Can You Hear Me?

Not long ago a remodeler was the person with a hammer in his tool belt and a pencil behind his ear. These days, he or she is just as likely to have a cellular phone or smartphone in his hand.

Fifty percent of remodelers say they regularly use a mobile phone, although face-to-face communication is still favored by many, according to a survey of Qualified Remodeler readers. Like the hammer and tool belt, traditional methods aren’t being abandoned indiscriminately even as times and techniques change.

The survey shows 90 percent of those polled say the time they spend communicating with clients has increased during the past five years. Nearly one-third assert communicating with clients comprises more than 10 percent of the time spent on a job.

Don’t expect to find remodelers frequently tweeting or texting their clients, however. More likely, they use their smartphones to actually speak to their customers the old-fashioned way, resorting to email for shorter communications. Texting, because of limitations imposed by its brevity, raises a caution flag with most remodelers. Social media barely shows on the radar when it comes to managing remodeling jobs.

Still, it would be misleading to imply remodelers are resistant to technology. Many use smartphone or other digital devices to make buying decisions (see ”Contractors Go Mobile to Make Purchase Decisions,” page 37). Nevertheless, they advise caution when it comes to communicating with clients, suggesting fellow remodelers reach out to homeowners by the means with which customers are most comfortable.

Expectations Have Changed

Regardless of the means, it’s evident communication is more important than ever. Technology, if it has done anything, has raised expectations independently of the medium. “I think as technology has become such an integral part of our daily lives, communication on all levels has changed drastically,” says Michael Menn, principal, Northbrook, Ill.-based Michael Menn Ltd. “I used to say my children’s generation is all about instant gratification, but it has moved on up the age ladder to where most clients want [answers] immediately.

“I have a few clients who still are semi-traditional and who like to see things in writing—not by mail but by email, however. They’ll wait a reasonable amount of time because more likely than not they are professionals—accountants or lawyers—who understand you just can’t get some things immediately,” he says.

Menn says he has changed his business model when it comes to communication. “I’m trying to get [information from clients] sooner, and I’m also trying to get it out sooner. Instead of making sets of plans and having the trades pick them up to bid on them, I send it to them electronically,” he says.

Most remodelers, Menn included, are not about to give up talking to clients, either in person or on the phone. “I would prefer to talk live because with text or email there is no tonality, and people can take it the wrong way. I can ask them if they understand or if they have questions. If I did that in a text or an email, they might take offense because I’m not using tone to get the point across,” he says.

Homeowners tend to want to be more involved with a job these days, says John Hourihan, director of pre-construction and operations manager of Allston, Mass.-based Boston Green Building. “Our guys talk to the client daily; three years ago it was once a week or less,” he relates. “We value communication just as we do quality, efficiency and schedule.”

Hourihan remembers remodelers and clients used to communicate by chance when the homeowner was returning home and the remodeler was leaving for the day. He maintains daily communication is important “because things come up, changes happen. If you don’t communicate, the client is upset because they don’t feel they’re totally involved. They feel once we sign the contract their back is up against the wall and it’s now our house, which isn’t the case,” he says.

Project managers are the primary point of contact with Boston Green Building’s clients, Hourihan says, and they communicate daily by email, texting, phone calls or face to face. “We gave all our guys iPhones, and we don’t know what we would do without them,” he says.

Boston Green Building’s communication plan begins with the initial contact and includes pre-construction meetings, weekly updates, an electrical walk-through after rough framing, and a blog on which photos and updates for the project are posted several times a week. In addition, the company creates an interactive “binder,” a cloud-based document containing project specifications, plans and schedules. The initial version of the binder is shared with the homeowner, while a version for the trades is available, as well.

“It sounds like a lot, but it’s not a crazy additional cost to offer this kind of service; it actually makes it easier for us to move forward and keep on schedule,” Hourihan says.

Use Appropriate Means

How one communicates depends a lot on circumstances. “Sometimes you have to have a face-to-face meeting. That’s determined by your gut feeling and relationship with the client, as well as the topic of discussion,” says Neil Bailey, project manager at Lynn Donaldson and Associates in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

“Telephone calls about some things totally suffice, but we found the memory of a phone call is very short-lived,” Bailey says. “If it’s not in writing it didn’t happen. It’s not that clients are trying to catch us on something; it’s that conversations on the fly are difficult to recall.”

Bailey recommends the use of project-management software, such as Basecamp (see “Project Management Software,” page 30), which allows notes and documents to be interactively shared with clients, subcontractors and others involved in a project. Notes from phone calls can be stored and retrieved as a hedge against memory lapses.

Just as phone calls have limitations, Bailey cautions against assuming texting and email are appropriate for every situation. “Ours is a very personal business. You’re in [your clients’] homes and you’re ripping apart their lives. There are times when it is only appropriate to go there, shake their hand, smile and look them in the eye, so they know you’re human, too, and you’re on their side as part of the team.

“Tone, inflection and body language are 60 percent of communication,” he cautions. “If you only communicate with written words, the possibility of misinterpretation is massive.”

Tipping Point

Bernie Smith, chief executive officer of Roswell, Ga.-based MasterWorks Atlanta, thinks many businesses are approaching a tipping point at which technology will begin to exert a greater role. Remodeling, he admits, may be a little slower to reach that point than some. “We just aren’t a technology-based industry and therefore we don’t have a lot of mentors to follow. You need to have the ability to reach out and discover things,” he says.

Nevertheless, he adds, “I think technology has brought our society to where we expect a very quick return on communication.

“It really comforts customers to get a response, even if it’s to say, ‘I don’t have an answer, but I did receive your communication and will get back to you.’ It’s much better than waiting until you have the information and getting back to them a day or two later. It’s a huge plus in keeping good rapport with them,” Smith says.

Texting is something Smith says he is seeing more of, but he cautions texts should be followed up by an email to make sure everybody has a document to refer back to. He also sees online databases growing in importance.

“I think the more information you share the better,” Smith says. “The question is how much; you have to be careful which documents you share.” He currently has a server-based intranet through which project information is shared, primarily among staff and subcontractors. Clients, however, do not have access to it.

As far as hardware, Smith recommends an iPad or Android tablet, depending on the operating system used in the business, and a smartphone that can link to it. He finds a tablet convenient to take to client meetings and an effective substitute for a laptop.

The prevalence and ease of new communication technologies is encouraging customers to have higher expectations and demand more, agrees consultant, speaker and author Mel DePaoli, president of Kirkland, Wash.-based Omicle: Contractors Doing it Right. “They have a right to it; work is being done on their house, and they need to know what’s going on,” she says.

Benefits Run Both Ways

The benefits run both ways, DePaoli adds. “Communication has been proven to make jobs go more smoothly, faster and cost less.”

Technology aside, barriers to communication exist. Industry jargon is one of them. Insiders know the jargon, but all the consumer knows is whether [the job] looks good and works when it’s completed, DePaoli explains. Remodelers shouldn’t forget clients don’t know what remodelers know, she cautions.

Also, it pays to keep in mind all forms of communication are not equal, DePaoli says. “How you explain something in person is different than how you explain it over the phone because you can’t see hand gestures and body language. All you can do is interpret the tone of voice and the words that are said,” she explains

“Now, when you move into email, it gets even worse because you can’t hear my voice or see my body language, so something I say is more likely to be miscommunicated,” she continues. “Text messaging is worse because of acronyms and shortened versions of words.

“It is the contractor’s responsibility to go to the client and say, ‘This is what I heard; I would like to confirm what you heard or your expectation.’ By taking the initiative, the contractor is building a better relationship and creating a better customer experience,” she says.

DePaoli agrees remodelers need to have a communication plan and structure instead of approaching it haphazardly. “The bigger the job, the more important it is,” she says.

She suggests remodelers assess their last three jobs. When did they talk to the customer? When should they have talked to the customer, and what kind of results did they get? Then, they should go back to those same three customers and ask them for their perception. How did the customer interpret the communications, and how would they have liked the contractor to communicate with them better? If necessary, DePaoli suggests remodelers seek outside help in formalizing a communications program

Little things mean a lot. “If you told the client you’d be there at 9 o’clock and you’re not going to make it until 10, pick up the phone and call,” she admonishes. “When the job is complete, they’re going to remember how open the contractor was and how often he communicated with them.”

Communications Are Internal, Too

Equally important, if not more so, is internal communication, DePaoli asserts. “Internal communication is a mirror for a company’s brand. If your employees like working for you, then your customers will like doing business with you,” she says.

“Clients remember not just the final product but how they felt during the process,” DePaoli says. “Every time they look at that job, they’re going to remember whether the contactor was supportive and open in his communications and whether he was easy to work with. Every holiday and every birthday party when someone comments on the work that was done, that’s what they’re going to talk about.”

Most remodelers agree communication is essential and acknowledge technology is a driving force behind customer expectations. But most also are sensitive to the fact that remodeling is a service- and relationship-driven business that still relies to a significant extent on old-fashioned in-person communications. They’re wary of abandoning what may be one of their greatest strengths.