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Robert Ikenberry

Hard Hat Geek by Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Business Building: Investing in ‘Yes’

I’m often amazed when I watch other contractors interact with owners.

If an owner has a request, points out specification requirements not being met, or raises a safety concern, the automatic reaction seems to be “No.” 

No, we can’t do that without an extra (change order).

No, the specifications don’t require us to do that in this case.

No, that worker isn’t at risk.

Too often, this starts a dialogue that becomes contentious, regardless of whether the original issue had any merit.

When I start any new project, I assume that the last experience the owner had was with a contractor who first said “No.”

Starting with Yes

I work to build trust and cooperation, and I tell them that’s what I’ll do, but I don’t expect the owner to believe that I’m different.

I find two techniques are of some value, even if only as mental exercises:

1. Start with yes. When an owner has a request—even when it’s wrong—I try to start my response with “Yes.”  Hopefully, it’s “Yes, we can certainly do that.”  Sometimes, though, it has to be “Yes, I can see that may be an option. However, we were planning to do this, and here’s why we think it’s better for the project.” Notice, though, that in both cases, the response starts with yes.

If the request is minor, and we can do it, whether it’s really required or not, we just do it.  For most of my jobs, minor is about $5,000.  For smaller contractors, it might be $500 or even $50, but at some point you will find that just saying “yes” and doing what was requested will build much more in goodwill than it costs.  In those cases, just do it.

Gauging Fairness

There’s also this.

2. Do a fairness check. On the owner’s side, when you have a request for something that doesn’t really seem necessary, try this test for fairness. Possibly, it’s clearly an extra; possibly, it’s clearly in the spec but just not needed and the owner is playing power games or “gotcha.”  To help you decide, here’s the “If you had to pay” test:

Maybe the font size on a warning sign is technically too small.  Maybe the film thickness of the paint is too high, but everyone agrees it doesn’t compromise performance.

In those kinds of cases, I ask the owner, “Contract language aside, if you knew you had to pay for this fix, would you do it? Assume for the sake of argument that this is clearly extra, and you are going to be charged every penny for the additional efforts.”

 We Paint It

 We Paint It

If there’s a disagreement over a fix in a project, start by asking the owner “Contract language aside, if you knew you had to pay for this fix, would you do it?”

If the answer is, “Yes, as the owner, I would still do the work and pay for it,” then it is reasonable to proceed and discuss later who has to pay.

However, if the owner wouldn’t pay but still wants the work done, the work probably doesn’t really have to done.  In this case, the client is not being reasonable, and hopefully you can show that this request is just punitive.

The Payoff

I understand that some owners will try to take advantage of contractors, that some general contractors profit (temporarily) by squeezing subs, and that a contractor who isn’t assertive enough to protect his or her position will fail.

I also know that you can’t afford to give away the store and that you sometimes have to fight for what’s due you.

That said, saying “Yes” first usually pays off in the long run.  And making owners consider what’s really fair and necessary—not just “correct” per the spec—helps build mutual respect.




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Tagged categories: Building operations; Contractors; Contracts; Customers; Facility Managers; General contractors; Industrial Contractors; Painters; Subcontractors

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