3 Ways General Contractors Can Improve Communication with Owners

Build trust, even when problems arise, with these communication strategies.

A general contractor’s job is getting projects built. But much of the day-to-day work involved comes down to communication. And at no time is good communication more important than when a problem arises on the project.

Unfortunately, communication is not every team member's greatest strength.

Take heart, GCs: If your communication methods sometimes leave owners and others boiling, there are strategies you can use to deliver even bad news in a way that will strengthen long-term relationships.

Neal Flesner, master facilitator and change consultant for Ventura Consulting, which facilitates partnerships between owners and contractors, has worked with general contractors all over the world and witnessed a wide range of communication styles. The most successful GCs, he said, take these approaches.

Be upfront about problems, especially their impact

If there’s a hint of a problem on the site, don’t wait for it to resolve itself.

“Let owners [and others] know as soon as there is a potential impact or change to the schedule or to the budget” Flesner advised.

With the proliferation of new jobsite collaboration tools, today’s project stakeholders expect more involvement in and transparency into projects at every step. Yet most contractors remain focused on managing rapid changes and missteps on the job within their own teams. Flesner thinks that’s a mistake.

“Have those tough conversations with the owners, with construction managers, etc., early and have them often,” he said. GCs ultimately benefit from explaining why a problem happened and providing a rough order of magnitude of the potential impact.

Communicate the tough stuff face to face

It may seem counterintuitive in this age when a paper trail can well mean everything during litigation, but face to face discussions can go a long way toward improving communication and building trust. 

“These are very tough conversations. They involve money, and as human beings we tend to want to avoid those tough conversations with people,” Flesner said. Case in point: Flesner said he’s working on a $500 billion project in San Francisco that’s gone 100 percent over budget.

These types of overruns aren’t necessarily someone’s fault — in this case, point the finger at bad weather and local labor shortages — but they are painful. Delivering the information in person not only ensures a problem doesn’t get lost in an email inbox but also demonstrates a GC’s transparency and their commitment to working with the owner to solve problems proactively.

Don’t talk about problems — talk about solutions

When a problem arises, take charge and draft a solution to address it. “Bring solutions and strategies to the table,” Flesner advised.

Do forecasts for big storms have you concerned you’ll lose a month due to weather? Determine now how you can build that time into the schedule later on.

“When the contractor comes to the owner and doesn’t just say ‘here’s a problem’ but ‘here’s an issue and here’s how we’re going to deal with it,’ it softens the blow and shows you’re all working toward the same objectives,” Flesner said.

And if there’s one thing GCs should be communicating, it’s that the owner’s goal is their goal, too.