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10 Cheap and Easy Things a Small Builder Can Do for a Better Customer Experience

There are three tiers of building contractors at the SME scale and what separates them is not their knowledge of building technology or project management, but the customer experience they deliver.  

I have met a lot of small scale builders with incredible integrity and technical skills who, unfortunately, leave clients with a negative impression, even when their buildings have been completed successfully. I have written this article to share ten easy, low cost changes which I have seen create a big positive impression on our clients. I hope this information will help smaller builders win better work and ultimately provide a better, less stressful experience for their customers.  

Focusing on the customer’s experience of the construction process can make a builder hugely more attractive for higher value projects. In construction, we seldom talk about the customer experience, but the most successful builders I know have invested a lot of time, manpower and money into resources like a well staffed office, and employing professionals with significant third level qualifications to help manage both construction processes and client relationships. 

1. A Simple Paper Form for Weekly Progress Reports

Clients who work outside the construction industry are usually required to maintain good records of their work, and report regularly to their boss or manager. This is normal in most walks of life. Our clients are often shocked at the tiny amount of paperwork generated by builders carrying out extensive building work for them.  

As a foundation for communication during construction, I suggest that builders create a simple 2-3 page form and fill it out for the client at the end of every work week. It might include:

  • Work done in the last week
  • Work planned for next week
  • Any delays scheduling subcontractors
  • Any delays beyond their control, or perhaps due to the client
  • Any unusual weather conditions
  • Any health and safety issues
  • Information or decisions required from them
  • Any matters likely to result in claims for extras.

On very small projects, clients can seldom provide sufficient resources to the design team to allow formal site meetings with written minutes. The minutes of formal site meetings are a crucial record of progress and accountability. We, as architects keep similar standard-form records of site visits to take the place of minutes of formal site meetings, and it would be very helpful if contractors did also.  

We have created a simple MS Word document for a Weekly progress Report Template. Please ask us for a copy if you would like to use it.  

2. A Dropbox or cloud storage location for all paper records and emails from the project

Record keeping has never been more important. With escalating responsibilities for health and safety, building control and materials standards it is crucial to use good materials, complete work properly and keep as much evidence as possible to show the quality of the work after completion. My advice is to keep all the paper generated by the project, scan it and upload it at regular intervals to a file share location. (Omitting anything commercially sensitive.)

You can then simply give the architect or your QS access to it if questions of quality or cost arise. 

For example, if gaps in the certification framework emerge at completion stage, records of materials used onsite, combined with site progress pictures can be an invaluable means of demonstrating compliance.

3. Get a Good Printer and Scanner for Your Office, and Keep a Laptop or Tablet Onsite

Construction management, at the highest levels, can now be paperless. The industry is moving rapidly towards digital record keeping, starting at the top. We issue nearly all drawings and other instructions in PDF format.

It’s also helpful if you download PDF markup software for adding notes and sketches, and ideally create an account for specialist construction file sharing like Autodesk 360.

From the client’s point of view, written documents, emails and reports are as big an indicator of professionalism and quality as the alignment of compression joints or the correct laps of roofing membrane. Letters, well written emails and the other outward signs of professionalism are important parts of the clients’ own working lives, they can read a lot into them.

Poor business communications undermine confidence in small building contractors, and degrade the customer experience far more than builders ever realise. 

4. Ask Your Quantity Surveyor for More Services

The builders with the best resources can employ full time Quantity Surveyors in-house, but this is beyond the means of smaller contractors. One of the easiest ways to handle new requirements for management information in construction is to develop your relationship with your regular QS practice. They are ideally placed to provide specific services which the client will value. Their work is office based, they are fully versed in construction and are tuned into the contractor’s own processes and preferences.

Think about additional tasks they could complete for you which a client might ultimately pay to have included on the project, such as client progress reports. This “office support” form of outsourcing works and is affordable when tasks are:

  • Repetitive
  • Paper based or online
  • Can be process-engineered into a simple form letter- template or check-list
  • Can be completed easily from their office or using information at  their disposal or from regular site visits. 

Avoid open ended tasks which require thought and creativity, or which must be completed by high level staff.  

  1. Create 10- 15 standard letters or emails to clients, suppliers and other bodies you correspond with regularly. Think about typical situations, standardised letters often suffice. 
  2. Checking material specifications from suppliers.
  3. Researching good product alternatives to help improve the design and/ or optimise your profits. 
  4. Maintaining simple management information for specific projects, such as project programmes and Gantt charts. Clients place a lot of value in these and the QS is well placed to maintain them for a builder.   
  5. Design management tasks- your QS or their office could: help interpret Preliminary Inspection Plans to create lists of Ancillary Certs to be gathered, circulate details to specialist subcontractors for procurement, and help you shop around suppliers for materials.  

5. Consider Serviced Office Services or Other Administrative Support

The best building contractors to work with have offices with in-house engineers and quantity surveyors. These staff maintain records, develop new relationships, and ensure that all contractual duties are handled. This is incredibly expensive for small companies with perhaps 2-3 full time, they need all their people onsite.

Think about new ways of getting paperwork done by others, and create clear simple admin processes you can outsource to free you up for the core activity of building and developing new business relationships. This could range from call answering services, book keeping services, automated book- keeping software, or even outsourcing site management on a contract by contract basis.  

These services can work if you can clarify and simplify these aspects of your business into simple repetitive processes. 

6. Do Free CPD Courses and Training Days from Suppliers and Government Agencies

Construction materials are gradually becoming more high tech, so suppliers now offer a lot of training for the products they sell. It’s great when builders can propose cost effective alternatives, or help enhance the technical design of buildings. Clients are also naturally reassured by contractors who come across as having sound up to date knowledge, and contacts with the best suppliers.

This training is free, and architects do such training regularly, but it’s often open to everyone.

The RIAI maintain a list of suppliers who teach CPD courses. Call these suppliers and make time for one training session every month. 

7. Learn about New Information Technology, BIM and What’s Now Possible

Construction is changing in response to new information technology, and everyone in the industry needs to study BIM. This is a massive topic which you can read about online, but every construction professional will probably have to do a formal course of training in BIM processes and software over the next few years. Talk to companies like ArcDOX or Paradigm Solutions for training in Dublin.  

This is hugely important because the level of detail and speed of management information that’s possible has increased exponentially in the last ten years. This is regarded by governments and large scale clients as an opportunity for far greater efficiency and cost savings. 

8. Look Outside Ireland for Technical Solutions 

There’s more to construction technology than what you see at the Ideal Homes Show. Furthermore, everything you learned about building technology in college is now largely obsolete. In this context, remember that there is nearly always a cheaper and better way of doing things. That alternative probably exists in the US or Mainland Europe, not in Ireland and probably not in the UK.

Only a fraction of construction technologies are commercialized in the Irish market, because it is so small. If you look to websites of suppliers in Europe and the UK, you will often find new technologies, and methods that are already tried and tested in other markets. You can often order special materials online in small quantities, and nearly everything comes with a course of training videos for proper installation. 

This information and access to different technical options can often give you and edge when margins are tight.      

9. Take Pictures of Everything

Most builders, suppliers, specialists and tradespeople in our industry are excellent, and their reputations are crucial to them. They do their days work to the best of their ability and don’t finish until they are happy with the quality of what they have done. When work is covered up, or when other workers onsite make changes, there can be ambiguity over the quality or methods used. This ambiguity can feed disputes over certification and payment.

For this reason, it should be common practice for workers to simply photograph their own work with their smart phone and email or upload the photograph to a specific location on the cloud. 

This is so easy and cheap, it should already be the norm. Having these photographs gives everyone on the job, not just the client, enormous peace of mind. 

10. Print a Bundle of Building Control Ancillary Certificates and Make Almost Everyone Sign Them

The 2014 Building Control system placed massive new responsibility on builders. They are now responsible for every aspect of the building unless they have an ancillary cert that says otherwise.

A good certification framework is one which places liability with the person who can best check the work, and who can ultimately remedy defects most easily. It should be very granular, so people only take responsibility for what they actually had control over. 

Main contractors are in a unique position to ensure certification happens this way. They physically pay the people who are responsible for build quality, so it makes sense to link certification to that payment process. If work isn’t done right, the main contractor will not pay for it. So if a person is getting paid, they should also sign an ancillary cert.

Crucially, this shouldn’t just happen on projects with formal Building Control submissions. I advise all builders to gather approved form ancillary certs for all work, and to make it available to the architect or assigned certifier. 

This is important to clients because they are now fully aware of how certification works and why it matters. They want certificates they can act upon if a defect emerges, so having a large number of certs with very precise scope is key.

This practice also limits the contractor’s own liability and that of the architect, making contractors who gather a lot of certification records far more attractive in tender processes.   

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