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Top Four Things Your Client Needs to Understand


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If only smooth and easy client communications was a project tool you could pull out and use at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, that’s hardly the case. For contractors serving owners, there is often a breakdown in communication that leads to disputes and bad feelings. Some of that is simply poor communication skills. However, there is a larger list of culprits best described as misunderstandings. 

Unless you tamp down wishful thinking, you'll have to deal with the fallout when things don't work out as assumed.

Vagueness causes misunderstandings since it leaves things open for interpretation and assumptions. If you tell a client you think something's possible without explaining why it might not be possible, there's a good chance the client will assume you're going to deliver it. In spite of all the present evidence to the contrary, people usually tend to expect to get what they want. Assumptions become their expectations; unless you tamp down wishful thinking, you'll have to deal with the fallout when things don't work out as assumed.

Taking control of these misunderstandings requires you to be coldly realistic about your abilities. Maybe someone else can do what they want. If so, you're usually better off to let "someone else" do the project. If you're not sure you and your team can pull it off, there are going to be a ton of misunderstandings. Here are some suggestions for preventing them.

1. Establish a Clear Owner Channel

Some owners provide strong leadership for their projects, ensuring there is one person who coordinates with the contractor. They provide clear direction, coordinate design, oversee selections, and make sure that everyone on the owner's team makes decisions timely. 

Unfortunately, such a strong owner presence is often lacking. This is often acutely evident in residential projects where a married couple is acting as owner builders. If the two aren't expecting the same outcomes for the project, you'll be hard-pressed to deliver something that pleases both. Begin by asking dual owners to decide who will be their leader. 

You want the owner's leader to engage with all the owner's team, acting as the liaison between the owner's people and you. You should also set up information protocols between the owner's leader and yourself, or one person on your team. 

2. Ensure Information Sharing

Misunderstandings often arise when information is inaccurate, missing, or irrelevant. The best way to guard against this is to have an information sharing system that relies on a single source of information, like project management software in the cloud.  

Some of the biggest information challenges are requests for information and processing specifications.

Some of the biggest information challenges are requests for information and processing specifications. In the consumer market, specifications are often in the wind, waiting for owners to make a decision. If you don't help them understand their various options and don't track their progress (using reminders as needed), it's highly likely they'll misunderstand their choices and delay making selections. 

A key consideration here is to establish an owner feedback loop. Whether you have regular meetings with the owner, you provide a daily report, or both. Thus, you can keep the owner informed and ask for their feedback, which helps you see miscommunications as they develop.

3. Clearly Define Deliverables

The consumer construction market is helped somewhat by DIY television programming and the internet. Consumers shouldn't be as much in the dark about construction processes and materials as in the past. But, there's another edge to this new-found, easy knowledge—consumer understanding of construction is often simplified to the extreme, opening up greater chances for misunderstandings. It's not really as easy as 1,2,3. Existing conditions that can derail the best of plans lurk in everything that isn't known about the site and the existing structure.

Each party that interacts in a build has deliverables. If you're the GC, you've got to deliver a finished project. Your subs have to deliver their portion. The suppliers must deliver the materials and equipment. The owner, on the other hand,  must deliver direction, funds and timely selections. Be specific in all your contract documents by describing exactly what is due, when, and by whom.

4. Take the Lead on Project Requirements

Ensuring the scope is realistic given all the variables is also on the builder. 

Consumers often contract directly with builders. That leaves the builder to ferret out exactly what the owner wants. Ensuring the scope is realistic given all the variables is also on the builder. You've got to define overall project goals, expected outcomes, characteristics of spaces, material quality, critical milestones, zoning compliance, code compliance, and technical aspects of equipment and utilities. All of that must finally mesh with the budget.

Provide owners with a contract document that defines the requirements for the project before signing a contract on the work. It should list:

  • Owner's goals, priorities and exactly what constitutes success,
  • All the project details in a way that clearly tells the type of equipment, materials, and finishes included,
  • Items owners must select and when selections are due,
  • All aspects that are not certain, or likely to cause change orders.

Avoid misunderstandings by carefully covering the details of the project with the owner, refining scope as needed. This way each party understands not just the project outcomes, but their roles in delivering the project on time and on budget. Avoid misunderstandings by communicating clearly, being specific in your contract documents, and keeping expectations realistic. 

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