Three-Way Communications Involving the Client

A woodworker who subcontracts on custom job needs advice on meetings and decisions involving the client. What are the rules of the road on a three-way street? October 25, 2006

I have a recurring issue that I'd like some input on. For most of our work, we are hired by a contractor. Typically we are building to an architect's design, and all the details aren't completely hashed out. So I prepare preliminary drawings based on the architect's drawings, and forward them to the contractor, who distributes them to his client and the architect.

Then there is typically a meeting between myself, the contractor, and the client. We review our shop drawings, discuss hardware options and other changes, and make sure the client is comfortable with the design. Then we make the changes and submit the final drawings for approval.

Subsequently, or in the process of working out the details, the client may contact me directly to ask about some detail that we discussed in that meeting. So I will answer. And maybe some other issue will be brought up, and I'll answer that. So the problem has arisen that in my efforts to give good service to the clients, side issues have come up that screw with the project.

In our current project, the client asked me about finishes. So I told them some options. Apparently, this has opened a can of worms that is complicating the finish decision. So the contractor and I are going to work out a protocol for ways to avoid confusion and keep things sailing smoothly in the future. I'd love to get input from others about how they work in this type of situation.

If you're hired by the contractor, do you deal with the client at all? If you do, do you have a process of information exchange that works smoothly? What are other problems that can arise?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor D:
I have been put in that position before and it is frustrating. You can spend an enormous amount of time acting as middleman between contractor and client. Who pays for that time? If the contractor hires you and he is paying the bill, he is the one you should deal with. If contacted by the homeowner, you could inform him that he needs to contact his contractor, who will present him with any options he may have. If not, you risk getting your contractor mad at you, thinking you are trying to work the homeowner against him.

From contributor C:
This is an issue that arises often when you are personable and likeable and the client likes chatting with you. I always copy the contractor and architect when clients contact me. I always mention when things can slow down the process or complicate the finish which relates to re-bidding and price reviewing. I never discuss price specifics directly with the client, other than it will increase the price. I also try to stress that time is money when you're planning, bidding, or preparing samples, or re-quoting due to alternate material ideas. Make a form for client contact meetings which can be faxed to all parties, which touches on the essence of the conversation. Something as simple as a fax cover sheet with notes on it. When they see how much this meddling slows things down, it usually helps. They will always respect your diligence to be thorough.

From contributor J:
Every time this starts, I remind myself of my true position in this arrangement. As a sub under the contractor, I am now a representative of his company with all the interests and precautions they would assume. This is very different from directly dealing with a client in a one-on-one arrangement, and I really had to train myself out of saying too much. I am very careful these days to keep answers strictly within my area of the work over which I am expected to have control. I will often happily help out with a side problem if it makes everybody a little happier to have it done. It's killer PR to have them feeling a little like they owe you.

When they start with the questions about how things should be done, though, I don't even touch another area. Not even an opinion on paint colors. If they persist, I will offer to contact the GC as his guy on the scene to forward the question. I really hate having my toes stepped on, which makes it easier to remember *my* status in these deals. A complicated protocol may be hard to remember, can't really cover every scenario, and will likely chew up a lot of your time to establish.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for your responses thus far! Contributor C, distributing meeting notes is a great idea (a forehead slapper). And you're right, it doesn't have to be complicated or time-consuming.

In the case of our current project, the contractor himself wasn't at the client meeting. It was his on-site super. I'm thinking I should insist that the contractor himself meet with us. I think that would have avoided this particular problem.

From contributor T:
You touched on a topic we discuss at my shop with some regularity. The three biggest areas of concern for us these days are: Client Control - Manufacturing Methods - Training Systems. Obviously, if you do a good job of the first one, the other two become much simpler.

There are different rules for retail sales and contractor sales. Contractor issues can be subdivided into the kind you have with large firms and the kind you have with small firms. You hinted at this when differentiating between the GC (who has authority and responsibility) and the Site Superintendent (who may have, and/or want, neither).

When working for general contractors, we seem to have the most success with smaller shops (5 to 10 guys). In part, this is because firms this size are small enough to notice good service (and experienced enough to appreciate it.)

We have, however, had some problems lately with small start-up contractors. These guys used to work for the big players and presume to have similar clout. The problem is that they haven't yet got into their groove. These guys will show up in a neighborhood and get offered a lot of work, but they usually don't have the discipline to turn it down or the infrastructure to support it.

The really big contractors are the toughest. Nobody on the job site seems to have any motivation to wrap the project up. These firms staff the superintendents from a pool of candidates that either washed out in their own businesses or are fresh from the university construction management programs, in which case, they really believe in their Gant Charts, but they haven't yet figured out it's really all about relationships. You can usually recognize the former group by their bifocals. These are guys in their late 40's-early 50's that finally get to be "the millwork manager" on a job site. These guys get a death grip on that clipboard and taking it away from them will be like trying to blast Patty Murray out of the US Senate. They'll invent reasons for paperwork that the Germans haven't even yet conceived. They are looking for anything to have something to bring up at the Tuesday meeting.

In all cases, you will be responsible for documents that affect you. Nobody else has a horse in that race and nobody else cares a nickel for your profit margin. You may indeed have a very good relationship with that General Contractor, but I will guarantee you that he will go out for lunch with any cabinetmaker that wants to show him his portfolio and is willing to buy him a hamburger.

The key thing to remember is that it is not about documenting, but really about communicating. You may do a good job of documenting, but a lousy job of communicating. If something gets past the Site Superintendent and his boss has to come up with some cash, you had better believe the Super will find a way to make you pay.

I think you are smart to consider these issues. Dealing with them proactively will give you a lot more control of the outcome than trying to resolve them on an ad hoc basis.

One tip you might consider is sequence. If I am concerned about an issue, I generally start it out with an email. This way, I can wrap the issue in the semantics I prefer and am certain that my concerns have been documented. I follow that email up with a friendly phone call. Step 1 is the email, Step 2 is the phone call. If there is going to be paper attached to the conversation, it is usually less confrontational to have the paper flow first.

From the original questioner:
Contributor T, thanks for your response. You are in fine form as always! I completely agree with you about email first and phone call after. Also, I agree that there is no substitute for good communication. I think about that with regard to the shop floor a lot. There are so many systems, forms, and protocols that could be enacted in a manufacturing environment, but many of them are unnecessary - especially in a small shop - if there is just good communication. This keeps systems simple and cost of complexity low.

I guess I'm looking for a few rules that govern the client relationship in my scenario. Maybe it goes like this:
1) meetings with the end user always include the contractor;
2) if the contractor isn't present, I email and/or call to brief him on the meeting before taking any action as a result of the meeting;
3) any direct communication with the client is cc'd to the contractor or relayed via phone conversation.

From contributor R:
I have had problems several times with clients who want to "help" with a project or who keep questioning every step of the process. I'm a one-man show. My biggest remodels, decks, etc. last, at most, 8 weeks. On my latest deck project, the client repeatedly has questioned things like how deep into the ground support posts must go, the size of beams that span long distances for the overhead. He and his wife thought it would be so much more simple (and cheaper). He's also "helping," but he insists that's only at my direction. Why should I have to explain common carpentry methods and standards at every turn? I've told him several times he's not going to save much by helping, since I'll inevitably have to continually correct, explain, etc. Probably should have declined the job, but I'm already into it. Any thoughts or suggestions?

From contributor W:
Tell him you have to add him to your "insured worker" list if he helps, and explain that the insurance rider will add 3 bazillion dollars to the cost of the project.

From contributor N:

Contributor R, I agree with you. You are being paid to complete a project, not train a non-employee. I do not mind educating the customer, but there is a line between customer education and employee training. If it sounds to you like he has crossed this line, then he has.

Why did you tell him that "he's not going to save much by helping"? This still gives him some incentive to continue "helping." Maybe he is trying to learn your trade by watching and answering questions? Then, next time he will not need to hire someone? Well, you have already said it, so you might try this.

Explain to him that you have looked at your schedule and you have determined, since he is helping, you are now behind schedule and probably will not finish on time. Furthermore, as he continues to help and slow you down your labor costs, travel expenses, overhead expenses, and other costs for the job are increasing due to the extra length of the project. Explain to him that you will need to add those extra costs to his cost of the project. If he complains, simply explain to him that if he leaves you alone, and does not help, you can finish the project within the original cost for the project. Then, do not give him any further direction for helping. If he starts to help again, remind him of your conversation.