Tips for Managing Your Clients’ Expectations

As a kitchen and bath designer/remodeler, there are two distinct areas of expectations that are important to consider in the conduct of your business. The first expectations are the ones that a potential client first brings to you when they are considering hiring your firm to take on their project. The second group of expectations consist of those that come to light after the contract signing.

Managing these expectations well will determine whether you sign a contract with this client and, later, whether you wind up with a happy client who can bring you future referrals.

PROSPECT TO CONTRACT

The potential client normally starts from a state of curiosity, wondering if a kitchen or bath project will satisfy needs that they may, or may not, have clearly defined in their own minds. They may need more space for a changed lifestyle, have a kitchen with broken-down appliances, plumbing problems in bathrooms or simply just be tired of the age and look of their home. What such a project will cost is always an important, underlying issue.

When they come into contact with your firm, likely by coming into your showroom, you’ll have the opportunity to help shape the expectations of what can be done to meet their needs. This is also your opportunity to explain how your firm’s approach to the design/build process can best meet their needs. Your showroom will make a statement to potential clients about the kind of work you do and the quality of products your firm offers.

This early contact with a potential client, including a visit to their home, is crucial to establishing an understanding of what a feasible project scope should be. Some people just want a fresh, functional kitchen that doesn’t blow their budget, while others may be after a “Street of Dreams” look that will be appropriate for elegant entertaining.

Every designer dreams of the “open wallet” client who will tell us to pull out all the stops and that cost is no object, and every now and then, we might actually run across one of these. But we need to make sure we understand where each potential client stands along this scale.

Almost every client comes to us with some idea of what their “budget” is, but often they will tell us that they have no idea what a project might cost and ask us to tell them. We can usually get an idea of what their budget constraints are by first determining what the basic scope of their project is. Do they want a simple change out, rearrange some walls and spaces within the home or add some space to the house itself? What is the value of the home and what are other homes in the neighborhood worth? Would they be comfortable if their remodel pushed the value of their home well above others in the neighborhood?

Once you’ve explored these aspects of their project, you can refer to other similar projects your firm has done and what each of those cost. This approach allows you and your client to do a couple of things. It allows them to react to costs associated with various approaches to meeting their desires, and demonstrates that other clients have found the investment they are considering to be reasonable. Should this process reveal that your client wants to do more or less than the sample projects you showed them, you can adjust the scope of what you propose.

Once you have established a budget range, you can work on possible plans and actual ballpark estimates to further refine the potential cost of what you and your client are planning. At this ballpark stage, you should keep in mind the quality/cost level of the products that the project will contain. You should establish a ballpark procedure (using a spreadsheet) that allows you to come up with a reasonably close estimate for a project in about an hour.

Once you and your client have agreed on the scope of the project and the ballpark estimate of its cost, you should enter into a retainer agreement that allows you to prepare detailed plans and specifications that can become part of the eventual contract for the project. It’s important to enter into a financial retainer agreement at this point so as not to invest additional time if the client is not serious about moving forward.

CONTRACT TO COMPLETION

The phase from retainer to contract will also require you to manage expectations. Most clients, when picking out products and materials, will tend to upgrade from what they had originally described to you as you developed your ballpark. As this inevitable “scope creep” occurs, you must make sure the client is aware of where the bottom line is coming to so as not to induce sticker shock when it’s time to sign the contract.

When you sign a contract with a client, try to make sure you leave as few “to be determineds” and allowances as possible. These tend to be put off and can turn into back orders and delays as you try to wind up a project. Each of these also represents a potential cost increase at a time when no client wants to hear about extra costs.

Before you start the project, it’s important that your client feels you have a plan for their project. Providing them with a timeline for the work to be done lets them know you have such a plan. This plan should also include a provision for regularly scheduled progress meetings with the client at the job site to go over any questions or concerns. These meetings should be scheduled at critical times during the project, such as when framing is completed, after all plumbing and wiring is completed and before drywall is installed. The strategy is to be able to make any changes necessary at the minimum cost and time loss possible.

How a project finishes has perhaps the greatest impact on a client’s impression of your firm. Make sure you push hard on those last few details, prepare a punch list when you are close to the end and make sure all of the items get cleared as quickly as possible. This will have the added benefit of keeping the punch list from becoming a never-ending punch list.

Once your firm has completed the project, make sure you stay in touch with the client. A scheduled follow-up call a month or two after you are done will let them know that you still care. Nurturing the future referral may be the most important task to be performed on any project.

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