Service Through Structure
Who's ultimately in control of a remodeling project? Let's think about that: It's the clients who are funding the job—you have to keep them happy if you want to get paid. They decide what they want done, how much to spend, and when they'll do the project. It's their house and they, not you, have to live in it—so if you don't do what they want it can't be much of a service you're providing. Your job is just to make sure they're happy: As so many recent business books and magazine articles have said over and over again, your role is total customer satisfaction.
So it's obviously the client who's in control.
But then how do you reconcile this fact with the harsh truth that a client-controlled project is almost always a doomed project? In my experience, if the client's in charge, I'm in deep trouble. Furthermore, irony of ironies, if the clients are in control, the clients themselves are in trouble. Forget about the contractor—how often have you seen a client-controlled project end happily for the clients themselves? I'm not talking about clients who are extreme control freaks. Control freaks are hardly ever happy with anything, and it's very hard to work with them. I'm talking instead about normal clients who are in charge primarily because we contractors put them in charge.
How do we put the client in charge? I can think of two primary ways:
For a long time, the (well-deserved) reputation of remodeling contractors was that we did what we wanted—showed up when we wanted, then selected products and construction techniques based on our own personal convenience regardless of what the plans and specs said—basically treating the client's home as our sole domain and the clients themselves as a necessary nuisance.
Too Much Wow?
There's still some of that behavior within the industry. But steadily, with the increasing professionalism of many remodeling companies, the pendulum has been swinging the other way. You now see more and more remodeling companies bending over backwards to try to "wow" the client with an extremely high level of service and accountability.
It's in our attempts to wow the client that we're most at risk of putting them in charge, because one of the easiest mistakes we can make is to assume that to totally satisfy the client we need to do whatever the client asks. Let the client wait until the cabinets are installed to select the countertop material. Let the client use their brother-in-law for a plumber. Let the client not pay the architect for any more drawings and have us build with the inadequate documentation we've got. Let the client have us shut off our saws between 2 and 3 o'clock so the toddler can nap. Do whatever they ask in order to achieve total customer satisfaction.
The truth, of course, is that doing whatever the clients ask is not the shortest route to client satisfaction—it's one of the more arduous routes, because it means the contractor cedes control. It can become an anything-goes atmosphere on the job site, and the first to suffer is your crew, the second is you as the owner, and finally, it's the client.
A Good Set of Rules
The only way to maintain control and high levels of satisfaction is through structure. Our first job as professional remodeling contractors should be to provide a good, solid structure for a project, from the planning stage through the punchlist completion and warranty follow-up. And what creates structure is a good set of rules. It's analogous to a great sports match-up. Imagine a truly great baseball game. A great deal of such a game's beauty and satisfaction is that it's played within a construct of very clear and strictly enforced rules. Can you imagine any excitement or even any interest at all from a baseball game played with no rules? I think the analogy holds for remodeling projects: They are much more interesting and satisfying for all involved if there are rules that are clearly communicated and gently and firmly enforced.
That's because clear, appropriate rules create a well-defined structure, and people appreciate structure—people whose house is being ripped apart by strangers are, in fact, intensely appreciative of structure. And keep in mind that the people who are responsible for putting it back together—your crew—are equally grateful for a clear structure.
To serve as a solid enough structure, the rules creating that structure need to be easy to remember and easy to enforce with consistency. That typically means they should be relatively few in number. They need also to be of clearly mutual and reciprocal benefit to you and your crew and to the client.
Mostly, they need to be your rules, meaning you need to believe in them to your very core. Otherwise you will not enforce them with confidence and assertiveness. They need to be from your experience—heart-felt responses to the problems you keep having on your projects that you want to learn to avoid.
Here are the rules I've come up with over the years in response to problems I was trying to keep from repeating or eagerly trying to avoid:
These rules create our structure, and that structure enables us to do extraordinary things for our clients. And not one of these rules prevents us from hearing the client or responding to their requests—the rules do not put us at risk of diminishing the quality of the service we offer. Not one of them puts our interests ahead of the client's, or the client's ahead of ours. They create an even playing field.
I can't sit here and say that I never break any of these rules; just ask my crew. I can say, however, that whenever I lose control of a project and it starts going sour, I can trace the root cause of the problem directly to a moment when I did break one of these rules. Hopefully, I will learn from that mistake and will have stronger resolve the next time around.
Once at a piano lesson I stumbled at a certain passage. I stopped playing and said, in frustration, "I always make that mistake." My piano teacher just looked at me and said, "Well, why do you practice it that way then?" I just looked at him. Of course the reason I kept making the mistake was simply because that's the way I always did it-I was doing nothing to correct myself. His suggestion: Just before the troublesome passage, stop, take a breath, position my fingers just right, and don't play a note until I'm sure it's the right note. Over time, I will play it right without having to stop.
I've always remembered that particular lesson and have applied it to my business more than once. I've learned to recognize (not infallibly, but usually) the moments at which I'm most tempted to break one of my essential rules—to weaken the structure—and at those times to stop, take a breath, and wait until I know just what I want to say before saying anything. In that way, over time, I steadily reinforce our structure—and the quality of the service we provide.
Learn more about us
Review our goals