“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
- George Bernard Shaw
Client communication. It’s a critical component of any construction job - and it’s the easiest thing to get wrong.
While communication is important in any industry, the critical role it plays in construction cannot be understated. Poor communication on a building project can equate to losses of thousands - or millions - of dollars. Bad communication on site can lead to safety hazards, causing injury or even death.
And the emotional involvement of clients can really complicate things… If you thought Twin Peaks was dramatic, wait till you see a homeowner planning their first renovation. Building and budget misunderstandings can cause tears, payment delays, lawsuits, and 3am phone calls from enraged relatives.
Even the best construction managers have found themselves battling ‘the divide’ - that gap in understanding between you and your client. Do they fully understand the costs, timelines and technicalities of their project? Does your client know why delays occur, or accept the potential risks involved? Are they feeling comfortable and confident from the first meeting through to project completion? Do they understand that you don’t personally control the weather?
If you answered no to any of these questions, chances are you need to work on your client communication. Follow these 7 steps to ensure happier clients and repeat business.
1. Establish credibility immediately
Your first meeting with a client should build a foundation of trust. They want to feel assured that you’re the right person for the job. This is not the time to be humble - make sure you tell them about similar projects you’ve worked on. Show them your digital portfolio and explain to them how those previous successes relate to what you’re about to build.
The importance of these early impressions can’t be stressed enough. The confidence you instil in your client now will set the tone for the whole project. If they’re convinced of your expertise they’re more likely to deal with future problems or delays in good faith. Likewise, if you come across as insecure or inexperienced, you’ll end up with a jittery, nervous client looking over your shoulder for the next 3 months.
2. Avoid industry jargon & buzzwords
Construction is the love of your life. You live and breathe it’s language every day. When talking to a client it’s easy to drop terms like screeding, balloon framing and backing rods. But do your client’s eyes ever glaze over when you’re speaking?
Excessive technical terms, buzzwords and jargon can destroy an otherwise positive customer experience - this applies to all industries, everywhere. But you’re particularly at risk in highly specialised fields like construction. There are thousands of terms that seem normal to builders, engineers and contractors that would boggle the mind of any normal person.
Using construction industry jargon when speaking to a non-industry client is problematic for two reasons:
1) It impedes clarity. Your client is less likely to understand the details of their project; and they may be too embarrassed to ask for an explanation. This can lead to serious problems down the road when the outcomes are not what they expect.
2) It’s bad manners. Even if you’re doing it unknowingly, excessive construction jargon can seem deliberate - like you’re trying to appear more knowledgeable than your client. You’re likely to come across as arrogant or inconsiderate.
The longer you’ve been in construction the harder it is to recognise your own use of jargon. But like any bad habit, it can be broken with a little perseverance.
Tip: Take an impartial friend (someone who isn’t a builder) out for coffee, and explain your most recent construction project in detail. Get them to point out every word or phrase they don’t understand. You might be surprised how long the list is.
3. Choose one point of contact
One of the most frustrating things for a client is not knowing who to contact when things go wrong. I’m panicking about the floorboards leaking - do I call Gus the carpenter, Mandy the general contractor, John the plumber, or the moustache guy with the clipboard?
It’s a big problem in construction because there are so many parties involved, even on modest projects. Site supervisors, contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, electricians... Things get even more complicated when architects and consultants join the party. Who answers to who?
The internal chain of command is usually written into your contract details, and this is important for all teams to function effectively. What’s often forgotten is that your client may not understand this hierarchy, especially if they haven’t read the fine print.
With this in mind, it’s good practice to give your client a single point of contact. This person should hold some authority, be willing to feed information to the team and make executive decisions. Establish ways for the client to reach them. If there is really a need for a specialist contact, make this crystal clear - don’t have your client do the work finding out.
This is not just about convenience. If your client has one point of contact they’re more likely to feel like everything’s going smoothly (even if there’s secret internal chaos!). It helps you to keep your messaging consistent and there’s less scope for misunderstanding.
4. Practice active listening
Are you a good listener? The simple truth is that most people aren’t. In fact research has shown we only remember between 25 and 50 percent of what we’re told. In some ways technology has made this worse by simplifying our communication habits - how often do you send texts, emails, and emojis instead of a spoken conversation?
Having recognised this problem, many professional organisations now offer training in ‘active listening’. Active listening is when you truly focus on the speaker and process their meaning, instead of letting your mind wander somewhere else.
Active listening is essential for good client management. Often just by listening to your clients you can solve problems, increase accuracy and prevent conflict. Poor listening has ruined plenty of marriages, so I’ll go out on a limb and say it can destroy an already tense client relationship!
Here are some active listening tips:
- Speed. Some people take longer than others to process information. If they're a slow speaker, try to talk at the same speed.
- Mirroring. Subtly match their gestures and expressions. Not in a creepy mime way, but just enough to show empathy and understanding.
- Questioning. Ask relevant questions to clarify statements and show attentiveness. Always wait for a natural pause, don’t interrupt.
- Make eye contact. This encourages your speaker by showing you’re attentive. Don’t overdo it though, aggressive staring is intimidating! Gauge the right amount.
- Reflection. Paraphrase what they’ve said and repeat it back to them. This shows your understanding, or gives them a chance to correct you.
This last point is the most important. Repeating information back to the client ensures you’re both on the same page. It might feel weird at first, but you’ll avoid many misunderstandings just by following this simple step.
5. Define the rules of engagement
I’m not talking about some elaborate military code (although I did just watch Sicario, and it was awesome). I mean the rules of engagement in a business sense - setting standards for efficient communication and behaviour.
Why do rules need to be set? Because all clients have different communication expectations. You might be doing a renovation for a first homeowner - the house is their pride and joy and they’re chewing through their nails with worry. Even minor decisions about spouting send them into a full-blown panic. They want to be updated by phone at least 4 times a day.
On the other hand, your client may be a detached overseas investor who’d rather keep the chit chat to a minimum. Maybe they’ve got several projects on the go, and couldn’t care less about the minor details as long as everything gets done. They expect a monthly phone call or written progress report, and nothing more.
Whichever type of client they are, you need to establish this from the outset so no-one is disappointed. Here are some good points to discuss:
- How often does the client expect updates and reports?
- What channels of communication will you use?
- What information do you need from the client, and when?
- Who is the key point of contact for the client?
- Are there certain hours or times of day when either party doesn’t want contact?
6. Use visual technology
Your client is spending good money to make their dream a reality - they want to know exactly what they’re getting. Technology has caught up with this demand, and no longer will some hand-drawn sketches or a few photos cut it. Today clients expect to see immersive 3D representations of buildings that don’t exist. They want beautifully rendered CGI graphics, complete with fake trees and smiling imaginary people. It’s your job to give them this virtual experience.
Don’t be frightened - even the smallest construction firms can be competitive in this area. The evolution of technology has been rapid, and there are more affordable tools on the market than ever before. By harnessing visual technology you can revolutionise the way you communicate with clients. You can understand your client’s vision (and they can understand yours) in a way not possible before.
- Hover let’s you create a 3D interactive model of a property using photos from your smartphone. Show your client what building renovations will look like in real-time. Hover’s algorithm can even generate building measurements based on photographs!
- Multivista is an online construction photography and visual documentation service. They offer customised video, photo and webcam solutions for construction projects. Give your clients instant mobile access to a complete photographic record of their project.
- Cadsoft offers comprehensive Building Information Modeling (BIM) software and is used by residential construction firms of all sizes. Among its many features Cadsoft offers professional, conceptual design tools to present creative ideas to your clients.
7. Be transparent
You’re nearing the end of the project. The building looks great, everything went smoothly and client communication was a breeze. Then you hand them the invoice and their world suddenly implodes. Their cheeks redden and their hands start to quiver. A nasty surprise on a client’s invoice is bad news for them - and it’s very bad news for you. It can damage your company’s reputation in a heartbeat.
Why do these surprises happen? Because delays and unexpected costs are a natural part of the construction industry. I’m sure you already know the thousands of things that can go wrong - suppliers fall through, subcontractors mysteriously disappear, schedules clash, even the weather can put a dampener (haha) on your project timeline. Luckily most clients understand this, and don’t expect all things to go 100% smoothly.
But if your invoice isn’t transparent that’s when the real problem begins. You can’t throw extra hours or fees on an invoice without detailing why. So on a complex project, how can you keep track of every single little cost and every minute of scope creep?
The answer is quite simple - invest in some awesome project management software and it does the work for you. WorkflowMax is your holy grail tool for generating detailed invoices. Your clients will know exactly what they’re paying for - it’s the final stage of smooth communication.
With WorkflowMax you can:
- Create custom hourly rates for team members
- Create custom rates for different tasks
- Enter timesheets on the go
- Override rates if something goes wrong
- Pull through complete cost details from your timesheets
- Edit the final invoice before it’s sent
- Produce detailed, beautifully branded invoices
These features (and many more) are one of the reasons WorkflowMax is so popular with clients in the construction industry. In fact, construction companies are one of our biggest user groups.
If you enjoyed this post, here’s some further reading:
- How to implement time tracking at your construction firm
- Builders - is it time to implement project management software in your construction business?
- Builders and construction companies - what do you need on your website?