Create better customer relations with strong communication, proactive planning and efficient service

Fast, friendly service sounds more like a characteristic of your local barista than an employee of a construction firm. Customer service is on the decline—not specifically in the construction industry, but across the board. When asked to describe an experience with great customer service, we often find ourselves struggling to recall just one instance. When it comes to bad customer service, the floodgates open.

Where does customer service rank as a core value for contractors? Ask a CEO, president or business developer, and they will answer that customer service ranks high as a standard within the firm. Ask a field manager or project manager and the response might vary.

There is a belief that customer-centric construction costs too much and, in a hard-bid environment, it is less important than efficiency or safety. Customer-focused activities differ from marketing, in that the focus is on driving more intimate relations through project delivery and the interactions of the team with the customer/contractor/end-user. Expenses involved in customer-focused activities are minimal to none and may even add value through enhanced productivity and realized value by the customer. Once viewed in this context, one can see that taking a customer to a ball game or other social activity does in fact have a cost; however, fast, friendly service does not.

Entertaining clients is often a precursor activity that many contractors view as a necessary expense. What is the return on that investment? Consider all of the clients who have been wooed with beer, hotdogs and golf. Is the real value ever truly realized, or do all of those superfluous activities simply get you on a bid list with 15 of your closest friends? Many firms do an excellent job of courting a customer in the preconstruction phase only to lose a customer through poor performance. Some of the most cited observations when it comes to poor performance issues include:

  • Poor communication from the project team
  • Change orders with little back-up or documentation
  • Schedule overruns
  • Poor safety track record
  • Poorly kept site

First and foremost, it is important to address the 500-pound gorilla—change order management. “I would give great service if that no-good customer would approve my change orders.” It is common to hear this complaint only to then hear nothing in response to these questions:

  • How much detail did you provide?
  • Where was this change made and did you provide details or photos?
  • Do you have work tickets to support this case?
  • Was it submitted after the project was completed?

There are plenty of bad customers who have no intention of paying change orders. However, there are equally as many contractors who wait until a project is over to ask for some inordinate amount of money for “miscellaneous drywall” with no evidence. Simply put, it is important to avoid masking the real reason for poor customer service when the evidence indicates an internal operational failure.

The best source of customer satisfaction is great communication and top-notch planning. Productivity actually drives customer service higher. Doing the work expeditiously and being congenial in the process not only makes the contractor more money, but also improves satisfaction.

Creating customer service is hardly neuroscience—in fact, to C.R.E.A.T.E. raving customers, construction firms must simply get back to the basics.


Develop a concise, proactive and centralized plan to communicate with a customer. Disjointed emails, scribbled change orders and patchwork RFIs do not help a customer coordinate and they make a contractor look incompetent.


When a customer complains about a particular vendor, contractors can often sympathize, but a true partner would consider the vendors or trade partners he knows and share any information about customer dissatisfaction as a possible solution.


There may be no solution, but an apparent lack of feeling does nothing to develop solid rapport with a customer. Simply put, people like working with people they like and get along with.


Take time to meet with your customers. When they show up on-site, view it as a chance for a customer contact point rather than a distraction.


Returning calls and emails promptly, responding to a customer’s request and simply finishing a project on time are basics that are the foundation of superior customer service. You cannot give lip service and expect to create raving customers.


A contractor must embed or entrench themselves with customers, so that they realize they would not be better off without that contractor. Keep them informed better than anyone else. Meet deadlines better than anyone. Solve problems for customers that no one else wants to deal with. Become less of a commodity and more of a necessity.

Not every customer will allow this level of intimacy. Furthermore, some customers expect great customer service but hold little respect for their contractors. Filtering the bad customers is an important decision. It is vital to realize that lumping all customers in the same bucket is wrong. Often, contractors think they can change a customer and still operate under the same business model of providing mediocre service. This simply perpetuates the idea that contractors are a commodity. Even in the least customer-centric environment, such as a hard-bid public works project, strong communication, proactive planning and efficient service drive not only the bottom line but also better customer relations.