How to reduce mismatched project expectations

Oct. 1, 2011
Mismatched expectations are caused by information gaps. If you tell someone to make coffee and don’t specify decaf, they’ll have to choose regular or decaf. Half the time they’ll decide on the one you didn’t want because there was a gap in your instructions.

"Aw, jeez, I thought you meant…." These words strike terror in the hearts of contractors because they are always followed by bad news. These words mean you expected one thing and someone else expected something different. And that usually means headaches, expense and delay.

Mismatched expectations are caused by information gaps. If you tell someone to make coffee and don’t specify decaf, they’ll have to choose regular or decaf. Half the time they'll decide on the one you didn't want because there was a gap in your instructions.

No big deal with coffee, but a very big deal if you didn't specify builder's grade fixtures or a 6-in. vs. 8-in. slab. Then it's either a disagreement with the customer or eating the difference. Neither is good.

The following five factors affect mismatched expectations:

  • Complexity of the task: More steps equal more chance for trouble.
  • Level of detail in the work description: When you include less detail, you should expect more trouble
  • Level of standardization: Most everyone expects the same thing from "swap out a toilet." However, that's not so when you tell someone to "redo the master bath."
  • Unknown variables: If you've done a job a thousand times you know what to expect. If it's custom work, there are more unknowns.
  • Number of people: More people involved with a job equal a greater chance for bad assumptions.

When the customer hires you, he's actually delegating a job to you. It's the same as when you delegate a job to an employee. He wants a result and pays you to create it. It sounds simple, but effective delegation is harder than it sounds.

Good delegation requires a complete, written process that both people understand. In a contracting business, the boss can create this process from his own knowledge and pass it to the employee.

In the customer-contractor relationship, things are reversed. The boss is the customer who knows little or nothing about the job process. The employee (the contractor) is the expert. It's your job to layout and explain the process for your boss.

Your bid or estimate is where you specify everything that you and the customer must both understand in the same way to avoid mismatched expectations later — schedule, sequence, materials, payment terms, desired result, a method of execution, etc. State anything where one of you could assume something else.

Do you have to specify where every nail will go? Of course not, but you know where misunderstandings usually occur, and those are the things that need to be documented. But always err on the side of more detail.

Does this eat up a lot of time? Certainly more than dashing off a few lines on a bid sheet, but the time invested avoids expense and hassle later. And when it avoids re-do delays, it avoids the domino effect of delaying your future work. A big bid that requires considerable time to create seems like a big, risky time investment, but taking an hour to spec a $5,000 bid is the same as spending 10 hours for a $50,000 bid.

Document everything:
Always put everything in writing, not just a two line description and a price.

Standard items: Things that are second nature to you are unknown to customers, especially residential ones. Make sure the customer understands your bid or estimate. Boilerplate stuff can be printed on the back of your bid. Make it understandable and legible.

Job-specific items: You should know the 20 questions that need detailed answers. Sit down with the customer and go through them. Quantify when possible.

Change orders: Specify that any changes to the original agreement, including cost and schedule changes, must be written up in detail and signed by both of you. Stick to it.

Don't assume your habits are OK with customers: Will your crews be playing boom boxes? Will they be smoking? Will you clean up the site every night and work on weekends? Will you block driveway access and disable power or water? Make sure your customers understand what will happen during the project.

Review the entire document: Review the estimate or bid with the customer, explaining each point (in plain English, not technical language), and have him initial or sign it.

Train your employees and subs to execute work orders precisely. A detailed work order is useless if the crews don’t follow it.

Check in regularly with the customer: Don't just touch base with the customer, do a real project status check for them.

Managing expectations is a delicate process that requires constant vigilance, and it's the contractor's job (not the customer's) to make sure everyone is on the same page. Gaps in information and assumptions will come back to bite you. Fortunately, a little homework can prevent most of the misunderstandings. Plus, it helps your profitability, reputation and blood pressure.

Jayme Broudy is the founder and principal of Contractor's Business School, a coaching, training and consulting firm. Since 1993, Jayme has worked with hundreds of contractors in many specialty areas to build successful stand-alone businesses. Visit or call 800.527.754.

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