says. Take photos if a problem had to be fixed before it could be discussed. This approach also holds true for later change orders as products are added or upgraded.
"Make sure they know about any delivery delays, alterations to existing work to accommodate the new products and what costs it will add to the job," he says. "Too often, the customers agree to the changes but they don't add it all up to see how much everything has added to the original budget. You have to stress that impact."
Many parts of a project and its progression are uncontrollable, and helping clients understand how their needs must work in harmony with the disruptions of a major remodeling project can minimize the controllable friction.
5. The designated decider. It's bad enough when expectations differ between remodeler and client, but what should the remodeler do when expectations differ between husband and wife?
"You have to establish immediately who you work for—who has the final say on decisions," Hanbury says. "There must be one person whose word is gold."
Too often, the situation arises in which one spouse asks for a change or makes a decision about placement of an item, color or addition of amenities and then the other spouse sees the installed work and balks at its inclusion and refuses to pay for it or wants it to be changed or removed.
Two-income couples often don't discuss details and assume they're in agreement, only to learn they aren't, leaving the contractor in the middle. Some remodelers solve the problem by requiring both husband and wife to sign off on change orders. But Hanbury says that's not practical. "Anything of any size needs a sign-off, and it always has to be by one designated key person."
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