The construction consulting firm FMI generated an article a couple of years ago drawing a comparison between what contractors perceived as being of greatest importance to their clients, and what the clients said were their priorities.

Contractors gave top priority to staying within budget and on-time completion. Clients said they valued, in order:

1. Personal attention

2. Dependability

3. Returned phone calls

4. Good communications

5. Schedule

6. No surprises

7. Budget

I've seen several studies of this nature over the years. All of them reach, more or less the same conclusion. Contractors and clients are like ships passing in the night in their perspective of customer service and satisfaction.

Contractors, being part of a technical species, appreciate things defined in measurable units like time or dollars. Viewed through their prism, it's hard to see what more customers could ask of you than to deliver a quality job within budget and on time.

This is the mechanic's mentality, and it is a beautiful way for a mechanic to think. You should all be so lucky as to employ people who adhere to that creed.

Problem is, once he puts his own money on the line going into business for himself, a contractor has to stop thinking like a mechanic and start thinking like a businessperson. As Dale Carnegie and countless other titans of industry have shown, succeeding in business is more an art than a science. And the art of business has more to do with human relations than technical competence.

The FMI study shows, to the customer, the tangible things are a given. Nobody signs for a job expecting the work to be shoddy, late and costing more than agreed upon. Quality work-on-time-within-budget is the bare minimum of what the client pays for. To be truly satisfied, the customer expects more from you - and in a way, somewhat less.

The FMI list of values shows construction clientele treasure, above all else, hassle-free business relationships. And the way to give them that is to stop treating them like customers and start regarding them as friends.

Does anyone fail to return a phone call to a good friend? It is beyond me why anyone in business would make a habit out of dodging customers, but everyone I know has stories about contractors not returning calls, not following through on commitments, not providing promised information, even not showing up on the job when expected. The most common excuse, when one is even offered, boils down to some variation of, "We were too busy," which rings in the customer's ear as, "I had more important things to do than mess with your piddling job."

Forgiving Your Sins

What do I mean by saying that the customer also expects "somewhat less" from you than you might suppose? Here I'm referring to a certain aspect of human nature that helps define friendship - forgiveness.

Friendships often have their rocky moments. Friends may take offense at some real or imagined slight, but if they are worthy of the term, true friends will forgive the offender and carry on the relationship without holding a grudge.

It's no different in the business world. Become a trusted friend of a client, and s/he will be apt to forgive the occasional goof-up, to which all of us mere mortals are susceptible. But treat a client only like a customer, i.e., with a relationship no deeper than the legal obligations spelled out in the boilerplate of contract documents, then that person is apt to hold you to every last letter of that contract.

Contract with a friend, and that friend might cut you some slack even on big things like budget and schedule, especially when misfortune is caused by factors beyond your control. Contract with a mere customer, odds are you will have to call your attorney to deal with any snafus. And is there anyone outside of Satan himself who can get a contractor and customer snarling at each other more quickly and viciously than their respective legal counsel?

Easy Does It

The ultimate irony of studies like the one cited by FMI, is that befriending clients is a lot easier to accomplish than bringing in a project on time and within budget. Even the best managed company will, from time to time, find it impossible to overcome the inevitable snafus caused by personnel problems, design flaws, code confusion, bad weather, back orders, equipment failures, jobsite theft, labor shortages and a hundred other ambushes that supercede the talent of even the best managers.

Making friends is easy by comparison. All you have to do is tend to a few simple courtesies. Give your clientele personal attention by calling once in a while for no reason but to ask what you can do to make their life easier. Be dependable by following through on promises and commitments. Be a good communicator by keeping clients posted on developments that impact them. Don't leave them vulnerable to unpleasant surprises.

And, geez, return those phone calls promptly. Take a moment to ponder how utterly asinine it is to run from clients the way you would from past-due creditors. Can you ever be "too busy" to respond to a friend in need?