Helpful Tips for Managing Client Expectations

If you’ve been in the kitchen and bath design and remodeling business for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced a situation where you think your firm has executed a portion of a client’s project to perfection, only to hear: “But that isn’t what we expected!”

Over the past 30 to 40 years, we’ve gone from sketches on the back of napkins to extensive CAD drawings and computer-generated “walk throughs,” as the industry has attempted to deal with more sophisticated clients. As the amount of information available to our clients increases, it’s important that we find ways to clarify what, exactly, we are going to provide them with.

The various home improvement shows on cable TV, with their ability to edit out the rough spots, have made even extensive remodeling projects seem almost pain free. This can cause confusion when homeowners have to deal with the realities of remodeling.

This month, we will take a look at clarifying how to document the scope of the work you are contracting with a client, dealing with some of the subjective issues that arise and protecting your business in case a serious dispute arises.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Controlling client expectations begins with your marketing strategy. What your literature, ads and sales presentations say about how you are going to deal with the client will define their initial impression of what they will receive from your firm. The samples they are shown and the displays and craftsmanship they see in your showroom can help set the tone of what they will expect to see in their completed project.

Be careful, however, of relying on clients’ memories of what they saw in your showroom. While your showroom displays may have their share of imperfections, the typical customer will not usually examine the details of “fit and finish” in your showroom with the same level of attention that they will later give to their own project.

Make sure that your sales staff is realistic when describing the remodeling process; if your typical bath remodel takes six to eight weeks, this should not be described as “just a few weeks.” The same is true of cost estimates: Be careful of off-the-cuff estimates that you usually will later have to revise upward significantly. The best approach for cost estimating is to start with a ballpark estimate that you have spent some time developing.

As you proceed from the ballpark estimate to the final contract estimate, you and your client will make actual product and design decisions to replace the assumptions that made up the ballpark estimate. Be sure that you bring the client along if these selections are increasing the ultimate cost of the project. It will be difficult to get a contract signed if the final price is a surprise to your client.

DOCUMENTATION

The next step in managing expectations is to make sure that you base your contract on a complete set of plans and specifications. The specifications should include catalog cuts of items to be supplied, wherever possible. While you and your staff may be familiar with industry jargon and product numbers, your client usually is not.

Plans should show pertinent dimensions such as counter heights, window sizes, door swings, etc. It’s important to indicate on the plans, particularly elevations, if the actual work will be likely to vary from what is shown. For instance, tile layouts may be shown with a precise grid pattern, yet handmade tiles are specified, making it impossible to install the tile exactly as shown on the drawing.

The specifications should be detailed to the point that everything that is not a generic item (lumber, pipe, electrical wire) is identified by product codes and descriptions, including colors. Inevitably, there will be some items that cannot be specified by the time the contract is signed and an allowance put in for them. It is important to deal with these “to be determined” items early on, so that a back order down the road does not result in a project delay.

MISUNDERSTANDINGS

Most misunderstandings and disputes arise from subjective issues that revolve around a customer expecting a different level of perfection than your firm feels is the “industry standard” or your firm’s standard. You have the opportunity to define the playing field if you are proactive in laying out where to go to find definitions of what is acceptable.

One good source of industry standards is the Residential Construction Performance Guidelines, published by the National Association of Home Builders. While this is not overly comprehensive, it does cover many common situations, such as grout cracking, paint matching, tile alignment, etc. Many of you will find these performance standards fairly loose and will likely want to modify and/or elaborate on them.

One solution to the shortcomings of the NAHB Performance Guidelines was to develop a client handbook, which describes the things that clients should expect during the course of their remodeling project.
Included in the client handbook are areas that discuss, in detail, what a client should expect by way of cabinet fit, tile alignment, texture matching, etc. The client handbook serves the dual purpose of educating the client as to what is involved in the remodeling process and defining what your company considers acceptable work.

Neither of these resources is of much help, however, if your client is not aware of them. Provide your clients with a copy of the client handbook prior to signing the remodeling contract and then ask the question at the pre-construction meeting as to whether or not they have read through it. In addition, it should be specifically noted in the contract signed by the client that in resolving subjective issues, the client handbook and/or the NAHB Performance Guidelines will be referred to for clarification. Should you ever wind up in a lawsuit over these issues, citing these in the contract will prove invaluable.

While there is probably nothing that can be done to always avoid misunderstandings, giving some serious thought and effort toward managing your client’s expectations will have real benefits to your company’s bottom line. Doing so makes it less likely that clients will be disappointed with their project or the process of getting it accomplished, your firm will avoid the “do overs” that such misunderstandings create and you will reduce the likelihood that one of these issues will spiral into a lawsuit.

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