I attended a joint event sponsored by NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) and BAGB (Builders Association of Greater Boston) last week. They conducted roundtable discussions on a number of topics, but an issue that came up frequently was the importance of managing clients' expectations. For many homeowners, your job may be the first significant home improvement project that they have ever done. Homeowners often do not know what to expect, and become extremely nervous if things do not seem to be going according to plan. Given that unexpected delays do occur, unforeseen problems do arise, and general contractors are not always on the job every day, it is very important to keep clients apprised of what is happening during the renovation and warn them about projected delays and issues as they occur. I have seen contractors get themselves into trouble that could have easily been prevented by communicating with the homeowner.
In order to facilitate matters, schedule weekly meetings with your homeowners. Let them know how often you will be on the job, and who is the point person for questions if you are not there. Tell them immediately if a change order is going to be necessary, if a mistake was made, or if unforeseen circumstances happen. Negotiate fairly if something is done wrong, or try to brainstorm about less expensive alternatives if something can't be done according to the original plan.
Do not make decisions for your client without consulting him or her (such as the contractor who opted to use pine siding for an addition instead of matching the existing cedar). Fess up if your original estimate was too low and you underbid a project and try to work out a solution with the homeowner.
I can't emphasize enough the importance of managing expectations. Most of the claims that I handle could have been prevented if the homeowners or contractors had not been kept in the dark about changes in financial circumstances, overcommitments on the part of the contractors, or unrealistic notions on the part of the homeowners. By managing expectations, contractors can go a long way towards building an excellent reputation in their community and ending up with a happy client when the project is done.