The Inside Outside Guys: A message to contractors: Good communication is top priority

Ken Calverley and Chuck Breidenstein
Special to The Detroit News

Every week the Guys create an article directed to our listeners. For a little change of pace, we have chosen to direct this column to the contractors in our beloved industry.

These are trying times for anyone practicing the sweet science of building. Materials are largely unavailable when needed while at the same time prices for those products are climbing monthly.

Skilled workers are in very short supply while unskilled people willing to make a great living working for us are almost nonexistent.

Add to this near unprecedented demand for our services across all levels of the industry and a really wet summer season and you have the recipe for problems.

A great fallacy in construction Is that the more work you take on, the more money you will make. In decades spent interacting with contractors throughout the country a great truth emerged: You make the most and best money working within your ability to deliver timely, complete and professional jobs. Quit taking on work you may never get to. Say “no, thank you” to people that want you now when you know you can’t deliver a complete and professional job to them now.

Contractors make the most and best money working within their ability to deliver timely, complete and professional jobs.

Every good relationship tends to share a single common denominator, good communication. You have no excuse and every excuse to communicate badly with your clients in this economy. Too busy, too many calls, no one to staff the office, playing phone tag with them all day. Make good communication a priority, even if it means calling to say, "I’m sorry, we can’t get to your job.”

A professional sets the terms for communication protocols in the relationship. No doctor or attorney tells you to “call whenever” or “just stop by.” You are the professional. When do we talk and how do we communicate? Are there project milestones that dictate this or is it a daily issue for larger, more complex, projects? Put it in the contract, explain it and “enforce” it.

Contractors doing new homes or large remodel buildouts years ago left a notepad on the job and all concerns were to be expressed daily and in writing. Email allows for a digital, and documented, protocol that can be used 24 hours a day. Your client can share information with you at 2 a.m. knowing you will respond in an email during normal business hours tomorrow as per the contract. No more phone tag.

Always better to know your client’s concerns as soon as they exist and be the one to listen and respond.

The written contract is a key piece of communication required both by best practices and the law. Have a good construction attorney create some “boilerplate” for you based on what you do and what the law requires. There used to be big debate in the industry about the concept of “less is better with contracts.” Wrong! A contract is, by definition, the agreement reduced to writing. What’s the agreement? When are you starting and what are the specifications and the contingencies? What are job-site protocols and timeframes and what is the warranty and warranty procedure?

Many builders use a small booklet for a new home project contract and warranty and the owners have to invest several hours to go through it line by line and take notes. Six months down the road it will be important to make references to that meeting and those documents to reinforce exactly what was committed to. Create a scaled agreement that works for what you do and make it complete.

Practice active listening. Look for a negotiating skills course that focuses on active listening skills which we call a “toward” motivator; meaning people are attracted to you when you sincerely demonstrate listening.

Create clear, written, specifications even for smaller jobs. A specification is a specific product and/or process we will employ. It isn’t rocket science. If you know your business, you know your specs.

Warranty process and coverage should be clear and incorporated into the written agreement. What will you cover? Include written, measurable guidelines Everything is measurable in our Industry so you can create a written “sold” standard for what you do, then use that for sales and warranty. If you are a trim carpenter, you might say “All miter joints will be closed across the entire exposed face of the joint to within 1/32 of an inch”.

Take the time to do this once for the types of work you do; then it’s done forever. At you can purchase a modifiable data base of such guidelines for almost anything you do.

Remember that your price should reflect legitimate costs and growth and profit goals. Maintain your ethics. Never bid “by ZIP code.”

On the flip side, when people ask if you can lower your price always use two “tactics”. First, always say “yes.” Second, always follow that up with a question; “What do you want me to take out of the contract?” Because nothing is free. We work in an industry of very high risk. Giving anything away is not only foolish, but it devalues the things you are charging for, and studies have shown that buyers often have a negative long-term reaction to price cuts on an estimate.

They begin to wonder if they should have asked for more or if they are being over-charged. Remember, people are trading money for your expertise. Be the expert.

Issues will arise. Everything we do can be seen and touched and examined. Run toward issues. Confront them. Resolve them. Get them behind you and your customer.

Remember that your long-term reputation is built in economies like this one. How do want your company to be known? You aren’t out there every day to make friends, you are building a strong referral base by delivering timely and professional projects and providing solutions when issues arise.

Be a professional like those the Guys refer every day and like those you’ll find at

For housing advice and more, listen to the Inside Outside Guys every Saturday and Sunday on News/Talk 760, WJR-AM, from 10 a.m. to noon or contact us at