Successful remodelers consider well-planned preconstruction meetings with their clients a must. "It would be a mortal sin not to do a preconstruction meeting," says Bill Baldwin of Claremont, Calif.-based HartmanBaldwin design/build. So why do some smaller companies ignore this step? "The problem is that they tend to focus on the urgent rather than the important," Baldwin says. "The preconstruction meeting may not be urgent but it's really important."

If these meetings aren't already a habit, making them one will go a long way toward elevating your company's reputation to that of the big guys, and positioning your company for  growth.

Remodelers can nip a lot of potential problems in the bud by holding a preconstruction meeting with clients. Remodelers can nip a lot of potential problems in the bud by holding a preconstruction meeting with clients.

The preconstruction meeting is where the remodeler's team meets with the client at the project site to kick off the job. Most remodelers start by reviewing the plans and specs, doing a project walk-through, and laying out the schedule. The rest of the meeting is devoted to discussing issues such as how the jobsite is secured; who handles the home security system, if there is one; if the client has young children, ascertaining whether, or under what circumstances, they are allowed on the jobsite; discussing how household pets should be handled while the job is ongoing; deciding where to locate the portable toilet or whether the homeowner will allow workers to use one of the home's bathrooms; figuring out where to stage materials and place the dumpster; and any other concerns. The preconstruction meeting is also the time to settle such issues as how clients prefer to communicate (phone, fax, text, or email).

"We even ask them if there's a neighbor that they don't get along with," says Paul Hamtil of Hamtil Construction in St. Louis. "It's a chance to open a dialog and establish ourselves as good communicators."

Here's some advice from companies who have done this for a long time.

  • Schedule the meeting a week before starting work. This leaves time to do prep, like putting protective fences around trees.
  • Use a written checklist, and send the clients a copy prior to the meeting. You don't need detailed descriptions: It's best to have a simple list of items, then work out the details at the meeting.
  • Meet with your team before you meet with the clients. Review the project documents and checklist, and agree on answers to likely questions. "It's a chance for us to make sure we're all on the same page," says Dennis Gehman of Gehman Custom Remodeling in Harleysville, Pa. This will strengthen the clients' confidence in you.
  • Include all relevant managers (project manager, lead carpenter, salesperson, designer) in the preconstruction meeting with clients. If it's a couple, ask both to be present. "We want both of them to be comfortable with us being in their home," says Gehman. On one job, the husband couldn't attend in person, but Gehman had him call in from work and put him on speakerphone.
  • Designate a leader for the meeting. Tapping the project manager for this role can be a good choice, as it serves to formally hand the clients over to production.
  • Let the clients voice concerns and ask questions. If you don't know an answer, it's fine to say you will get back to them. But make sure you give them a date to do so and stick to it.
  • Keep the underlying agenda in mind. While reviewing the checklist details is important, the attitude it conveys may be more so. Humans by nature fear the unknown, and inviting strange workers into your home for a major project is a daunting prospect for most people. You can assuage your clients' fears by letting them know what to expect, and showing them that you will go out of your way to meet their needs.
  • Ask about hot buttons. Some of these are common to all jobs: "The things that correlate most to customer satisfaction are cleanliness, communication, and on-time performance," says David Merrill of Merrill Contracting & Remodeling in Arlington, Va. Others vary by client: "Some people will go crazy if they find a nail in the driveway," says Baldwin. "Others will be angry if you're a minute late for a meeting."
  • Schedule short, weekly follow-ups. These only take 10 or 15 minutes and give you a chance to update the clients on the schedule, tell them what to expect in the coming week, and ask how things are going for them. "Even if you see each other daily," says Baldwin, "if you don't stop once a week and talk, then you may not know what they're thinking." And the things you don't know can come back to bite you later on.
  • What are the payoffs? Most remodelers report a better sense of collaboration and comfort with clients since adding this step to their process. "If we've done a good preconstruction meeting and established a basis of trust, unexpected things are easy to handle," says Merrill. So when the windows get delivered a week early and you need extra storage space, the fact that you have made big deposits in the trust bank will make them more willing to accommodate you.

"A great preconstruction meeting and a weekly meeting will head off 90% of all problems," says Baldwin. Not a bad payoff for something that only costs a few hours' time.—Charles Wardell

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