Self-described remodeling neophytes Susan Parker and Ed Hynes “lived to rue the day” they almost hired another contractor instead of Greg Antonioli. The Boston-area couple, a college professor and a library director, had a substantial project in mind when they interviewed a remodeler we'll call Roger, as well as Antonioli, president of Out of the Woods Construction and Woodworking, a $1.5 million design/build firm in Arlington, Mass.

Roger and Antonioli were a study in contrasts. Roger didn't volunteer much detail about how he worked, but he was willing to meet with the couple several times in their house at no charge. Antonioli, though personable, had a “fairly rigid structure” by comparison, says Parker. In that initial meeting, he asked lots of questions, outlined his typical project's phases, agreements, and procedures, and explained their responsibilities as clients, including meetings to attend, decisions to make, and checks to write. He then came to their house for a site visit and suggested they enter into a design agreement, for which he would require a deposit.

Parker and Hynes selected Roger. Then they never heard from him again, despite repeated phone calls and e-mails. “He bought our bad will for no good reason,” observes Parker. So they reconsidered Antonioli, newly appreciative of his forms and procedures. Some time after the Roger debacle, Parker turned to Hynes and said, “You know, Greg is great.”

And he was. The project — a kitchen remodel, porch conversion, and entryway addition — took four months and went almost precisely as Antonioli had said it would. When REMODELING spoke with the couple three months after the job's conclusion, they had recommended Out of the Woods to two friends and begun sketching out their next project with the company. “We're somewhat hooked on remodeling,” Parker says.

Greg Antonioli's project for Susan Parker and Ed Hynes had 13 change orders but no surprises. Weekly meetings and detailed reports meant “we knew right away what was happening,” says Parker.
Bob Gothard Greg Antonioli's project for Susan Parker and Ed Hynes had 13 change orders but no surprises. Weekly meetings and detailed reports meant “we knew right away what was happening,” says Parker.

Voila. Greg Antonioli had engineered another client experience.

Antidote to Anxiety Engineering the client experience means preparing clients for the warts-and-all realities of remodeling, explaining your process for running the job smoothly, and then following through on your promises. In this time of HGTV-style makeovers and starry-eyed homeowners, it's a strategy that can be invaluable for minimizing the surprises and setbacks that can eat time, burn money, and turn relationships toxic.

“What remodelers need to understand is that these people are scared; they're taking a huge financial and emotional risk,” says Nina Winans, co-owner of Winans Construction, Oakland, Calif. “So whatever you can do to reassure them they've made the right decision, the better the process will go.” Problems are inevitable, she notes, but “we try to prepare them for that. We concentrate on making the experience as predictable as it can be, even though 99.9% of the time something unpredictable comes up.”

Antonioli concurs. Referrals and repeats account for nearly 90% of his business, so his prospects typically are pre-sold on the quality of his company's craftsmanship. “What I need to convince them of is the predictability of hiring us.” But not by raising their expectations unrealistically. His mantra, in fact, is “no surprises,” so he bluntly promises that “we're going to screw something up” and then follows that up by illustrating how he remedied such a screw-up on a recent project. “They don't expect brutal honesty, and they're just blown away,” he says. In the same vein, he spells out his company's policy of “naked apologies. Don't make excuses, or you lose credibility,” he says. “Even if it's a good excuse, it still sounds like BS, and, frankly, they don't care. They just want to know does this mean my job is going to go on a month longer or two days longer.”

Antonioli's process for engineering the experience begins with bonding and building rapport. A trainee of the Sandler Sales System, he gets prospects talking about themselves, their house, their interests, and their remodeling fears and hopes. By showing an interest and “feeding their egos,” he says, “I'm helping them develop that comfort level, gaining their trust.” He also asks questions to reveal prospects'apprehensions: why they want to remodel, and, if possible, what their previous remodeling experiences have been. “Once I get someone to mention that other, bad contractor, I start drilling: ‘Was it a painful experience? How did you get out of it? How did that make you feel?'” Confronting prospects' “emotions and fears and stuff in the beginning immediately differentiates you from every other kind of contractor they've talked to,” he says. It also helps him anticipate and plan around their concerns.

To that end, Antonioli then pulls out a binder full of the documents he uses to keep projects on track, such as a design/preconstruction services agreement, minutes from a weekly meeting, a sample invoice, and a change order form. The latter explicitly spells out the “nonrefundable $75 administrative fee” each change will incur. Again, the goal is no surprises. The simple matter of having a structure gives “this perception that we've got our stuff together,” Antonioli says. Clients “walk away breathing a sigh of relief.”