Contractors readily admit that they struggle to develop reliable systems that track clients' selections and keep jobs on schedule. Those struggles are why many have turned to new partners and solutions to resolve an old dilemma or to get product selection off of their desks. Design/build and full-service remodelers are hiring interior designers, in-house or as partners, to work with existing selection systems, or to have those partners incorporate new technologies with the process.
Larry Parrish of Parrish Construction, Boulder, Colo., has hired a part-time interior designer to work through the selections process with clients. The designer uses the company's "virtual showroom," a conference room set up with a Smart Board ( www.smarttech.com), which is a 4-by-5-foot touch screen connected to a computer and the Internet.
The interior designer can visit Web sites and display images of products or project photos that are saved on the hard drive. Then clients can make and initial selections on the large screen. Images can be saved and printed.
Bruce Snyder of Penn Contractors in Alburtis, Pa., is investing $195 a month for a new online project management tool that includes a product selection module. Called My Design Build Project ( www.mydesignbuildproject.com), it allows clients to log on to a password-protected site, linked to the remodeler's Web site, and view product selections from preferred vendors. Those vendors have access to clients' plans via the site, so when clients visit their showrooms, vendors know what clients need and what to offer them as options.
Meanwhile, via a gatekeeping module, the remodeler sees when clients enter or exit the system.
So far, Snyder, and a dozen other early users, is pleased with the system, although it does require that vendors and clients are comfortable with, and have access to, the Internet.
Paper systems work
For those who have been burned by technology solutions (Parrish has tested some and found them "long on promise, short on delivery"), there are always good paper systems to fall back on.
Carolin Fast of MRF Construction, Tacoma, Wash., uses a numbering system based on the 25 HomeTech estimating codes. "We divide the massive literature we receive on products into the same 25 codes and place them in the bookcases in our office," she says. "So we have binder upon binder of the different products."
MRF gives clients a selections time line, with due dates. Customers are given supplier contact information while their project is in design. If they run into snags, they're offered the services of the in-house interior designer/production expeditor at $55 an hour. If the project gets to construction contract and something isn't specified, clients are given allowances. Fast always sets the number high, because she feels it's better to refund than ask for more.
The interior designer tracks the purchased products and logs their selection in a project binder with the same codes tabbed. Code 22, for instance, is reserved for specialty items. The designer calls clients on Fridays to make sure they're staying on track with selections.
At MRF, once items are delivered, they're verified and staged until the project start date, with cabinets and appliances delivered to the site, where the designer verifies their delivery and specifications.
"This all works great until the client changes their mind, which inevitably happens," Fast says. "However, by having this all specified so clearly, changes are much easier to process."
There are also ways to give clients incentives to speed the selections process, says Bill Owens of Owens Construction Contracting, Powell, Ohio, who knows first hand. While he doesn't regularly use incentives or promise them contractually, for clients slow to make decisions, he offers a 1% rebate of contract cost to get selections made on time.
Parrish, for one, reports success with using an interior designer for selections. Before working with a part-time designer for the past six months, he found selections difficult. "No one was driving the process," he says. Now, he can charge an hourly rate for the designer's time, include a markup, and get selections made on time.
"It has sped up the process and made it easier for the client, instead of throwing them to the wolves," he says. "Once you're into design/build, you need to have an interior designer as well as an architectural designer. I think it's a growing trend and we're going to see more of it.
"Product selection is overwhelming' there's so much product out there," Parrish says. His designer uses the Internet and the white board and samples in house to narrow selections.
Mike Owings of Owings Brothers Contracting, Eldersburg, Md., pushes for a flat rate interior design fee with clients -- $5,000 for a whole-house remodel. If clients refuse that route, he suggests consultants for lighting, plumbing, tile, and other selections.
"We'll farm you out to who you need to make selections with, and you better be timely," he says. "The nice thing about having the designer is that it's a second person hammering them for selections."
"Most of my clients do not work with interior designers, so they usually lean on us," says Snyder, who signed up with My Design Build Project. He says the project management tool "gives us the opportunity to post all the needed product selections, all the information they need to give us. And we can direct clients to whom they need to talk to."
He says prior to using the online tool, he'd give clients a printed sheet of vendors, which they'd inevitably lose. "If people are using the Web, and especially if they have a high-speed connection, it's pretty handy," he says. "We have two clients who are on it every day."
Web of selections
Joe Dellanno, creator of My Design Build Project, officially introduced it Nov. 1, 2003. By late November, it had 15 contractor users and 200 people (including vendors and clients) on the system.
Dellanno is committed to working out the bugs of the new system, including slow uploads of large files. As a designer who has "lived in the belly of the beast" for the past 15 years, he is extremely enthusiastic that the tool will transform design/build businesses, including their selection systems (just one module in the nine-module tool).
"The slowness is from us working on the site, building it as we go," he says. "Once it's completed, speed won't be an issue. If you're on DSL or cable, working online, the issues are fine."
"It's a beautiful thing as long as people are going to use it," Snyder says. He says his tile supplier isn't on the Internet and doesn't even have a fax machine. Snyder will have to learn to work with him, off line, or find someone to replace that vendor, if he wants to use the project management tool to its fullest.
"You know us contractors," he adds. "We're slow to change, and I readily embrace new stuff, thinking that's what sets me apart from people who say they're high-end residential. We're definitely going to do what it takes to make it work for us. Every one of our clients on it thinks it's great, too, but every one of them is under 50."
Dellanno says one remodeler client tells him that his wealthy, educated customers so far love My Design Build Project. One couple, retired career IBM executives, said they see the program as a market differentiator, which would be Dellanno's dream. His licenses for the product are offered by territory.
Dellanno says his tool taps some clients' needs to always be in touch with their projects. And it allows the husbands of wives who are making the selections to feel a part of the process in narrowing down early choices, yet detached from the showroom visits their wives usually make on their own for final picks.
Dellanno says his system also keeps everyone on the same page and is a powerful communications tool.
"It forces everyone to do business in a certain way, so everyone is expecting information from different parts of the company," he says. "No one can really hide any more. The accountability is a tremendous value."
Keep the personal touch
Even though he incorporates technology into his product selection process, Parrish realizes that clients still want to see and touch what they select. So the offices in his headquarters each have a different drywall texture and different trim. "When they're picking drywall textures, they can walk around the office and see 10, and a whole room of it," he says. "And we have different styles of windows between the offices and the hallway."
Many remodelers feel that they want to keep control of selections because it allows them to offer clients a personal touch and helps set them apart. It also allows them to build rapport.
Scott Hanley of Scott Hanley Custom Remodeling, Portland, Ore., says he takes customers shopping for products because that allows him to see what they really like. And, once he knows, he can build the project around their likes.
Liz Temir, operations manager of City Builders in Seattle, says she e-mails clients selections work sheets that include places to go shopping, Web sites to look at, what she needs and when, as well as dollar amounts for each selection. Clients e-mail her back the completed work sheets.
However, company owner Gordon Gregg still sometimes takes people shopping for certain sundries, granite and tile and cabinets, for example.
"It's so interactive, the product selection process; the personal touch is what sets it apart from online purchasing in the classic sense," says Mike Tenhulzen of Tenhulzen Remodeling in Redmond, Wash.
Others see that there can be a mix of personal touch with the technology.
Marion McGrath of Jonathan McGrath Construction, Longwood, Fla., says like many contractors, selections is an area she wants to fine-tune. "That's why many people are coming up with these online systems," she says. Even so, she says she's thinking of including an extra 10 hours into her jobs for the clients to spend with an interior designer, with extra time paid separately.
Whatever the mix, hands on, or hands off, contractors will always fine-tune their process. Without it, they're stuck with incomplete or late selections that slow or stop jobs. And no one wants that option.