The waves of unhappy e-mails came rolling in. “Why do we have to do this?” “I'm too busy for ‘homework' that doesn't seem to lead anywhere.”

I was shocked. A colleague and I had worked hard to give our remodeler clients a meaningful assignment to complete before our next meeting. We thought there was a clear tie-in between the homework and the meeting theme, but we soon realized that we hadn't communicated that tie-in at all. We had been so absorbed in the task of creating the assignment, and so certain of its value, that we simply rolled it out without “selling” the benefit.

When we realized our lapse, we sent an apologetic note. We explained that the readings were about the Ritz-Carlton approach to customer service, which would be relevant since the meeting would be held at the Ritz-Carlton. We explained that if everyone did the reading, the meeting would be more productive and successful.

BUNGLED Of all the issues that challenge our clients, perhaps the biggest is communication (two others are accountability and leadership). The more people a company adds, the greater the potential to bungle communications.

I recently asked employees of one remodeling company what could help them more effectively do their jobs. One wished the owner would better communicate customer expectations. Another lamented that “every decision has to be finalized by the owner.”

It turned out that this owner was still acting as though his company consisted of 3 people, when, in fact, it had grown to 10. He had a production manager whom he often bypassed so he could issue short lead-time changes directly to crews. The right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing.

There's a wonderful chart in Gary Harpst's book, Six Disciplines for Excellence: Building Small Businesses that Learn, Lead and Last. He explains that communications challenges grow exponentially with increases in head count.

In other words, if your company consists of 3 people, there are only 3 possible communication combinations: A and B; A and C; and B and C. Grow your company to 25 people, and there are 300 possible communication combinations and a 100-fold increase in communication complexity!

COMMIT TO CHANGE Here's my advice to remodeling companies struggling with communications challenges:

  • Evaluate and strengthen your systems for communicating. Work through your key managers rather than around them.
  • Document and distribute vital information, e.g., change orders.
  • Use technology to keep field personnel in the communications loop — fax machines on jobsites, wireless access to e-mail.
  • Schedule regular meetings that enable everyone to get (and exchange) the same information at the same time.
  • Structure meetings with start and stop times and substantive agendas that reflect the company's communication needs.
  • Sell your ideas and changes. Connect the dots as to what the benefits will be.
  • Provide an environment that encourages the exchange of ideas. Authorize your staff to speak as freely to you as they do to consultants like me.

What about the remodeler who still communicates as though he has a three-person company? He's made some commitments, most notably a promise to communicate through channels. That is, unless it's an emergency, all information to the field will go through his production manager. Like the best ideas, it's a simple start.
—Linda Case is founder of Remodelers Advantage in Laurel, Md., a company providing business solutions through a network of experts and peers. 301.490.5260;