A Comprehensive Guide to Creating Good Contractor-Designer Relationships

Friction in a project is inevitable and to be expected. With so many personalities working together, there’s bound to be some disagreements.

However, it becomes a problem when delays occur, pushing back your schedule and forcing you to spend more money and time than you had planned. This happens most commonly in situations where teams and individuals have to work together when they haven’t before.

Four Common Causes of Project Friction

Maybe your plumber showed up late, or you expected a quote much sooner than you actually received it. Maybe you’ve gotten an angry call from a client because a vendor left muddy footprints all over the house.

This may all seem easily solvable by common sense; but with so many moving parts, a lot of things can slip through the cracks.

1. Different or Unclear Expectations

Here’s a common scenario: The contractor thinks his primary point of contact is the client. The designer might think the contractor should run everything by them first. And the client doesn’t really know what to expect and is actually confused by it all.

2. Communication Issues

This could be a lack of communication, ineffectual communication, or inadequate communication.

3. Lack of Professionalism and Authority

You won’t be respected or taken seriously when you act in an unprofessional manner, or seem unsure of your ability to do the job. You don’t want to give anyone a reason to doubt your commitment to the job, nor your ability to do it. 

4. Personality and Ego

This is hardest to overcome because every person is different, and you cannot control how other people react. Everyone has their own way of doing things that they’ve done for a long time, and everyone thinks their way is the best way.

Improving Designer-Contractor Relationships

There are several ways to deal with these issues and not let them get in the way of your work. However, keep in mind that not all of these strategies will work all the time. It will be up to you to incorporate what is appropriate in a given situation.

Again, because you can only control only your own actions, it’s important to be self-aware. You must ask yourself: How are you contributing to unclear expectations? How are you contributing to good or bad communication? Is there any lack of professionalism or authority on your part?

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned running my own business and working with other designers and contractors is this: Communicate expectations throughout the project as clearly as possible. Keeping everyone on the same page is really the backbone and common theme behind any strategy to creating good designer-contractor relationships. 

Imagine how great it would feel if your business created and maintained great working relationships with professionals that make your projects go smoother. Smoother projects, of course, make for a happier client, which means more referrals, more money, fewer headaches, better efficiency, and on and on.

The Four Keys to Good Designer-Contractor Relationships

1. Maintaining Standards

First, you have to have a clear understanding of what your standards are. You can do this through your own internal review of your own business and knowing how you would like to work. 

Ask yourself:

  1. How do you like to work with other professionals?
  2. Whose job is what? 
  3. What are your business standards in working with clients?
  4. What will you or won’t you put up with?
  5. Are you being a good example to others?
  6. Are you following your own standards?
  7. Are you treating others like you would like to be treated?

Having clear answers to this question makes it easier to maintain that level of service when you bring other professionals on to a project.

Something to watch out for: people taking advantage of you, or you compromising your business integrity, or regularly tying yourself into knots to accommodate another professional without that same courtesy being extended to you in return.

You should not have to work under these conditions as a business owner. Don’t forget: You are largely in charge of this.

Of course, if you want to be respected, you have to show respect to other professionals as well.

2. Setting Expectations

I believe the reason most projects go south is because of unmet expectations. It is better to communicate more than you think is necessary. One of the best things you can say to other professionals at the beginning of a project is that you are both looking forward to a happy client. 

1. It’s what you both want. 

2. It’s where the money comes from. 

3. It’s where other referrals come from.

4. It’s where the good photos from your portfolio come from.

This should be your common objective, and should outweigh any issues that arise between professionals. If this isn’t agreed upon from the beginning—and really, this also ties to maintaining your standards—then that’s a red flag.

You also want to remember that people are going to be more inclined to meet your expectations if you explain the reasoning behind them.

For example, you could say, “I expect there to be no swearing on the job site.” But if you take it  a little further and explain why, it’s gonna have more impact. So, you could say, “I expect there to be no swearing on the job site. This is the client’s home, there are children around, not to mention it’s a place of work for other people involved in this job, so we should maintain a high level of professionalism.”

The only way to set expectations is through good communication. Remember, even if you think you’re being clear, someone else may hear something differently, they may have expectations or beliefs they’re not verbalizing that they don’t even realize they have.

You really want to consider the way you are communication. 

  1. Are you throwing a sentence over your shoulder as you are leaving the job site? 
  2. Do you take notes during a meeting and then send a follow-up email with bullet points? 
  3. Are you reinforcing your in-person conversations with emails? 
  4. Are you asking the right questions? 
  5. Are you expressing the type of communication you need or expect in return? 

Here are some examples of setting expectations.

“To meet our deadline, I need the new change order by Friday. Please let me know if you run into any roadblocks with that as soon as possible.”

“It seems the client is getting confused or overwhelmed with some of our communications. Do you have time now to talk about how to make this easier on both of us as well as them?” 

“I noticed that it takes several days longer than I would expect to get some on-site details from you. What can I do to make sure I get the most up-to-date information within 24 hours?”

“Hey, I expected to hear from you last night about color samples, and because I didn’t, it really messed up my day, and I couldn’t meet a deadline I promised our client. What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

Here are some communication tips to help you set standards:

You want to avoid blame. You don’t want to say, “You did this,” or “You didn’t do this.”

You also want to avoid pleading or begging. It’s not professional and it also put you in a position of weakness. If you need to, create your boundaries and say, “This is what’s gonna happen,” and stick to that. 

You also don’t want to make excuses.

You want to show compassion. People are busy, and if somebody is normally great, you want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Don’t fly off the handle for one thing if they’re normally wonderful. 

You want to focus on the solution and not the problem. In the examples above, it’s all about moving forward and what the solution is going to be. It’s not about rehashing or going into a lot of detail about the problem. It’s not about blaming or pleading.

You want to put everything in writing as much as possible. Just keep good records.

You also want to avoid fires. And by this, I mean “I need it yesterday” situations. This would be things like rush orders, on-the-spot quotes, problems, and immediate delivery updates. A big component of this is being respectful of other people’s time, and just because you didn’t get to it or your forgot, that doesn’t make it somebody else’s fire or problem to solve.

Always show appreciation. People like to hear that they’re appreciated. It also makes them more likely to keep up the good work. 

Finally, ask for input. We all have different opinions, experience, and expertise. Including other professionals in your decisions can go a long way towards goodwill. 

3. Creating Guidelines

Once you know what your standards are and you can communicate your expectations for the project to others, then you can actually take it a step further and turn those into written guidelines.

So, this is taking your expectations and creating systems or processes around them. It could be a simple code of conduct for your employees or other professionals on the project, or it could be more formal, such as an agreement or a contract. 

The first big question: Who’s in charge? This is a little bit tricky, but it is something that needs to be established at the outset of the project. 

Most likely, a general contractor is going to be in charge because of legal reasons. This is because they are the ones who are licensed. In some states, it’s illegal to perform the duties of a contractor, including hiring and scheduling subs. You want to check with the local government and an attorney who knows this sort of thing in your area.

That said, you can choose to work together and have that really fine line wherein the contractor is responsible for all the building decisions as long as they don’t impact the design plan or the finished look of the project. The designer will then be responsible for all the decisions pertaining to the design or should be consulted when a building decision impacts the design.

Trade Agreements and Contracts

A trade agreement is a sort of blanket agreement for trades working on a project. It can be used for small or large projects and generally is not going to change. It’s really just a simple document that sets your expectations for working together. Both designers and contractors can use this for working with other trades, subcontractors, or each other.

A contract is more detailed and will lay out things like insurance, for example. Another difference is that while a trade agreement is more like a general statement of how you expect to work with each other and can be used with any project, a contract is much more specific and will only pertain to one project at a time.

4. Execution 

You can’t just create these agreements and contracts and not do anything about them. If the other professional starts to slip and works starts suffering, you need to have a talk with them early and often. Always be communicating as much as possible. It’s important to do this early, otherwise it can become a slippery slope and harder to fix down the road.

If you take the time to create these documents and to create these written guidelines and trade agreements and contracts and you come up with these standards, you also need to execute them. You need to practice what you preach and you need to set a good example for all of the other professionals working on the project.

When you notice that others may not be adhering to the agreements, you don’t want to wait. You want to be having a conversation with them immediately. 

It may also be helpful to share your trade agreement with the client so that all parties are on the same page. You likely wouldn’t do this with a contract, because that contract is probably proprietary and confidential, meaning it says how much you’re paying and how you’re dealing with expenses and stuff, and that’s something you usually wouldn’t show a client.

Sharing your trade agreement with the client means they can be an ally if the other professional isn’t complying. It would be nice if they helped monitor the communication situation, and they can say, “Wait, aren’t you supposed to run this by so-and-so first?”

You also want to keep in mind that you’re never going to fully eliminate issues on a job. But by setting expectations and reinforcing them, you’re definitely going to help minimize the issues. 

So again: Always be setting expectations.

Remember, a rising tide lifts all boats. I believe that if we encourage collaboration and cooperation in the industry, everyone benefits: clients, designers, contractors.

Featured illustration by Veopen, Canada

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