A lot of problems in the remodeling industry can be traced to poor communication. Something as small as a simple transposition can end up creating huge problems.
Consider a whole-house remodel my company completed back in the mid-'80s. After nearly six months of work, including jacking up the house and replacing the stone foundation, it had come down to putting the finish hardware on the newly installed kitchen cabinets. After getting the final decision from my client, I phoned in the specs to the job foreman at the site. "Put the pulls on the doors and the knobs on the drawers," I explained. Over the phone, I could tell he was writing it down as he repeated it back to me, "Pulls on doors; knobs on drawers."
The next day, I drove out to the site for a final meeting with the client. As it turned out, we had more to talk about than I had prepared for, because there in the kitchen were the brand new cabinets -- with pulls on the drawers and knobs on the doors. The hardware couldn't simply be swapped because two holes had been drilled for the pulls, but just one for the knobs.
Contrast this with my recent experience with knock-down shelving purchased from Ikea, the Swedish furniture showroom. The assembly instructions were printed on a single 17-by-24-inch sheet of paper on which not a single word in Swedish, English, or any other language appeared. Instead, I was led through the process by a series of simple, large-scale illustrations. Whenever I reached a fork in the road -- like which of two pre-drilled holes to use -- there was a detail that had anticipated my question.
The hardware was all "one-way," so there was no question about handedness, and the hardware package contained one extra of small critical parts, like screws and shelf clips.
How can Ikea communicate flawlessly with strangers over great physical and cultural distance while we remodelers have trouble making ourselves clear in our native tongue to subs, employees, and customers we work with every day? The chief difference is that Ikea makes no assumptions and has taken the time to anticipate all of the problems.
True, Ikea designers have watched hundreds of ordinary people try to assemble their furniture. But we remodelers have also watched hundreds of clients try to deal with the remodeling process.
The difference is that Ikea took notes on where the rough spots were, pointedly asked what would make the process easier, and then took action to achieve that end.
We won't improve our processes -- particularly product selection and change orders -- until we change the way we communicate. Here's how to start:
Stop making assumptions. I know you believe your clients understand what you think you said, but you don't realize that what they heard was not what you said.
Anticipate the clients' experience. The "perfect" installation in the showroom isn't likely to be duplicated in the house. You may cover yourself with a disclaimer in your specs, but that doesn't solve the problem. The only way to manage client expectations is to put yourself in their shoes and answer their objections before they're raised.
It's only partly about the "stuff." A customer who comes to you for a new kitchen because the one she's working in is "too dark" isn't just talking about lousy light fixtures and a lack of daylight. She's also saying, "Working in this kitchen is depressing." Once you get to the bottom of the emotional experience, the products will pick themselves.
Sal Alfano, Editor-in-Chief