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Customer Experience

Managing client expectations on and off-site

Alexandra Cain
Business Journalist

Alexandra Cain writes regularly for the small business sections of The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review

Alexandra Cain
Business Journalist

Alexandra Cain writes regularly for the small business sections of The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review

Why settle for a good relationship when you can have a great relationship? Be the best in your trade, build rapport and let the power of word-of-mouth see your business soar.

Great client relationships deliver genuine bottom-line benefits. It’s no different in the construction industry; the better your relationships, the more likely your customers will be to use your services again, and refer new work to you.

But just like anything in life, great relationships take work, patience and exceptional communication. So before you jump into your next project, follow these tips to help establish a robust working relationship and manage customer expectations from start to finish.

People inspecting work documents

1. Follow-up quotes

Builders and tradesmen are busy people, and new business development can seem like a daunting task when you’re already having to run multiple projects simultaneously, manage staff and subcontractors, and look after everything else that comes with running a business. But finding ways to respond to quotes is a priority is and critical to managing your future work (and cash) flow.    

Rather than fire off an email, go out and meet with the client as the first step in establishing rapport. This will give you a good feel for exactly what the client is looking for, and whether the job is within your skill set.

The next step is to provide a written quotation in a timely fashion. Importantly, give the client an estimation of when they can expect to hear back from you – as a guide, it’s good business practice to send the quote within a week from meeting the client. The quote should detail the work the client wants done, breaking down the job into individual items – or line items, rather than just giving a single figure for the whole job.

You want to answer client questions with your quote, not provoke uncertainty. The more detailed – but easier to understand – your quote is, the more confident the client is likely to feel when reviewing it.

Once you have sent through the quote, don’t wait for the client to respond. Contact them within two working days of sending the quote. This will give you an advantage over other builders who don’t follow up their quotes. Being ‘present’ in this way sends a message that you’re going to be a helpful ally to your customer, not just a mere supplier.

2. Be honest

If you meet with a client and find the work they want done is outside your scope of experience, let them know that.

Let’s say a client contacts you who owns a building that is heritage listed. If you’ve never had to comply with a local council’s requirements for renovating a building of this nature, it’s important to talk to the client about that.

This might well be an opportunity to develop new skills. But if you feel you’re getting in over your head, it might be better to refer the work on. Better that than finding out halfway through the project that you have bitten off more than you can chew. Your customer will appreciate your honesty, and may well recommend your skills to friends with better-suited jobs.

Taking jobs that are outside of your skillset can be particularly seductive when you need to improve your cash flow. But should the project go sideways, your reputation and that of your company and subcontractors may be negatively impacted.

3. Manage expectations

When you first start working with a client, it’s important to remember they may have never previously been involved in a construction or renovation project. But as an experienced tradesperson, you will be very familiar with the process. It’s essential to bridge the gap between your knowledge and the client’s knowledge so they will know what to expect as the project develops.

Many ‘difficult’ experiences arise from communication breakdowns due to assumptions made that a client understands the process as well as you do. Assume nothing until you know better. People are always happy to tell you when they know something, but largely unwilling to tell you when they don’t.

There are two parts to this process. First, it’s essential to document the scope of your services – as well as the services you don’t provide. Make sure you draw up a contract for each project that clearly spells out what you will undertake for the agreed fee. Ensure you also outline what’s not covered by the contract. So, if you’re undertaking a bathroom renovation and your work covers everything except for installing fixtures and fittings such as towel racks and shower screens, put it in writing.

Always sit down with your client and take them through the contract, explaining what’s included, and excluded. Give the client the opportunity to ask questions throughout this discussion. This will help you find out if there are any misunderstandings from the outset.

If you have trusted contractors that can complete the work you can’t, offer their details to the client so you’re not just presenting problems but solutions too.

4. Identify milestones

Life is easier when everyone’s on the same page. But how will you and your client know if a project is on track? An effective way to show success and keep all parties satisfied is to explain to the client what the important milestones will be during the project.

They might include things like pouring of the concrete slab, completion of the timber structure, or electrical wiring and plumbing. When you’re setting out milestones and likely completion dates ensure you build in some extra time to account for unforeseen circumstances such as a lengthy rainy period. Communicate what may cause delays to reaching your milestones early on as well, so it’s not a surprise for your client.    

If the schedule blows out due to problems such as materials not being available, make sure to also explain this to the client and adjust the schedule accordingly. This avoids a situation in which a client expects certain work to be done by a particular date, and is disappointed when those milestones are missed. As the project lead, it’s your role to update key documents and debrief on changes.

5. Address complaints

If a client does have a complaint about some aspect of your work, it’s important to address it as it arises, rather than ignore it in the hope that it will go away.

Let’s say a client is unhappy with the way a room has been painted. If the client lets you know this, take steps to rectify the situation as soon as you can. The client will be impressed that you’re prepared to meet their expectations, which will be a critical factor in whether they are prepared to recommend you to friends and family looking for a great builder.

An objection is a good thing. It means the client is actively invested in the project outcomes and is wanting to work with you to solve them. Try to remember to not take the objection personally and that there is often a knowledge gap between you. If the change is a big one, then ensure it’s recorded in writing for later reference –  should it be necessary.

6. Invoice promptly

Finally, don’t forget to send out invoices as soon as the work is complete. You may have agreed to a payment schedule throughout the life of the building project, which is a great way to help you meet your ongoing costs and ensure a healthy cash flow. If that’s the case, make sure you send invoices as they fall due. Above all, don’t finish the work and wait months before sending your final invoice. If you’ve done a great job throughout the project, it will be a nasty surprise for the client at the end of it that will mar what was otherwise a great working relationship.

Relationship 101

Do's

Follow-up on quotes quickly and visit the site if possible to understand the job fully and build rapport. 

Be honest about your skillset – recommend bringing in the right person for the job instead of biting off more than you can chew and damaging your reputation in the process.

Identify, document and update milestones and estimated completion dates. 

Don'ts

Don’t delay call-backs or site visits – no one likes to be kept waiting and the relationship is likely to suffer.

When drawing up contracts, don’t cover project inclusions only. Be sure to document what’s not covered, too.

Don’t expect complaints to disappear – address issues as they arise. You might not be able to solve the problem every time, but how you handle it will speak volumes. 

Excel with the best tools for your business

Looking for ways to be a better project manager? Explore Telstra’s range of business tools and technology solutions.

Originally published 12th January 2015. Updated 5th August 2019.

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