Adobe Sock / Worawut

For many builders, the actual construction portion of the job is simple. Challenges arise in the process of managing the other demands of running a business, including client relations, communication, and vetting clients. The factors beyond building are becoming more important as clients have a near constant pipeline of communication with builders through advanced technology and the labor shortage remains significant across the country. Nick Schiffer of NS Builders, Katie Kath of JKath Design Build + Reinvent, and Joe Christensen of Cardinal Crest Design Build shared best practices for managing these business demands with attendees during their education session at the 2022 International Builders' Show, moderated by BuilderTrend CEO and co-founder Dan Houghton.

Christensen said one way to guard against the many catalysts that can impact a job is to develop a repeatable process that allows for a correction to be made on the fly.

“You’ve got to have a process and a systemized approach to be a skeleton of your system so when things go haywire, you can set back to zero,” Christensen said during the “Beyond Building: Mastering the Demands of a Modern-Day Builder” IBS session. “When you don’t have that process, it’s really hard to reset with your team, with your subcontractors, and with the client.”

Kath and Schiffer emphasized that in addition to having repeatable processes in writing, communicating that process internally with team members is essential for success and for setting client expectations.

“Communication is the No. 1 focus in our business,” Schiffer said. “We try to set expectations [related to communication] upfront and repeatedly. We’re always talking about expectations and making sure we’re meeting with our clients on a regular basis. When we get to the end of the job, we’re also debriefing and understanding what we can continue to do and what we can learn from and improve upon. Then we’re taking that information to reset our expectations for the next job.

Managing Customer Communication
As clients become accustomed to immediate answers and near-constant service in other aspects of their life, many bring those same expectations into the home building process. However, Kath, Christensen, and Schiffer said it is important to set boundaries with clients to establish what type of communication will be acceptable during the a project.

“We have to train our clients. It’s a trust business—a very intimate business—and clients are probably spending the largest amount of money they’ve ever spent, so I do feel if we are in a sticky situation and can resolve it with a quick text, it’s not a bad place to be,” Kath said. “But, if you don’t ever start texting with clients, it usually doesn’t have to be that way.”

Schiffer agreed that in some cases, in an unusual situation or an emergency, a simple text can go a long way to putting a client’s mind at ease.

Christensen said the “onboarding process” for clients is almost as important as it is for new employees. In many cases, clients have never built a home before and many of their concerns can be alleviated by setting expectations early on in the process.

“[We tell clients how] we’re going to communicate with them. Long, 300-word texts will not constitute communication, it needs to be put in an email,” Christensen said. “If it’s not put in an email, we can’t be held accountable for that. And we’ve outlined these expectations with clients.”

Handling Bad Jobs and Vetting Clients
Despite the best efforts of builders, not all jobs will go perfectly. In the instances where jobs go poorly or customers are unhappy with the process, the entire process should be used as a learning experience, according to Christensen, Kath, and Schiffer. Christensen said Cardinal Crest’s worst customer experience was a stress test for the company, and Kath said JKath Design Build + Reinvent used its worst customer experience as a training and learning opportunity for the entire team. An element of avoiding bad customer experiences is sufficiently vetting potential clients to ensure they are the right fit for the company. However, even the best vetting options cannot guard against a job going poorly for a customer.

Schiffer said oftentimes when bad projects happen and clients are upset, builders tend to put all of their energy and resources toward fixing the problem or mediating the situation. While this is happening, though, other jobs that are often on track with enthusiastic clients get no energy or attention. Schiffer said a big personal takeaway from such negative experiences is to not allow the negativity to take away energy and attention from the opportunity to deliver a great experience to other clients.