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Neat and Clean

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200308BVB0

Perception is reality: Regardless of whether that’s right or wrong, you are judged by appearances. And there’s no escaping those judgments because it’s basic human nature.

If your own appearances mean ugly-looking vehicles, sloppy-looking employees, shabby offices and job sites that look like disaster areas, you will inevitably be judged with that image by the clients who have hired you and by anyone else exposed to those appearances. Personally, I’d rather have them focus on the quality of my work rather than on superficialities such as these, but that’s the way it goes.

So, in wrapping up this series of columns on client-friendly approaches to project management, let’s take a look at the challenge of job-site management from the client’s point of view – a perspective that makes it easy to understand how important factors such as cleanliness, courtesy and personal appearance can be.

Why is this important? Well, what we as watershapers may regard as a temporary condition in a short-term working relationship on a job site we will inhabit for a period of weeks or months is something our clients see as the current state of their homes and lives. To sympathize, all you need to do is look around and ask yourself, “Would I really want to live here during this process?”

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

In my last two columns, I’ve gone into some detail about project management while stressing the importance of setting proper client expectations as you move toward the construction process itself. By the time you reach that stage, the client definitely should have a realistic idea of the time frame and of what to expect in terms of disruption.

You should always work to set a realistic scene, but that doesn’t mean it can or should be a horror movie. Too often, however, residential watershaping projects turn out that way.

Ever seen a job sign so dirty and battered that it looks like it’s been through a war? Debris strewn all over the place? A partially completed vessel that’s being used as a dumpster? A trail of muck and mud leading from backyard to street (giving the neighbors an opportunity to share in the joy)? Debris and dirt up and down the street from digging equipment and work trucks (another neighborhood favorite)?

How about miscellaneous equipment stacked in trashed cardboard boxes? Permits nailed to a tree in a plastic bag? Boards or sheets of plywood scattered around the place with nails sticking out of them? It’s no wonder clients forced to live in such an environment get stressed, and I know I’d be upset, too, even if I only happened to live down the street!

Now compare that scene to what I would consider to be the rare and exceptional job site – the one with the new, clear, clean and legible job sign; the one with project plans and permits stashed in a clean, waterproof, weatherproof container; the one with materials neatly stored and stacked in one area; the one with no trash to be seen and with sidewalks and streets washed and swept; and the one where excavated areas and partially completed vessels are temporarily fenced in. The contrasts in experiencing these two workplaces can, from the client’s perspective, be quite profound.

Yes, I’m a stickler for things like this, but I’ve become that way not because I enjoy hassling crews. In fact, I hate bringing up these issues because it means there’s a problem that needs addressing. Yet it’s ultimately not about me: My personal insistence on orderly job sites comes instead from looking at things from my client’s point of view.

Let’s face it: Watershaping is an invasive process that takes place behind someone else’s home. The fact that the homeowner might not be exactly thrilled to have a portable restroom in the front yard for three months is something you have to understand. Sure, it costs a bit to shape things up and police the job site, but the reality is that the client sees these issues in a different way than we do – and the client’s the one who’s footing the bill.

FINE POINTS

As is the case with other aspects of project management – effective planning, open communication, setting realistic expectations – keeping an orderly job site is not particularly difficult. Rather, it simply requires awareness of the issue, recognition of the benefit to the client and ultimately to yourself, and willingness to take the simple steps required to keep everything on track and in place.

All you have to do, however, is look at the vast majority of watershape-installation sites to see that this simple connection is not being made. For the most part, I would say that’s so because the people doing the work on site are not in the business of keeping the big picture in mind.

In fact, the work of even the best subcontractors is focused on getting the work done, getting paid and moving on to the next project. They have a different set of goals and they consider the chaos that often results on site to be part of the normal pain of the process.

To be sure and as mentioned above, there are certain costs involved in picking up trash and keeping everything in order, and you could even argue that it slows things down. That’s true, which is why I consider this work as part of the cost of the job and build it into the bid. The amount is so small that I don’t even set it up as a line item, but the fact that it is part of the package somewhere leads to happier clients – or at least to clients who aren’t going crazy.

And if you follow this line of reasoning along its most positive path, I’d even argue that keeping up a neat job site leads to the kind of thinking that saves money by making crews and subcontractors aware of a need to protect the property from the vagaries of construction.

Isn’t it cheaper to hang panels of plastic sheeting over a nearby structure – the house, a guest house, a cabana, whatever – than it is to clean it up after it’s been hit with stray blasts from the gunite rig? Isn’t it cheaper, if the design calls for working around existing backyard features, to avoid damage to landscaping and decking rather than having to fix it and make things whole again?

PEOPLE SKILLS

The key to all of these positives is working with good people who share your beliefs about customer service. The truth, however, is that many people in the construction trades do not share those beliefs, and it can be challenging to get your point across if they don’t. As I see it, there’s a fine line between enforcing high standards and being insulting, the latter of which is certainly something you want to avoid with crews you’re trusting to execute the work.

How you choose to get your point across is certainly a matter of personal style. In my case, I’m open and honest about it and have never been shy about telling people what I expect, and seldom have I had to make a large issue out of it. (Clearly, it helps to be consistent and to hold yourself to high standards: There’s nothing more transparent than hypocrisy.)

Through it all, you need to reckon with the fact that we’ve become a society that places relatively little value on neatness and cleanliness. I won’t go so far to say that we’ve become a nation of slobs, but there does seem to be a tendency to think that keeping up appearances is somebody else’s worry.

I once ran a pool-service company, a business that’s all about neatness (or at least it should be). I worked hard to run a quality-based operation, and my rates were higher than those of some of our competitors. When I was questioned about my rates, I would often tell clients that we charged more to enable us to hire people they wouldn’t mind seeing around their backyards every week. I’d tell them we took pride in our employees and made sure they were paid good wages for quality work and thus would feel they were doing something worthwhile.

I found that most people understood exactly what I meant and no longer questioned my rates, and I see the same thing happen now in working with quality contractors and subcontractors in the construction process. There are those who present a professional image in their appearance and in their work habits, and those who don’t. I prefer to work with those who do.

Who you choose to work with has a huge influence on the experience your clients will have along the way, as will the standards you set and the consistency of your message that job sites should be clean, not mean.

BUILDING POSITIVES

I mentioned in passing that an attitude promoting care and cleanliness on the job site can actually save money by helping you avoid unnecessary repairs of incidental damage. I also see positives here because, when the unexpected strikes, clients will perceive that you’ve done what you can to maintain a civilized job site and will cut you some slack.

If, for example, you accidentally hit the sewer line and the upshot is that the homeowners can’t use their toilets for two days while the plumbers make the fix, they may not be happy about the what’s happened, but they’ll be less apt to hold it against you as carelessness if, in fact, you have not been careless with the job site to that point.

If they have seen you actively working to minimize the daily disruptions of construction, they’ll be far more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. By contrast, if you’ve made them suffer and feel as though they’ve been living in a war zone, then their tolerance for unexpected problems will run the range from slim to none.

By extension, all of this applies to foreseeable repairs and replacements. I’m often surprised by some watershapers’ practice of leaving things such as replacing damaged sod or sprinkler systems to clients after the watershaping part of the project is complete. I would say that if you don’t intend to include such services, you should at a minimum talk with the client about it up front and give them a realistic idea of what will be involved.

It’s just not good at the end of a project to leave the space with dust blowing all over from ground that’s been laid bare by the construction process. A better way to manage loose ends, I think, is to discuss the inevitability of the damage with the client before the work begins and offer to include replacements or upgrades for landscaping, sprinklers, lighting and hardscape as part of the project.

I do all of this because, whenever possible, I like to see the project completed as close to the client’s vision as possible. Why not work with a landscaping professional up front? It’s a way to expand the palette of services you offer – and the best way possible to leave your clients with work that looks and feels finished.

Hey, it makes things look good, and you might even make some money off the service. What a concept!

FINISH TO START

There’s another point to keep in mind as the construction phase comes to a close: What you see an ending is, in actuality, just the beginning for your clients. When you leave, they finally get to enjoy the watershape they’ve waited for and for which they’ve been paying you.

All too often, however, contractors will vacate the property and essentially abandon the client at what should be the most exciting time of the process for them.

With swimming pools especially, the simple process of filling the vessel is something that requires care and attention. Most anyone who’s ever filled a pool or spa knows that tap water can be discolored, cloudy or out of chemical balance and that proper “start-ups,” as they’re known in the pool-service trade, can involve careful treatment of the water as it’s being added (or shortly thereafter) in the form of filtration and chemical treatment.

Start-ups are too large and complicated a subject to get into here; my point is that what is to happen must be considered ahead of time. The task should be assigned to someone in your organization or to an allied service company that will conduct a proper start-up so your client’s first experience with the watershape will be memorable for its clean, sparkling water.

Back when I was directly involved with construction, we saw to care of the pool for the first two months after we turned it over to our clients. Not only did this help us in terms of managing and controlling how the pool was started, but it also had the added benefit of allowing the client to chill out for a couple of months without worrying about maintaining the system.

Bringing in a service company of your choosing puts someone you trust in the backyard right away, which can be a tremendous help in debugging any problems that might arise in the first few weeks. Rather than contending with someone you don’t know calling you with problems – or, worse, telling the client how fouled up the system is – an affiliated service professional can help you solve technical problems before they become significant.

SHOW AND TELL

For me, the final step in project management has always been a meeting with the client (and, at best, the whole family) where we go over everything relating to the system’s operation and maintenance. We show them how to turn everything on and off, how to work the remote-control system, how to operate the heater and so forth – whatever it takes to make ownership easy and workable.

This is an important step in the process and one that, despite the fact it’s almost time to move on, should not be done carelessly or too quickly. Often, clients will have lots of questions and will need a fair amount of hand-holding as they become accustomed to the presence of a watershape in their backyard.

At this meeting, I give them a project book/binder that includes company contact information, operating instructions, information on water sanitizing and chemical balance, reference material for products and components used in the project, warranty information (we’ve already sent in all the cards for them) and all operating booklets and manuals. I use a thank-you letter as a cover note and include a couple of my business cards.

It’s always my goal to exit a project the same way I entered it, with open communication and a dash of style and grace. And the final step in this farewell meeting is always a request to the client for a referral letter based on an honest assessment of the entire process.

I’m proud that my clients have, through the years, given me wonderfully positive letters that confirm the effectiveness of our approach to customer service. We’ve also received letters with constructive advice or criticism, too, and value those just as much because they help us refine our approaches and do better in the future.

Either way, the referral-requesting process is immensely informative and useful, and it leaves clients with the clear message that their points of view and opinions really matter and have been important from beginning to end, and not just when we were trying to get them to sign a contract or cut the initial check. Start to finish, that’s what good project management is all about.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants and is a co-founder of Genesis 3, A Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected]

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