It goes against everything we've always been taught: It's not about fine craftsmanship. For demanding clients, masterful design and brilliant execution are not enough to save a job from unraveling.
Call them discriminating or just plain fussy, demanding clients will challenge your pricing and exact meticulous detail on a punch list. They are quick to point out flaws and won't think twice about withholding money. Typically, they are professionals used to being in control and comfortable with painstaking negotiations.
But they are the clients with the means and vision to underwrite a major renovation. If you want plum work, this is the market you serve.
Remodelers who cater to demanding clients in high-end, competitive markets insist that the real art in remodeling is not so much in the product as in the process. “Every company in the area has good carpenters; everyone can turn out a good product,” explains Mark Scott, owner of Mark IV Builders of Bethesda, Md. “The only edge I have over my competition is the experience I can offer the homeowner.”
It's Not Just a House; It's a Home Scott has built his company to serve a high-end clientele of Washington professionals, 60% of whom are lawyers. He's not particularly worried about this demographic. He's never been sued. His contract is just as ironclad as the next guy's. But he insists that's not the point. Scott achieves a 98% referral rate by actually telling customers there will be problems. “We tell them straight out, ‘This job won't go perfectly,'” Scott says.
Andy Hannan, Mark IV's production manager elaborates: “The longer a job runs, the more likely problems will occur. They are very seldom about the product. They're the result of a breakdown in communication or some expectation that's not being met.”
Hannan asserts that solving these problems starts with looking at the job from the clients' perspective. What most remodelers take for granted is often completely unfamiliar to clients: They have never witnessed a demolition crew reducing the back of their house to rubble. They have never seen a backhoe rip apart their back yard. They have never had a platoon of tradespeople march by their breakfast table every morning for weeks on end, never had to relinquish their garage to accommodate a staging area, never surrendered the driveway to truckloads of lumber. They may have a dim understanding of the order of construction, but no sense of the time intervals required on a job schedule. And regardless of what's written in the contract boilerplate, they are always too expectant, too impatient, and too easily frustrated.
“They don't know what they're getting into, not really,” Hannan says. “A great deal of our work, not just at the initial meeting, but at every step in the process, is educating the homeowner.”
Fear Factor According to David Lupberger, author of Managing the Emotional Homeowner, many homeowners approach a project with a mix of emotions, but primarily fear. They are afraid they have hired an unscrupulous contractor; they are naturally apprehensive about the large amount of money they are spending and may be suspicious because they don't understand the true costs involved; and they often don't understand the plans until the walls are actually up.
Lupberger argues there is a psychological connection between home and self that accounts for the intense feelings many homeowners experience. A home, he says, is often a reflection, or an extension, of who the homeowners perceive themselves to be. Clare Cooper Marcus, author of House as a Mirror of Self, explains it this way: “A home fills many needs: a place of self-expression, a vessel of memories, a refuge from the outside world, a cocoon where we can feel nurtured and let down our guard.” Seen this way, it's understandable why a remodeling project feels disruptive to clients. When clients have to move out of a kitchen, or shroud half their house in plastic, it creates not just a disruption to every daily routine but cuts deeply into their whole world outlook. “It feels like an invasion of their most personal space,” Lupberger says.
Demanding clients are not emotionally unstable people, or psychotic personalities, as some truly dangerous clients can be. Rather, they are people who are emotionally invested in their homes. Remodelers who understand this, and can manage a client's emotions as well as they manage tasks, will be able to avoid the explosive outbursts that sap a homeowner's enthusiasm and put the contractor on the defensive. “When a homeowner gets so frustrated, and they feel like they have lost control over their homes, they will try to take control of the job,” Lupberger says. “This can lead to the loss of a lot of time and money for the remodeler. It also takes all the fun out of what we're doing.”