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On Working with Homeowners

Working directly for a private homeowner requires building trust, providing guidance, and acting as an advisor and confidant over the course of a project.

Working for private homeowners requires a different level of one-on-one attention than working for other contractors or on larger commercial/industrial projects.

The homeowner (or prospective homeowner for residential contractors) has an intense personal connection to the project, the property, and how their money is being spent to complete the work. There’s also a level of communication and detail that needs to be maintained throughout the entire process – some of the things that a contractor may take for granted when working for another contractor or industrial developer are not always given or understood by a homeowner.

We talked with three contractors with extensive experience working directly with private residents to gather some of their insight and best practices:

  • Josh Basso, sales and management, Basso Builders, Lake Geneva, Wis.
  • Dennis Elverman, owner, Elverman Landscapes, Twin Lakes, Wis.
  • Steve Cudd, product promotions specialist, CASE, and former owner of Steven Cudd Excavating, River Falls, Wis.

Be Responsive

Whether it’s simply pouring a sidewalk or building an elaborate hardscape, responsiveness is critical. When a private resident gets an idea for a project and they have the budget to do it, they often want to execute it as quickly as possible. If a contractor does not respond promptly, it’s likely that customer will spend their money elsewhere.

Be Professional

Your first impression is made long before you arrive at a potential customer’s home. How do you answer the phone? Is your voicemail recording professional and succinct? Do you take time to proofread email correspondence before firing it off?

When you arrive – do you look like a professional or are you driving a beat-up truck with holey jeans and a dirty shirt?

All of these first impressions build the foundation for the confidence the customer will have in you as their contractor. Don’t scare them off with personal aesthetics before you’ve even had a chance to bid the work.

Once you’ve won the job, what do your trucks, equipment and personnel look like when they get to the site? We’re not suggesting everyone wear uniforms (although it certainly works for some companies), but dressing appropriately for the work reflects well on your business.

Similarly, clean and well-maintained trucks and equipment reflect the care and professionalism you put into your work. They’re large moving billboards for your business – make sure they project what you want future customers to see.

Talk Money Sooner than Later…

The sticking point with a customer will often be money. Going through an extensive courtship phase, building up their hopes of what the project could be, and then deflating it by informing them after lengthy discussions that what they want to do is out of their price range can be devastating to a relationship – and cause them to seek another opinion elsewhere.

Work with the customer early on to identify a scope of the project. Give them a range early on and establish reasonable expectations – even before the formal quote is submitted.

…But Don’t Push Anyone

There has to be a discussion about money up front – but once that estimate has been provided, give the customer time and space to review. Don’t hard sell. Be proud in your work. If you put out a product that people want and it’s priced fairly – it will sell itself.

Earn Their Trust

We’ve all seen the investigative reports on the evening news about contractors taking customers for a ride. It’s an unfortunate perception that exists.

Don’t be that guy.

Spend time with the customer to understand the exact scope of what they want to accomplish. Talk through the logistics with them so that they understand what it will take to do the job and why you’re doing it a certain way. Transparency is the foundation of trust in a contractor-homeowner relationship.

Present a Clear Estimate and Statement of Work

There should be zero ambiguity in the estimate you provide. Relationships and trust begin to break down the moment you begin to haggle over what the homeowner thought was covered in the estimate. Be upfront if the potential for overages exists and provide a potential range above the base quote of what those overages may cost. And delineate, very specifically, the work that will be performed for the estimate provided.

Be the Expert

A homeowner may have grandiose ideas for a project – but you, as the expert, may arrive at their home and notice any number of reasons why their big ideas may not be practical or feasible. A lesser contractor would latch on to their enthusiasm and say “Yes, we can do that!” out of simple hunger for the opportunity to do the work. If they get the job and fail to achieve the vision of the customer – or worse, they perform the work and it causes something functionally to go wrong on site – their credibility with that customer will be tarnished. And they’ll be less likely to be recommended for future work.

Know when to push back against the vision of a customer and explain to them clearly and professionally why something may just not work on their house or yard. Suggest alternatives that may achieve similar functional or aesthetic results – guide them to the best functional marriage of their vision and the practical execution/utility of the work.

Every region/climate is different. Styles and trends in Wisconsin are different than styles and trends in California. Know what works in your area of work and don’t hesitate to share those ideas with customers. Suggest native grasses or plants that could really enhance the property. Understand how home enhancements affect property value and counsel accordingly. You know a customer likes fishing, and you know that the water table on his property is relatively close to the surface or that there are natural springs in the area? Suggest a pond.

Use your collected wisdom through the years to inform new ideas for customers that may turn into future work.

Make a Clean Handoff

Is another trade/contractor coming to the site after you complete your work? If so, have you positioned the site in a way that sets that contractor up for immediate success? As an example: if you’re the primary earthmoving/excavation company on a new construction build, do you say “eh, it’ll be OK, the landscapers are coming in and they’ll level everything out”, or do you work to get the grade as close to final pitch as possible to make it easier for that next crew that comes in?

Positioning that next contractor for success isn’t just the right thing to do – it will ensure that they don’t complain back to the customer (and other contractors/customers) about your work.

Leave the Site Better than You Found It

Jobsite repair/restoration is typically covered in the scope of work, but don’t cut corners. Take the time to leave that project looking how you’d want it to look if it were your own home.

And another note on equipment: make sure that all equipment working on a site is in proper working order and not leaking fluids into the soil, on the driveway or on the road. A giant oil stain on the driveway is not the calling card you want to leave.

Close the Project on Good Terms

Take the time for a full debrief once the project is complete to ensure that the customer is satisfied and that all objectives have been met. The best customer is a customer that refers you to their friends, raves about you on social media and wants to hire you back again next year for the next project.

Follow Up

If you leave a job on good terms with a customer, they’ll be happy to see you when you stop in the next year to ensure everything is still working as intended. And, in that interaction, the seeds for the next project may be planted.

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