Communication: Key to Success

Ulf Wolf / March 2017

We communicate to convey, to impart, to understand, to coordinate, to accomplish. Few, if any, activities in the office or in the field do not involve communication. It’s the heart of our business, any business, and how well we communicate determines how well we do.
    
Shannon Zweifel, learning and technology partner at Marek Brothers in Texas, puts it this way: “For us, communication is a fundamental element to success.”

Tools and Channels
A closer look at day-to-day communication reveals a multitude of channels such as those between owners and their staff and crew, those between supervisors and foremen and their staffs and craftsmen, and those between workers onsite—our internal channels.
    
Our external channels include to and from potential owners and clients, and to and from general contractors, architects and suppliers.
    
And then there is always problem resolution, both internal and external, which is always based on good and clear communication.
    
A century ago, this was all accomplished either face to face, or by telegraph or phone (if you had an in with Thomas Edison) or via written memos and letters.
    
Today’s technology has expanded our communication options to a degree sometimes hard to grasp: cellphones, emails, texts, video calls and conferencing, to name a few.

Principles
Some communication principles hold true regardless of channel or method. To improve project collaboration and teamwork, communications have to be clear and (preferably) concise and written or said in such a way that the recipient has no problem understanding the message.
    
This, in turn, requires that you always consider the other end of that channel. Language skills, for one, can be crucial. Familiarity with the tools used as well.
    
Steve Winn, corporate credit manager at Marek Brothers, reminds us that “In communication, the ‘u’ comes before the ‘I,’ and if we’re going to communicate successfully, we must consider the audience we hope to communicate with, more than just what I want to say. We have to know our audience. How will they receive our words? This is more important than what words we use.”
    
Add to this the skill to shut up and listen (not an easy one), and most pieces will be in place.
    
And here we ask: What tools work best with what channels, and how best to work those tools?

Internal Communications
“We work established command channels,” says Pat Arrington, principal at Commercial Enterprises, Inc. in New Mexico. “Any directive from the CEO goes via one of our four operations managers to our field foremen who in turn notify their craftsmen, and we always follow up anything verbal with email to keep a record.
    
“It’s our experience that a directive that is only verbal tends not to be implemented or executed correctly, if at all.
    
“Problem resolution requires face-to-face. Always. Memos usually go unacknowledged.
    
“Electronic transfer of information is vital, but a phone call and face-to-face will produce fruit.” Then he quips, “Do not attempt without a hand gun, pick handle or body armor.”
    
“When a job is awarded,” says Robert Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc., “I sit down with the project manager and office administrative staff to convey information personally about the upcoming job.
    
“We produce a worksheet with all the pertinent information about the job: contacts, scope, scale, bond, water availability, electricity availability, parking, access issues and any cautions about the customer. We never start a job without proper prior planning.
    
“Two weeks prior to project start, the project manager sits down with the superintendent and foreman to convey this information so that when the crew and materials and scaffolding arrive, they hit the ground running.
    
“Once the project is underway, foremen set goals and timelines for the crew while monitoring safety and quality.
    
“As for problem resolution, we immediately address issues as they arise, face-to-face. Allowing bad behavior or attitudes slide leads to poor work as well as lost revenue and reputation.
    
“The language barrier between English and Spanish can be problematic. It can take both patience and persistence to overcome.”
    
“I have one office staff who’s been on-board 19 years,” says John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California. “We sit a few feet from each other so, needless to say, we just talk. When I’m in the field, I frequently call him.
    
“As for the field, I see my crew almost daily and I talk to them by phone often. Some of my guys have been with me 20 years, give or take, and we no longer have communication issues.
    
“Most internal communication is a two-way street. There’s very little ‘I talk, you listen’ going on.
    
“Problems usually boil down to personality conflict. Keeping two such people on separate tasks is one strategy I’ve used.”
    
“We are a small company,” says Richard Wagner, owner of RWE—Richard Wagner Enterprises, LLC in North Carolina. “We find that a text each Sunday evening to all team members to confirm the Monday work schedule helps each worker prepare for his duty.
    
“At the end of each day, our foreman take pictures of the job and emails them to a mailbox established for that purpose. From there, our PA uploads them to the pertinent Outlook file—one per job.
    
“As CFO and top PM, I use all means necessary to convey information: texts, emails, links to drawings and so on.”
    
“Communication has changed a lot over the years,” says Mike Heering, president of F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. in Mississippi. “When I worked in the field, we had so much more face to face. Nowadays, cellphones are ubiquitous. All our foremen have them, along with iPads. Texting is prevalent, especially when you need a “yes” or “no” answer to a question. Still, sometimes you just have to leave the office and see the guy face to face. As president I mostly interface face to face when I run into guys. I typically don’t send emails to the field, that’s up to the estimators or PMs. When it comes to problem resolution, texting or emailing does not work. Electronic bickering does not solve anything. It takes face to face or, at the least, a phone call.”
    
“Once a week, I hold a face-to-face estimating meeting,” says Dave DeHorn, chief estimator at Brady Company/Los Angeles, Inc. in California. “We discuss upcoming bids, pending bids and how each estimator is doing on his/her particular bid. I also check in with each estimator daily to see how they are doing, also face to face.
    
“Texting does not seem to work; our topics are too complex and difficult to understand. If a problem occurs on a job and it will take both estimating and operations to resolve it, this is also best handled face to face, or at least over the phone. This cannot be resolved by texting or emailing, since these tools do not clearly convey emotions that can be crucial to resolving the issue.”
    
“For us, email has become the best method for communicating,” says Robert Sutton, senior project manager and estimator at Reitter Stucco & Supply in Ohio. “Mass emailing to the office staff gets the message out and replaces the age-old office memo. Video can be useful if you need more face to face, but this is often logistically impossible.
    
“Unless it’s an emergency (which requires a phone call or visit), email or texting works well with crews on site. All other forms of communication can be lost or forgotten.
    
“Within the office, we usually walk into someone’s office to keep things more personal, and there’s always the intercom. In the field, we use both handheld radios and cellphones.
    
“As for resolving internal problems, we have found email to be the most sensible form of communication. It keeps a record and can be sent to multiple parties. Private meetings should be used as a followup.
    
“Generally speaking, face-to-face discussions are ideal and allow others to see/hear emotion, but these are not documented. Phone calls allow quick communication, but voice inflection can be misread and result in a breakdown. Undocumented conversations can also be an issue.
    
“Emails document the discussion but can be misinterpreted if not clear or taken out of context. The same goes for texting.”
    
“If I need to share things, I prefer a personal meeting,” says Craig Daley, president of Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California. “Often what is being said or instructed needs that personal touch, an explanation that garners buy-in and the ability to observe reactions to things said.
    
“When I need to communicate to the field, I usually [meet in person] with the foremen or superintendents, who mainly use email and text. It is less disruptive to let the field supervisor read the message when he/she has the time. Phone calls are also disruptive to a field person who is normally in a job meeting, or talking to someone or perhaps up on a scaffold.
    
“As for problem resolution, face to face is the only way.”
    
“In 2016, we completed a needs assessment concerning our internal communication infrastructure,” says Zweifel. “As a company, we recognize that communication is the key to success in relationships, projects, safety and company culture.
    
“Our leadership communicates face to face with staff and crew in our quarterly State of the Company meetings, where they also meet with individual employees to thank them for their service.
    
“Also, each year we draft and distribute a new vision statement to disseminate the upcoming year’s goals company-wide.
    
“In 2016, we piloted email delivery of links to short video messages from [our CEO and our division president] as a follow-up to the State of the Company meeting. We will do that again this year.
    
“In-office communication is best done face-to-face, but we also use email, along with monthly meetings, to help keep teams aligned.
    
“A key to communicating is to use the tool or technology preferred by the recipient. Our surveys showed that our field employees prefer to receive company information electronically, while they prefer to receive task assignments, production goals and hazards associated with a job face to face.
    
“Ninety-nine percent of field employees surveyed believe it is important to be kept abreast of the plan for the next few days.”
    
Direct communication is always best,” says Greg Smith, vice president of estimating at Superior Wall Systems in California, “but not always practical. It’s not always feasible to gather everyone in a conference room to relay a company message, but it is the friendly way.
    
“Emailed company-wide messages also work well to relay information all at once and to ensure everyone receives the same information at the same time.
    
“Executive jobsite visits now and then are great for crew morale. They let the field crew know they are important to the company mission and that we can see they are working hard and putting in a great effort.
    
“In the field, PMs to crew, interaction is always done best face to face.
    
“Communication within the office is mostly face to face—the best way to articulate exactly what the two or three people are trying to communicate with each other. This personal exchange of ideas is very productive. An email works well for brief answers to “yes” or “no” type of questions.
    
“As for internal problem resolution, it’s always face to face. Too much can be left to personal interpretations when done via email or internal memos. Such meetings need to take place quickly to head off potential additional problems (and damage) that may arise from the initial issue.”
    
“Hands down, face to face is the best,” says Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc. in New York City. “Yes, foremen work well with email, and when in the field also work well with texting, but nothing beats face to face. Even during a phone call, you can misread an inflection. When you see a face and that person’s body language, there is much less chance of misunderstanding.”

External Communications
How do things change when it comes to communication to and from GCs, owners, architects, developers and others outside the company?
    
“Phone calls work the best, then follow up with email as confirmation,” says Arrington in New Mexico.
    
“As for suppliers, email them, then follow up with a phone call to get their attention, referring to the email that lists specifics.
    
“External problem-resolution is best handled in an email delineating the information, followed up by phone calls and face-to-face meetings as needed. Too many of us hide behind emails.”
    
In Maryland, Aird says, “We work closely with the project superintendent to forestall issues. A problem that lingers can fester until it becomes a shouting match or worse.
    
“As for problem resolution, the faster you address issues face to face, the better off you are.
    
“That said, always keep in mind the level of sophistication and knowledge of those you address. Talking over someone’s head or implying that they are ignorant or uncaring is a great way to kill a relationship and the work product.”
    
Kirk in California says he communicates with these groups via phone calls and emails, but when it comes to problem resolution, “long, tense and boring meetings seem to do the trick.”
    
From North Carolina, Wagner says, “We send all POs to our suppliers by email as written backup and always ask for a return confirmation email that they received it and have no issues.
    
“Suppliers, in turn, send submittal packages by email PDF, which I review and forward to the GC. This really speeds up the submittal process.
    
“Also, I find that many of my suppliers work well with texting when it comes to checking on an order, delivery time, items and so on.”
    
In Mississippi, Heering says, “Most communication with potential clients starts out with an email or phone call, and ends up face to face. The same holds true for GCs and architects.
    
“When it comes to suppliers, there is some face to face. They tend to come here every week, taking estimators out to lunch. But in the run of business, probably 90 percent of our guys communicate with suppliers via email or cellphone. All orders are in writing, via email.
    
“External problem resolution always boils down to face to face.”
    
“I believe the best way to communicate to your clients is to see them face to face,” says DeHorn. “However, this takes a tremendous amount of time on both sides. Phone calls are the next-best solution.
    
“Emails are probably the most common due to the nature of our business, but they can be deleted or put on the back burner until you have time to respond to them.
    
“I receive a ton of bid invitations every day from clients. Most of these clients ‘broadcast’ bid invitations through a website such as Bid Mail, The Blue Book or some other type of service. I don’t think the client gives much thought to who receives the bid invites. For example, I receive bid invites for work outside California on a regular basis, yet we only work in the Greater Los Angeles area.”
    
“Other than in person, phone/cellphone works the best for communication with clients, but pay attention to voice inflection; it can be misread,” advises Sutton from Ohio.
    
“Client phone calls are undocumented, so follow up such conversations with a quick email if necessary. The same goes for GCs, architects and others.
    
“As for suppliers, email works well if the request is not urgent. If urgent, call or visit. Just be sure to follow up voice discussions with a quick email for documentation.
    
“As for external problem resolution, meet or call, then follow up with email to document the conversation.”
    
Daley says that “email works great for presenting written proposals and change-order request. Supplier material-orders are best in writing, by email. Phone orders can become a problem of ‘he said, she said’ and should be avoided.”
    
In Texas, Zweifel says that “face-to-face communication builds relationships based on trust.” And when communicating with people outside the company, a key is “to be very sensitive to the preferred method of the other party. Some work best with email, others with text, other by phone. Taking his or her preference into consideration makes for a smoother communication.”
    
“Nothing works better than personal interaction with a client, and it’s always a good practice to spend some face-to-face time with them,” says Smith. Then he adds, “Yes, I do have email interaction with my clients as well, after I’ve come to know them.”
    
In New York, Zaretzky makes it a point to meet with owners and architects personally. “Yes, you can email and call,” he says, “but there is nothing like putting a face to a name.”
    
He is more personal in his communications with suppliers as well. “Even placing orders with a supplier,” he says, “I’d rather call than email. On the phone, you can ask questions and sort out availability and alternatives as you go. This always saves time. Yes, we follow up with written confirmation, and email works well for that.”
    
Based on these interviews, it seems like wall and ceiling contractors are using every available means of communication to relay messages and document their actions. Smart.

California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.