It’s easy to lose sight of the little things that hold client–contractor relationships together once construction is underway. Pressures often cause rifts and disagreements that never get healed. While both sides are often equally to blame, it’s possible for one of them to lead by example. Here are four top ways for “walking the higher ground” in your client relationships.
1. Avoid Assumptions
Misunderstandings contribute more to turning client–contractor relationships bad than any other cause. Simple things like a client second-guessing the size of a ledger board may send both parties into corners to prepare for a fight. Most misunderstandings, however, involve assumptions.
Owner Assumption: I’ll be able to select bathroom hardware once the fixtures are installed.
Contractor Assumption: I’ll have all owner selections before I order the fixtures.
That’s a pretty big disconnect, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Although in a perfect world both sides would take their responsibility to communicate seriously, we know that sometimes doesn’t happen.
The customer is not always right, but it’s your job to make them think they are. Starting with contract negotiations, you can short-circuit misunderstandings at their very beginnings. In order to do that, you need to understand the contract and find all those places where misunderstandings are set up.
Are the site conditions accurate? Do the plans call for common materials and methods? Do the specifications name make and model? Is the dispute clause clear and fair? Is there a process for change orders? The list may seem long, but each of these issues is one more place for misunderstandings to take hold.
A very important contract document aspect is communication. You and the owner need to have clearly defined communication processes for submittals, RFIs, changes, and delays. You also need processes for notifications and for reporting, whether it’s reporting progress or reporting problems. Ignore effective communication at your own peril—as the person responsible for delivery, it really does fall to you.
2. Be Accurate
Best guesses will get you only so far in your efforts to have better client relationships. When you’re pressed to pull numbers and completion times from thin air, you might consider asking for a little more time. This way you’ll be able to provide accurate information. Reasonable people will appreciate your attention to detail. Unreasonable people will assume you’re stalling. Ether way, providing inaccurate information to unreasonable people will hurt you worse.
Accurate cost estimates and accurate schedules set the stage for excellent client relationships. Those two project aspects cause the most disputes, so the greater your accuracy, the lower the dispute risk.
3. Provide Management Certainty
Most of your clients will want to know there is someone on the job managing the details. But, they won’t be satisfied with just anyone. They’ll want someone whom they can trust. They want someone who knows the work, an excellent communicator, and skillful negotiator. Clearly define project manager and superintendent responsibilities, and ensure the client knows where the buck stops.
If you’re the one running the job then do all you can to stick to your word, manage the money as if it’s your own, and be responsive to client inquiries.
Sometimes, it’s tough to cover the management requirements on jobs when you’re a small construction firm owner, and you’re trying to grow. You’ll have people with the job skills, but they’ll often lack the finer management skills. To compensate, adopt technology to improve your job coverage. From mobile-responsive project management software to time accounting apps, technology can allow you to be almost everywhere you’re needed.
For those times when you’re not on the job site, provide clear instructions to your representative on what issues they should try to handle themselves and what requires your involvement. Make time to spend with them each day so that you can go over events and give them feedback to help them grow in their management roles.
4. Seek Contingency Transparency
All construction projects have surprises. If it’s not a weather-related delay, it’s an unforeseen item that existed before the signing of the contract. When your contract requires a contingency only for the owner’s approval and use, you won’t usually be allowed to markup work that’s paid with the contingency funds.
When you are not prohibited from using a contingency, it can help you avoid unforeseen costs and allow you to cover minor changes to please the client. Nevertheless, some clients view a contractor contingency as a sign of the contractor not doing a good job of estimating and think they were misleading on their competitiveness. When that’s the case, anything to do with the contingency is going to become a potential misunderstanding.
To avoid the issues, try to get a contingency clause in the contract that specifies whether there is an owner reserve or contractor contingency, or both. Also, include the uses and prohibitions of the contingency. Ideally, the clause will also tell how to access the contingency so everyone knows what’s going on with it, and what happens to unspent sums at the end of construction.