Keeping everybody happy

How does a builder keep all those customers on schedule and happy?

Builders who serve a wide range of customers — homeowners, commercial building owners, developers, general contractors — know that each has a different motive for setting construction schedules.

Homeowners often need time to make the decision to build, plus more time for choosing designs and materials. By contrast, commercial building owners often have experience with past projects and want the job done quickly so that business operations can begin on the property.

Developers also demand fast completion so they can rent out the space as soon as possible. And general contractors want all the trades to be smoothly coordinated so that the owner’s schedule is met and the GC’s payment is not delayed.

At Curry Lumber and Pole Buildings in Wooster, Ohio, sales manager Wayne Hochstetler has the challenge of satisfying commercial, residential, equestrian and agricultural customers.

“Patience is a thing of the past,” he laments. “With the current economy, people know that we’re not booked six months in advance. So an increasing number of customers won’t even contact us until a couple of weeks before they want a project started.”

Yet in Fall Creek, Wis., where Tammy Somerville is scheduling coordinator for Custom Structures, the Wick Buildings dealership that she owns with her husband, the economy has impacted business in another way. In better times, building activity could continue throughout the year. “But now the only time customers are in a hurry is in the fall because they want the project done before winter,” says Somerville.

Steve Dax, president of Wisconsin Frame Builders Association, believes that  it’s not only the economy and the seasons that impact building schedules. It’s also technology. Construction division manager for Lakeside Systems in Kewaunee, Dax observes, “Customers do a lot of research on the Internet before making a decision on the type of building and which contractor they want to have.”

“Because customers are better educated before they come to us,” Dax continues, “that can help keep their scheduling expectations in line.”

But the availability of information also creates challenges. “In the past, customers just depended on the contractor to advise them. But now it takes longer for a customer to make a decision,” Dax reports.

Pete Benner, a past president of the Indiana Frame Builders Association, manages Blitz Builders in Brownsburg, Ind., a company that constructs post-frame projects in nine states.  “We deal with many types of customers,” he says, “and what they all have in common is they want to know the price right away. But after that, you can’t have the same schedule for every job. Some clients are cut-and-dried, while others need more hand-holding.”

Planning ahead

Because construction is currently a buyer’s market, explains Hochstetler, shortened lead times are creating some challenges. Pre-construction activities can especially get short shrift.

“We like to work with clients for a couple months before the project starts,” he says, “but sometimes that just isn’t possible. Too many people call today, demand a price tomorrow, and want the project done next week.”

Reduced lead times might work — if everything goes right. But that isn’t always the case. “Weather is a big factor that causes delays,” Hochstetler reports. “Even if I sell a building and get the components lined up in two weeks, I have to push out the schedule if it rains for several days.” And since Murphy’s Law is alive and well in rural building, customer communication is vital. “Ninety percent of people will understand,” he notes. “But if I don’t call, the customer wonders why we’re not on site. In his mind, his job is the only project we have to build.”

Communication is also important when customers cause delays by changing their minds. “We talk to the client and help him understand the scheduling impact of a change. For example, repositioning doors and windows is not a big deal,” Hochstetler says, “but the colors and size of the siding and roofing are specific to the job. So they must be used on that particular building.”

If the sales representative and the customer remain at loggerheads, however, Hochstetler recommends an alternative to giving up or giving in. “Most of the time, talking to a different person from the same company will create a happy customer,” he advises. “If you’re the guy, get the project details from the crew and the salesman. Then come to an agreement that both parties are satisfied with.”

Despite the pressure to cut lead times and project schedules ever shorter, Hochstetler cautions rural builders against over-promising. “Situations like that are hard to overcome,” he warns. Better to lower expectations and “tell a customer that you might not be able to start the job in four months, and then allow yourself the opportunity to generate some good will if you can start a few weeks earlier than expected,” he suggests.

Indeed, Hochstetler is finding that the greater scheduling challenge is often in meeting the customer’s deadline to start the project rather than meeting the deadline to finish it. Further, the squeeze on pre-construction planning can create pressures for cutting corners. “But you’ve got to always be safety-conscious and never lose sight of what’s really important,” he urges.

Because Curry Lumber and Pole Buildings schedules jobs in the order they are sold, sales reps must put their projects on the job board as soon as possible. Then as jobs come up, clients are contacted to ensure they have completed all the responsibilities on their end. “If a customer isn’t ready, we’ll move on to the next job. But we try to get back to the project as soon as we can, rather than moving it to the back of the line,” says Hochstetler.

The recession has cut into business overall, and not just project lead times. So when scheduling jobs, Curry also considers their profitability. Projects that generate cash flow help a builder maintain payroll, but the company has been forced to lay off some workers and cut hours for others. A reduced workforce is itself a factor in scheduling.

To reduce the impact on worker and employer, Curry has arranged to share crews with two other companies. When one builder lands a big job but finds itself shorthanded, the other two builders can temporarily “loan” their crews. “Even though we’re competitors, we’re also friends,” Hochstetler explains.

Expecting the unexpected

Custom Structures does all it can to ensure smooth scheduling. Customers are given a checklist of things to do before the construction crew arrives. Meanwhile, crews are expected to know that “as soon as a new project is sold, they must talk among themselves and coordinate their schedule according to where they’re going to be,” says Somerville.

But in Wisconsin, even the best laid plans can go awry without warning. “In the spring, we’re waiting on the frost to come out of the ground, and so excavators can’t always go in when they need to,” Somerville says. “And winds in the Midwest can affect the crew, especially when they’re working with tall sheets of steel.”

Though the company builds throughout the winter, Somerville must make allowances for reduced productivity and less daylight. Thus the warmer months can end up being a time when Custom Structures can catch up on its crew hours. “All of these seasonal factors play into our scheduling,” she relates, “but customers are pretty understanding. They live here too!”

The seasonal nature of the business causes challenges in the office as well as in the field. “In the spring and summer I might get a lot of requests for bids all at once,” Somerville says, “and that means I have to tell customers upfront when they can expect to hear from me.” She keeps it all straight with document holders that are categorized according to “contracted buildings, bids, jobs that are not completely done and those that might have add-ons down the road.”

As if climate were not enough to worry about, the current economy has put a crunch on credit. Somerville cites one recent project where she had to decide whether a project should be scheduled even though the financing had not come through.

In the end, Custom Structures tied up $40,000 to finish the sitework before winter but had to wait four months until the finances were approved to finish the project. “We had to scramble to find something else that would keep us busy during the winter,” she says, “but because we saw it through, things turned out well. The customer ended up referring us to do a project for his neighbor.”

Scheduling advice boils down to basics. “Do the right things up front and it’s easier to stay on schedule,” Somerville says. “Take the initiative and, for instance, if a customer just wants you to build a shell, ask if they need to be put on the schedule at a later date for any finishing work. And on the flip side, if you aren’t going to complete the job when expected, then take the initiative and tell the customer what’s going on and why.”

Adapting to change

For Dax, a commitment to effective scheduling starts with meeting his self-imposed deadlines. “Even though you might always be under the gun to get the bids out,” he says, “the faster you get out your quotes shows how professional you are.”

Response time on bids is at least something Dax can control. But like other builders, Lakeside Systems must contend with external factors that can wreak havoc on schedules. Not only weather, but issues that can range from permitting delays to manure management rules to highway weight limits. And because customers can be another wild card, Lakeside Systems requires signed change orders to avoid disputes.

Coping with such contingencies requires Lakeside Systems to have its own act together. Dax uses white boards and computers to keep everyone on staff in the know, and holds biweekly meetings with all supervisors and managers.

Then for client communication, he adds, “On larger jobs we hold weekly project meetings with all the project participants to catch potential problems and correct them before they happen. Just be straightforward. Sometimes painting a pretty picture isn’t the best way to go. Keeping everyone in the loop keeps things flowing.”

Benner of Blitz Builders agrees that a single-handed approach to solving scheduling issues does not work. “There’s always something being done by somebody else that affects what we do,” he says.

Still, the complexity of a project often depends on the type. “Compared to residential customers, commercial builders will sometimes have so many subcontractors involved that, inevitably, something will hold things up,” he observes. “Commercial permits alone can take months to secure.”

Some types of projects, Benner adds, almost guarantee delays. “When you construct a church, they expect a discount and the project is usually run by a committee instead of just one ‘boss,’” he explains. “And they’re usually building because the congregation anticipates future growth — unlike a commercial business that’s expanding because it’s already successful.”

Regardless of the client, though, Benner likes to build in a four-week waiting period from contract signing to material delivery. “Despite whatever time pressures you face,” he counsels, “you should still schedule time to develop a relationship with the customer.”

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