On great clients
Extraordinary clients get the exceptional work they deserve, and that is the finest reward of all
Insightful design can make the most of a limited budget, inform the difficult decisions that must be made during a project, and assist in choosing the best materials.
The work of excellent builders is also sure to be found here and is just as easy to admire. Great builders have a keen mind for solving problems and good hands for crafting a vision into a reality. But a third component goes into great work, and it is not so easy to detect: the quality of the client.
According to most builders, “Clients get the work they deserve.” Two different clients may present identical budgets to the same architect and the same builder, yet one gets a vastly superior home simply by virtue of being a great client. But little has ever been written about what makes a great client. There is no manual, no how-to book, no seminar on the subject. And while some of the builders I’ve hired over the years may fall down laughing at the thought, I’d like to offer some advice.
Be well-informed and respectful
Great clients don’t say, “I want the built-in bookcases to be, you know, simple.” Would that be simple as in constructed of MDF with butt joints? Or would that be simple as in Shaker-style constructed of the finest materials possible? Great clients say, “I want the bookcases to look like this picture I found in a magazine. What do you think?”
Great clients speak up when they notice the painter wants to finish the plywood in the utility room before the plumber installs the spider-shaped heat manifold on top of it. True, it’s a fine line between being an extra pair of eyes and being a pest, but a great client makes observations and reports them calmly.
Great clients get excited and tell the carpenter, “Thanks for the great job you did framing this roof. It’s a sin to cover it up.” People want to do good work for those who appreciate it. Conversely, people want to go home as quickly as possible when dealing with a client who is indifferent at best and combative at worst.
Bad clients look down their noses at folks who wear work boots and heft plywood for a living. Great clients show up with cold drinks when it is 90ºF outside and the crew is installing insulation in the attic.
Great clients never say, “Hey, that’s not how Norm does it on TV!” They understand that through the magic of television, and unseen helpers, Norm can do a week’s work in a halfhour. Likewise, great clients realize that the clause in the contract about “unforeseen delays due to weather” is there for a reason. If it rains for three weeks straight, you really can’t do much about it.
Great clients don’t expect builders and architects to be marriage counselors. Like everyone in the midst of a construction project, great clients are likely to review the sanctity of their matrimonial vows. However, they do so behind closed doors. When they feel the vitriol rising, one of them wisely says, “We’d like to think about this one. We’ll get back to you.”
While there is no direct corollary between the quantity of money on a job and the quality of the client, there is one universal truth: Great clients pay on time. If the contract says one-third of the money is due when the framing is completed, the check is there when the last nail is driven. No one wants to wait for their money; no one wants to be a bill collector.
It’s not easy but it’s worth the trouble
Just as there are bad clients in the world, so too are there bad builders and bad architects. On every project, the client, the architect, and the builder form a three-legged stool. If any one of the legs comes up short, the project turns rickety at first and eventually collapses into a miserable heap of mediocrity.
So why would anyone go through all the anguish of being a great client? Because extraordinary clients get the exceptional work they deserve, and that is the finest reward of all.
Joe Berkeley is a writer living in Hull, Mass.