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Communication with your clients is vital

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Communication is the process by which we transmit, give or exchange information. Think about that definition for a moment: What day is there that we don’t use some form of communication?

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Even if you work alone, your brain is constantly transmitting (or communicating) impulses to the rest of the body to perform the daily tasks. The body also communicates things such as hunger and fatigue that lets us know when it’s time to quit. There would be a lot less people in the world if our own bodies stopped exchanging this important information to the brain. Of equal importance — and which is quite often ignored — is learning how to listen during the communication process and responsibly act upon it.

Communication is a basic ingredient to the necessity of life, but how well do you apply the effort to hone this vital process?

As providers of a product or service, we must understand communication is a two-way road — the traffic of information travels in both directions. Most disagreements are a result of ignoring this principle.

Let’s first look at how information, as an owner of a woodworking business, is most often transmitted to the customer.

The contract
We typically equate business communication to a contract because it is the most widely accepted form of agreement. And it’s what ultimately lands us the work.

But we must not think of it as the only form of communication that matters. Rather, it would be more accurate to consider it the “boiler plate” of communication. It is the most important ingredient because it outlines the terms, conditions and pricing. Along with the base contract, do not overlook the extremely important change orders as well as presenting your client with information required by your local jurisdiction such as lien, licensing and insurance information. As important as this “paperwork communication” is, we cannot limit our definition of project communication to it exclusively. The reason? It does not have the ability to properly bridge the gap of exchanging information with your client throughout the entire process of building a project.

Once a contract is signed, you must immediately enter the demonstration phase of communication. A custom job cannot typically be built with a contract outlining terms and conditions alone. You need to be able to transmit your intentions accurately to your client.

Shop drawings help the process of explaining the design concept. This should be enhanced with things such as finish samples every time there is a coating involved. You may need to provide actual molding samples to explain a detail, or even full-size cardboard mock-ups. This is a great way to show how the concept idea will be produced. It also builds trust and confidence between you and your client.

Demonstration communication is not just a matter of providing information for your client to see, but also to approve. Do not overlook the importance of having your client approve your presentation (drawings, samples, etc.) with a signed document. The communication process is not complete without this two-way transmission.

This is the part of communication that keeps the client involved in the process. It is easy to overlook. The concept behind the idea is to keep your client updated as a job progresses. This is not for their benefit only. It will also help you clear any doubts you may have about the complexity of the job progress.

There are a variety of ways you can do this. You can meet with them at the distributor’s warehouse to pick out a veneer flitch or specialty hardware item or invite them to your shop to discuss a detail or view the work. I have found by simply e-mailing progress photographs to clients they feel much more connected to the work they’re paying for. Consider things from their perspective. All do not grasp the full concept of how things are built, or even what you are building. Getting a glimpse of their work in your shop builds an excitement that spills into the day of delivery and final payment.

Finalization provides closure to the job with things other than just final billing. Satisfaction surveys, care and maintenance instructions, warranties and follow-up calls would be a few no-cost examples.

Small-cost ideas could include restaurant or spa gift certificates, handcrafted items, or a professional house cleaning after a dirty remodel. When final billing is the only thing you provide at the end of the job, you are basically communicating the relationship is over. For some jobs, this may be appropriate. If, however, you wish to continue the relationship with future work or referrals, consider implementing other forms of communication in the finalization stage.

Communication breakdowns
Even when things have been clearly presented, some people still will not adhere to instructions. Therefore, you must do two things:

First, clearly outline to your client what you will be providing them and what their responsibilities are to you. This is why I recommend you implement all forms of communication available to you, and make it your standard practice.

Secondly, understand that everyone transmits and receives information differently (hence the importance of the first recommendation above). Knowing this beforehand will help you stay on top of the communication process. Look for a client’s telltale signs of when this breakdown occurs; ignoring your attempts to communicate, failure to make payments or sign approvals. When you see this happening, take the necessary steps to re-energize the communication.

Concluding thoughts
Communication in the business world can be complex because contractual relationships are adversarial in nature. You cannot control how others will act. But you can minimize problems by learning to listen to your clients and presenting them with concise information they will be able to receive. But it doesn’t stop there. Communication also takes the form of being able to “read” your client’s tendencies when no words are spoken. Learning to decipher this unspoken form of communication will save you a lot of grief if you’re receptive enough to be aware of its presence.

In addition, some clients need more communication than others. As the saying goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. Squeaky clients need more thorough communication. Simply build that factor into the cost of the job as a component of the service you are providing. Your standard operating procedures should include using all forms of communication. You may not need to employ them for every job, but getting into the habit of good communication practice will always be a valuable asset to your business model.

David Getts is the owner of David Getts Designer Builder Inc. in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.

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