Contractor Tip Of The Month: Saying Yes By Not Saying Yes – or No

Damian Lang

Sometimes the best answer to a “yes or no” question is neither yes nor no. Once, we had a customer who asked if we could start a project in five weeks, instead of six. Instead of telling the customer we would see what we can do, our project manager told him, “No.” 

I was telling Heath Holdaway with IMS Masonry about how the customer was frustrated by our project manager’s answer, when he gave me the solution to my situation. I must give credit to Heath for much of the content in this article.       

Heath, in his soft-spoken (but always convincing) voice, said, “You should not tell customers yes or no. Instead of saying yes, tell them you will do the best you can to meet the deadline they are asking you to meet. Instead of saying no, tell them the same thing – that you will do the best you can to meet the deadline they are asking you to meet. In both cases, you and your team must go to workand do the best you can for the customer to meet their demands.”  

Milestones and completion dates are one of the most stressful parts of any construction project. Owners require their contractors to commit to a completion date upfront. That’s how it all begins. 

During the actual project, all hell breaks loose. Obtaining building permits, unforeseen weather, soil conditionssub-contractors failing to perform their scope, materials not showing up on time, and employees not showing up for work all add to the confusion.  

Things never go exactly as they were planned on paper. Due to delays, your start date is often postponed up to three weeks or more. However, it isn’t likely your customer is willing to change the finish date. Instead, he requires you to expedite your scope of work to ensure the project is finished on the original completion date.  

Contractors find themselves sitting in meetings being forced time and time again into saying yes or no to circumstances that are out of their control. If you are the one on the hot seat in those meetings (and as hard as it is to do), if you want to keep from getting yourself in a problematic situation you never caused, take Heath’s advice. Never say yes or no to the person demanding a milestone or finish date.  

Why you should not say yes: When you say yes, you are committing to something you will be held accountable to. If you say you will be done in three weeks, and you end up missing the deadline, you are in big trouble. What if it rains two of the three weeks? What if the customer increases the scope of work? What if other trades don’t get out of the way? Something could happen that makes it impossible to finish the job in three weeks. The better answer is, “We will do everything we possibly can to be done in three weeks.”  

Saying yes feels good in the heat of the moment, but it puts all the unforeseen circumstances and stress on you. If you tell a customer or a general contractor yes to a deadline they asked for, and something happens (such as the delays mentioned above) that are out of your control, did you actually lie to him? Could it really be your fault that the concrete guys hit bad soil, so they did not finish the footers or floors in time, and you were delayed in starting your work? Think about it. You are the one who said you would be done on a certain date. 

Why you should not say no: Come on, there is always a way, and your customer knows it. Why would you say no? If you do, you are disappointing the customer upfront by not even giving what he is asking you to do a chance to happen. What if things go way better than you planned, and you hit the schedule he asked you to hit anyway? When you said no, did you lie to him?  

When the customer gives you a timeframe that is nearly impossible for you to meet, it is still better not to tell him no. Instead, explain to him that it may not be realistic to do what he is asking, but you will do the best you can.   

The reason most people get to no so fast is that it is part of their upbringing/chemical makeup. As children, we were all told no: You can’t cross the road, don’t put your hand on that hot stove, don’t eat with your mouth full, etc. Therefore, “No, we can’t do that is the normal response to a customer request.  

Our company has lost work in the past when someone (normally an estimator, superintendent or project manager) told a potential customer no, instead of something like, “Let me get with the team and see what we can do.  

Perhaps the job doesn’t start for three months, and at the start of the job, it only takes a couple of employees to put the foundations in. You can surely break a couple of employees loose to start the job. Then, by the time the heavy manpower part of the job is needed due the carpenters completing the framework, which could be six months or more, your schedule opens so you can do the brickIf you say no instead of exploring all options first, you are losing any further opportunity you have with the customer, as he will just move on to the next contractor. 

Of course, there will be times you must say yes or no.  

Saying yes is only acceptable if you are absolutely sure you can do what the customer is askingexactly the way he wants it done, and in the timeline he wants it done. Bcareful about unforeseen circumstances that you may be held accountable for.  

Saying no is only appropriate when all other options have been considered. It should never be your first response.  

In any case, you should never lie to or intentionally mislead a customerWhen you do, relationships are lost or damaged forever. That sounds like a good topic for my next contractor tip. Stay tuned.    

Damian Lang is CEO at Lang Masonry Contractors, Wolf Creek Construction, Malta Dynamics, and EZG Manufacturing. To view the products and equipment his companies created to make jobsites more efficient, visit his websites at ezgmfg.com or maltadynamics.com. To receive his free e-newsletters or to speak with Damian on his management systems or products, email:dlang@watertownenterprises.com or call 740-749-3512.