Client management

Remodelers’ relationships with clients can require as much hard work as the remodeling project itself. Remodelers know the ins and outs of construction and what can and can’t be done, and are tasked with successfully balancing that knowledge with clients’ sometimes unrealistic expectations. Although the news media often covers stories about homeowners who are unhappy with their contractors, the other side of the equation is the contractor who encounters difficult homeowners — a story that rarely gets told.

Protect yourself

Jim Bacon, general sales manager with Elmira, N.Y.-based Slavin Construction, notes “unforeseens” are among their most common issue. “For example, if we’re doing a roof that’s in bad shape, an unforeseen could be rotted wood,” he explains. In the past, customers have tried to blame Slavin Construction for those unforeseens. Bacon says the customer often thinks the unexpected problem and the extra work to remedy it are part of the normal scope of work.

To combat this scenario, Bacon created paperwork the customer must review and sign, certifying that when an unforeseen pops up, there is no way Slavin Construction could have had prior knowledge of it. “When we pull a wall or roof apart, sometimes we see leaking that has been going on for years,” Bacon explains.

The paperwork, which was drafted with the help of an attorney, is separate from the main contract. “It essentially says we reviewed the contract thoroughly, everything meets or exceeds expectations, the price is right and any unforeseens will be determined on the jobsite,” Bacon explains. “It’s a fairly simple form, which is the beauty of it. It really seems to have stopped that scenario.”

Clutter, clutter everywhere

All remodel jobs will necessitate contractors working around a homeowner’s possessions. Some homeowners, however, have far more possessions than others, and can sometimes be classified as hoarders. Laura Watson, design department manager with The Cleary Co., Columbus, Ohio, connects customers with a personal organizer who helps homeowners organize their homes prior to construction or when they’re putting items away after the job is complete. Before construction begins, the Cleary team has a pre-construction meeting with clients to let them know what needs to be moved and what measures the homeowner needs to take to keep possessions and people safe. “If they don’t, it’ll hold up the job because if our guys feel like they’d be in danger of breaking something or hurting themselves, they won’t start the job until that is addressed,” she says.

Slavin Construction recently completed a huge job that necessitated work in the kitchen, den, laundry room and basement. “These people were pack rats,” Bacon recalls. “They had so much clutter in this house. It’s one of the reasons they were wanting all this expansion, but at the same time, it didn’t look like they were throwing anything out. We had to move huge rooms of stuff to get into another room to complete a certain portion of the job. It delayed the overall job; probably 15 percent of our budgeted production time was spent being movers. The customer became frustrated it was taking longer, so in a respectful and polite way, we had to remind them we basically became part-time movers to get the job done.”

Change order conundrums

“The hardest thing we deal with are change orders,” Watson shares. Even though material selections are made prior to signing the contract, a handful of change orders are to be expected as the client sees the project coming together. Some clients, however, create more than a few. “We have a job where the client is in constant movement and sees things she wants to change every day; it’s hard to keep up with her,” Watson says. “It’s hard because if your electrician is on-site doing work per the contract and the client asks for additional electrical work, the electrician wants to do it right then and there, rather than having to come back. At the same time, however, we don’t want to have the electrician do that extra work without first giving the client a price, because then the client could come back and argue the price. Sometimes we need to put the job on hold until a client signs the change order.”

Many of the small commercial jobs Watson works on involve committees that make selections. When too many of the committee members are communicating with the remodeler, it can become difficult to keep up with all the decisions. In these situations, Watson encourages the committee to choose one person to be the spokesperson and point of contact.

E. DeForest (Sandy) Winslow, LaGrange, Ga.-based Splash Kitchens & Baths, recently completed a whole-house remodel that included 50 change orders; a typical project involves only one to five change orders, Winslow says. To stay ahead of any potential misunderstanding or disagreement down the road, Winslow required all change requests to be in written form, and that any change order must be made immediately, and all communication to be documented. Because of the online scheduling, communication and change order system Winslow uses, the client could see the amount of money being spent on changes, causing the client to remove several changes that otherwise would have further inflated costs.

Scott Sevon, GMR, GMB, CGP, CGR, CAPS, of Palatine, Ill.-based MAW Chicago, also deals with continuous changes. “We have clients that continually make changes or bring in designs, real estate agents or others who want to make their selections.”

Another new challenge of recent years is unrealistic expectations, he notes. “As we deal with more high-end clients, their expectations — no matter how we set them — are very difficult to meet,” Sevon says, due in part to television shows where jobs are completed almost overnight. “Most programs don’t show any behind-the-scene selections, which on TV are being mostly made by professionals and are not client-driven.”

Although not all client-contractor problems can be eliminated, setting realistic expectations and maintaining open and clear communication lines before and during the process can greatly alleviate frustrations. QR