5 things my kitchen taught me about being a client

Building site photo Work in progress

We had the builders in this summer to help us change two small dark rooms into a nice bright kitchen. I work for, and with, agency clients every day of the week, and my customer experience as a build client turned out to be a great opportunity to enter into super-empathy with clients of the world.

Things turned out fine in the end, but there were times when I recognised my behaviour as that of an anxious, somewhat unhappy client. So here is what my kitchen taught me:

1. You gotta have trust
In our kitchen project, we had architect’s plans, so we knew what the goal was and had some idea of how things should proceed. But when things looked like they weren’t matching the plans, or our expectations, we didn’t have a way of judging whether those changes were ok. We ended up wondering if what we were seeing was a case of: cutting corners, prioritising the contractor’s convenience over quality, a lack of diligence, or a sensible modification based on our builder’s expertise. Until we could have confidence that the best outcome of the project was the priority, we found ourselves greeting any change with suspicion. Getting to that confidence requires transparency.

2. Transparency drives trust
We are not in the money-is-no-object class of client, so we were balancing quality, speed and cost. The original tendering process is intended to nail down these factors through having a set of plans, a detailed spec and a quote against those two. Then real life threw up unknowns and when adjustments had to be made, our choice was to prioritise quality and cost over speed. But as a client, you have to be involved in the decision, and know what the real factors are.

During the kitchen project, I had the idea of creating an open working approach to small-build project management, kind of like Basecamp + Trello, where the builder can create a project area for the client, including the contract, quotes, open spreadsheets, schedules, tracking progress, messaging, a place to raise tickets, etc. Here’s the thing: this kind of digital product exists – so much for another great start-up idea. It seems that most small builders have yet to embrace open-working methodology.

In the digital design and build world we can use these kinds of tools with clients, giving them the security that they can track progress, make informed decisions regarding changes, and trust the thinking behind our recommendations because they can see the data that informs it.

3. You need a universal quality tzar
By all accounts, our project was a small build (even though it didn’t feel small to us), so it didn’t seem to warrant a consistent site foreman. This was a bit of a surprise to us, as we expected there would be one person on-site who really understood the plans and the spec and at the end of each day would make sure that the delivery was going according to them. Because we didn’t have that person, we stepped into this role. This was possible because my husband can read plans. We regularly did QA checks against our understanding of the plans and the spec, and contacted the main contractor if we thought we saw issues. This drove our builder crazy, but in the end prevented problems from becoming major as we caught them early.

In the digital sphere, if we have a team member who is identified as being on top of quality across the project, clients can trust that this is taken care of and not feel they have to constantly inspect work-in-progress with an eye to spotting errors (although we need to be gracious and welcome that eagle-eye spotting an error if we have missed something). This tzar might be a project owner or manager, and they provide coherent quality control, in addition to specific discipline quality provided by specialists.

4. Client education is not a luxury
We didn’t know a lot about how building processes and construction sites work, so we saw some things that what looked concerning, which were, in fact, insignificant. For example, it seems that high density insulation boards can be stored outside, when other materials like marine ply are stored inside. So we kept asking about whether it was a problem that some material wasn’t kept from the elements. Some of these differences were explained to us when we raised them, and that was reassuring. Other times we were left wondering, worrying, and… nagging our builder.

As digital design-and-builders, we don’t need to inundate clients with every detail of what we are doing. But giving an overview of a process helps clients know that projects are progressive, and that all the details will be dealt with in the end – they just won’t all happen at the same time. When we show work-in-progress, it is important to be clear about what is still to come in the finished deliverable. Agile client showcases are a good example of this.

5. Clients need a way to be negative…and positive
When we were providing work-in-progress feedback to our builder, it felt like we were being negative most of the time. We also found it difficult to feel comfortable giving negative feedback, fearing that it could potentially lose the crew’s goodwill. And we found that in the heat of writing an email about an issue we saw, it was very easy to sound overly negative, and not acknowledge the positive developments that were also happening because we feared weakening our concern being taken seriously. (Digital design and build teams often comment that they don’t hear ‘that’s good’ very often in the middle of a project.) Towards the end, we did tell our builder things like: we know it sounds like we are always complaining and the background is that we are really pleased with the overall space, but we want to make sure that these issues are taken care of.

How do we build this comfort into our relationship with clients? I think we can create the framework during a project to mark what is going well and what is a concern to clients, letting them know that the negative points will be addressed and the positive can provide a pattern for future delivery. We can build an environment where negative feedback can be given safely – not questioning the ability of team, but focusing on where outcomes and outputs are falling short.

And now it’s our turn
The building structure of our kitchen was delivered – a little bit late and a little bit over budget, but that’s life. The room looks great, the light is beautiful, and… wish us luck: we are doing the kitchen fit-out ourselves.

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