Many people often draw analogies between the front line of a war-torn battlefield and a construction project. More specifically, the stereotype of the construction superintendent is that of the rigid field general with the demeanor of Patton and the social graces of Genghis Khan, barking orders to his or her troops. Subcontractors, suppliers, laborers, foremen and operators either fall into ranks or line up on the opposing battle line. Aggressive, “old school” superintendents take the perspective of “us versus them.” In the heat of battle, subcontractors, suppliers and, unfortunately, the customers tend to fall victim to the aggressive and unrelenting assaults of the superintendent.
Regardless of the industry, the customer should always be the focal point of the transaction. The customer pays for the contractor’s services, and his or her needs are paramount. However, contractors will argue that they perform very little negotiated work, which they claim justifies their flippant attitude to the customer. “Who needs customer service? If we are low next time, they’ll use us again.” While this mentality may have some credence, trends indicate that project delivery via alternate methodologies such as design-build and various negotiated means is ever increasing. Placing less emphasis on low bid and more on project quality, communication and team experience is becoming commonplace, even within public, institutional and governmental entities. What does this mean for firms that have operated on hard bid work, managing and supervising projects with the same hardened instinct that has served them for 20 to 30 years? More importantly, what happens to the inveterate field general?
More often than not, the attitude that pervades many construction firms is that the project managers and salespeople in the office complete the project rather than the men and women in the field. The field is viewed as merely a cog in the construction machine that helps generate revenue. The truth is that the field is not merely a cog, but the locus, the very center of the construction firm’s universe. Furthermore, sales or repeat sales, the “Holy Grail” of every sales development staff, are not generated in the office; rather, they are generated in the field. But, how do you increase sales through repeat clients with superintendents who fail to recognize the customer and solve his or her problems?
The Salesman Superintendent
The construction industry can learn many lessons from other industries that have expended resources to reach and serve the customer at the “field level.” Retail firms such as Starbucks, Target and Home Deport have instilled an entrepreneurial instinct in their associates. For example, Home Depot management has ingrained in their associates the importance of the customer. Floor associates will not only greet you but also stop what they are doing and escort you to the product you desire. How can this same attitude correlate to a construction project? Oftentimes, construction firms view the customer as an impediment—an impediment who will ask silly questions, waste precious time and distract you from building the project.
As a former project manager, I was amazed at the responses I would get when speaking with my superintendent. “I couldn’t get anything done today. The customer never left my side the entire afternoon. It drove me crazy!” Is this the attitude that a company should have when describing a customer? Business developers would covet the opportunity to spend days with their customer. Ordinarily, they would have spent six to 12 months cultivating a client relationship, learning their business and idiosyncrasies, all for the sheer hope of spending an hour at lunch to discuss a potential project opportunity—thousands of dollars and countless hours spent for lunch and a mere possibility of work. On the other hand, our misguided superintendent has spent six to eight hours of quality time with the customer, and he acts as if he has endured agony. The old adage “it costs more money to find a new customer than it does to retain one” has never been so true.
Yet, why do so many firms fail to capitalize on this opportunity? Entrepreneurship is a trait that a firm’s management team usually seeks in the project managers they employ. Firms that stress this same instinct in their superintendents are more likely to reach their goal of repeat clients as the source of greatest profitability based on their influence and proximity to the customer.
Communication drives a successful project. However, the majority of communication on a project is reactionary and serves to extinguish the “fires” that arise. The “old school” superintendent is a veteran firefighter. Conversely, a “salesmantendent” is a master of proactive communication. This does not mean calling or emailing when a problem arises. Proactive communication means keeping the customer informed long before a problem appears: “Mr. Customer, I just wanted to let you know that we erected the last two tilt panels this morning,” or, “Great news! We completed the roof this afternoon, and we are a week ahead of schedule.” The power of positive news has an impact that is irreplaceable to firms that rely on repeat business. The message delivered by proactive communication is that the salesmantendent is on top of the project. Customers can rest assured that their investment is safe and secure.
In the world of construction, however, the good news is often dwarfed by the not so good news. The old school field general will either clam up and hope the problem will go away or worse—convey the bad news with the same eloquence of a messenger delivering a telegram: “Mrs. Owner, we are four weeks behind because of the rain,” or, “The fire marshal shut us down because of your architect’s design.” While not every problem is the contractor’s or subcontractor’s fault, the superintendent must take ownership of the project and act as if the problem was his or her own. A superintendent who can give a customer bad news with a great solution generates repeat business: “The fire marshal shut us down for not having the proper egress on our plan. After reviewing the building