Setting Client Expectations

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Learn why expectations can make or break your creative concrete business and how to set expectations in all areas of your business: pricing, quality and process.

Here is an in-depth course on all aspects of pricing, marketing and selling creative concrete, including a contract:

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Caleb Lawson (00:03):
Well, good morning everybody, and welcome to the Maker in the Mix podcast. It’s a beautiful sunny day here in Canada, North Carolina. I’m sure the weather’s great in Raleigh, or hopefully it is Jeff. But today we wanted to jump right in. We’ve, we’ve got a lot of class prep that we’ve been doing for next week’s class with Buddy Rhodes and with Legends and rock stars. We’re super excited about that, and that’s why

Jeff Girard (00:36):
You’re in your truck.

Caleb Lawson (00:37):
Why in my truck? Because there’s still prep going on inside and it’s loud in there. So just wanted to jump right into what we think is a really important topic, which is setting client expectations. I know for myself, I’ve struggled with that in the past, and there are a lot of ways that certainly Jeff and I try to instill that in students. But we are our own worst enemies and I certainly struggle with that still despite some of my best efforts. So Jeff, you want to take it from there for a little while? Absolutely. And we’ll talk about setting expectations.

Jeff Girard (01:20):
So the heart of setting expectations is communication, and the concept is setting expectations for your customers spans a large spectrum of what does that mean and what does it include? So in our industry, there are lots of different people who approach making things out of concrete in different ways. At one end of the spectrum are folks who are pure producers. They’ve designed things, whether they’re sinks or tubs or wall panels or concrete tchotchkes or statues or fountains or whatever. They’re a hundred percent air pure design. They have the molds, they crank out, use this term very loosely here. They produce the same thing in variations, different colors that they choose. So they’re making projects, they’re making things, and they have a hundred percent control over what that looks like and what that is before anybody ever sees it. And the expectation they set is, well, here it is, take it or leave it. I mean, this is a very hardcore approach to it, but that’s one end of the spectrum. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the pure artists who create something that’s a vision of theirs and they’re making it first to satisfy their own creative need to express themselves. And perhaps they’re also making it because they have a customer or a patron who is inspired by their work and says, I want you to create something for me.

Caleb Lawson (03:03):
I would suggest that most of us are right down the middle.

Jeff Girard (03:07):
A lot of us are, we kind of have our one foot towards each end, but we’re somewhere in the middle and that, I don’t want to call it a gray area, but it’s kind of in the middle of the spectrum and we kind of swerve back and forth. What’s important though is no matter who you are or where you are on that spectrum, we make something and somebody else buys it. And that’s the key. The heart of this business exchange is when somebody is willing to pay something for what we create, they expect that what they’re getting is what’s in their head. And that’s why I said the heart of this is communication. So the communication between you and your customers to what do they really want? What are they expecting? What is the vision that they have that they’re asking you to fulfill? And then on your side of things, you need to convey everything about what you do, what your product is, what it does, what it doesn’t do, what it can do, what it can’t do to them. And that, again, that’s a big broad spectrum of what does that mean?

Caleb Lawson (04:25):
Well, and I’d love to,

Jeff Girard (04:27):
On a high level, we’ll start from a high level. Yeah,

Caleb Lawson (04:31):
Couple of times. And these, I’ve been in business for a little over 10 years now. And so I’ve had this happen a number of times. I thankfully don’t, don’t have the ability to say that I’ve got unsatisfied clients, thankfully. I really don’t for the most part. But that being said, there have been absolutely plenty of times where I’ve had to go back to the drawing board and figure it out to make them happy. So one particular time, and Jeff May remember this, I had a client who wanted me to make a very oddly shaped and long piece. It was more or less the shape of it was kind of an angular version of the shape of the state of California. Jeff, I don’t know if you remember this one, but it was about 18 feet long and was the first time I’d done anything over maybe 12 or 13 feet.

Caleb Lawson (05:22):
And I did it in an inch and a half thick and did sections that were hollow. And I just made, I made any other countertop cause I really didn’t have the experience. This is probably back in 2014. So very, very shortly after I took the class, took the ultimate class and somehow we actually got it to the job site and I had 10 people, but it was just so flexible that it didn’t break, but it did have some flexural cracking from moving it from the driveway into the area. So we ended up, through a lot of conversations with Jeff and all that, we ended up doing it again, but doing it far thicker and doing it a full foam core and more scrim and things like that. And it was fine. Funny. Through that process we ended up, she decided to change the color and so I made nine different colors of gray that should in theory match a cinder block in my shop. And she ended up choosing the original color.

Caleb Lawson (06:26):
And then a second time was a very large home where the client had a home also out in Lake Tahoe and had some, a designer from out there do all of the work. And I mean she flew her kitchen cabinets from Tahoe to Orlando. So this is a very interesting build. It’s like a 7 million remodel. And I did a bunch of stuff, all stuff I’m super proud of. But at the end of the day, what was not communicated, speaking of setting expectations, was the amount of variation that can occur in naturally occurring concrete, especially when it’s sprayed. We had entire walls in the home. We had one that was 16 feet wide by 25 feet tall with a fireplace, and it was a very large fire feature wall. And I, I’m super proud of this particular piece of work, but suffice it to say it was, had some variation.

Caleb Lawson (07:25):
I mean super beautiful, but had some variation and she did not like that. And turns out she would’ve been happier if they had probably plastered and painted the wall, which is not what she asked for and not what the designer specified. So all of that to say, I think those setting those expectations of, in the first case, the limits of the material, I couldn’t do something that thin that big. And in the second case, setting the expectations for the fluidity and the organic kind of nature of the material, because on some level, whether she’s seen concrete before or not, she was in a very dry human environment. I was in a very wet hot environment. And so things present differently. Things dry out faster when you’re spraying. And so there’s more chance for variability in my concrete Florida than there was in somebody else’s maybe in California. And so all of those things I think are paramount to the success of a job is obviously do your craft well. Right.

Jeff Girard (08:29):
That really brings up a very important point, and I see this a lot with beginners who haven’t quite got a lot of experience with the material is they expect and they strive for perfection. And the more you understand the material you’re working with and the more you understand what it does, what can do and what it can’t do, the better that you can convey that to your customers. When you’re working with a designer, you now have a buffer between, there’s like a hurdle between you and the customer, the ultimate customer, because the designer, you’re trusting them to communicate the things that need to be communicated. And if they don’t understand, they’re not going to tell the customer. And even if they do understand, they may not say something that you want them to say. So there can be breakdowns in communication even when you do all the due diligence, it’s incumbent on that middle person to continue to convey the expectations. I just saw something recently online where somebody had created this beautiful piece of concrete and the vertical walls had pinholes in it and they had posted to the

Caleb Lawson (09:52):
Crowd, or not

Jeff Girard (09:53):
The crowd, yeah, should we grout this? And I replied, it’s like, well, you should already know that answer because that’s part of setting expectations is when a customer says, I want this beautiful piece of concrete, you show them what they’re going to be getting the, I mean, this is my professional opinion and it’s one that served me well for almost 25 years, is if a customer can see what they’re going to get, maybe not exactly, but they see an accurate representation, whether it’s a seam or what an undermount sink looks like or what a particular color looks like or a particular style, whether it’s a salt and pepper or a child finish or to razo or whatever, fill in the blank. If they see something that’s accurately representing what you are going to create, then that is a very good way to set the expectation to them of, Hey, this is what you’re going to get.

Jeff Girard (10:51):
If all they do is pick a colored off of a printed color chart or an image off of your website that is just a blank square of a color, and then they say, I want my concrete to look like that. Well, that’s not really realistic, and that’s not really setting the expectation that what you’re making is not going to look like some paint ship or color chart or random little three inch square of a piece of concrete. You’re making something three dimensional. And that’s where the more you work with your material, the more you start to realize that horizontal surfaces look different than vertical surfaces sometimes, especially if you’re doing a wet cast or direct cast and you’ve got air bubbles.

Caleb Lawson (11:38):
Well, and to add to that, I think as the world gets bigger and smaller at the same time with Instagram and social media in general and being able to market on those platforms, you’re going to more and more, I think as artisans, I have seen this where more and more I’m doing work that’s not super local to me. I do have plenty of local work, but I’m also doing, I’ve got a job in Tennessee, I’ve got a job in Florida, I’ve got a job in New York, and it’s just kind of, people find me and I’m like, oh sure, why not? And so one thing that I would suggest is, let’s say for instance, you do have a color palette. I do a color palette page on your website that people can choose from. Well then maybe you should also at the bottom of that, have a link to your Instagram or have your Instagram gallery displayed on that page and make a habit when you’re posting online to not just post the finished product.

Caleb Lawson (12:34):
Don’t just post the pretty things from 30 feet away. Zoom in on the pinholes if you like that aesthetic or if you’re an upright kind of cast troll kind of thing, well make sure that that variation is captured in your photography. And so it’s not just some glamorized version of reality. Really try and give people actual reality on your Instagram. And it’s hard because the temptation is going to be only post the pretty stuff. Don’t post your failures, certainly don’t post a pinhole. And I just think that’s the wrong way to go about it, because that’s not reality. And the more that we can normalize the authenticity of the material, I think the better it’s going to be for everybody.

Jeff Girard (13:23):
I think that’s an excellent point. And ultimately, you know, may shy away from taking pictures of things that are, don’t show the warts, only show the pretty side your customers, when it’s delivered, they’re going to see it all. And once you ring a bell, you can’t unring it. And if you hide the fact that there’s something that you don’t really like in there and then you hope they don’t see it, that ain’t going to fly. That never, no.

Caleb Lawson (13:47):
And honestly, it will win you a ton of brownie points. And if you say it ahead of time, the customer, the client, whatever you want to call ’em, would far more, I mean, because in the long run, a week is not going to hurt anything in the short run. Maybe they’re upset, but in the long run, I promise you a hundred percent of the time, this has never failed me. Every single time I have called out a blemish or a mistake to a client on my own said, Hey, I want to point this out to you. Maybe it happened at install, maybe it was a chip, or maybe what doesn’t really matter. I come up to them and say, Hey, I want to point this out to you. I’m not a huge fan of this. Here’s how I’m going to resolve it. That will go so fast. Huge. Even if you’re replacing the piece and it takes you three weeks, that is such a massive thing. They will be your customers again, I promise.

Jeff Girard (14:36):
Another aspect of expectations is, and I mentioned this before, is the performance. Let’s talk about, I’m not going to get into sealers, right? That’s a whole nother podcast

Caleb Lawson (14:49):
Worms. We don’t need to open today.

Jeff Girard (14:51):
But regardless of what stuff, what magic, liquid or unicorn powder you sprinkle on in your concrete, whatever you use to protect your concrete. And again, not all concrete has to be sealed, but stuff, certainly things like kitchen countertops and stuff like that, need protection, whatever that is, it is absolutely your responsibility to understand what that material can and can’t do. Use it correctly and test it before you ever, ever give it to a customer. Because if you just say, Hey, somebody told me to use this product, I use it and I ship it out the door, and then all of a sudden you get callbacks, well, that’s not the fault of the sealer because the Steeler’s job is to do what the manufacturer says it does. But if you don’t verify that that’s correct or that you’re using it correctly, then really whose fault is that?

Caleb Lawson (15:58):
I, and that’s not, certainly not to say that there are not mistakes in manufacturing ever. Absolutely. Typically in a large format, format manufacturing system, that’s going to be the exception off the rule. And so it’s always best before I will put a sealer on anything, and well, we’ve done it. We’ve talked about sealers, but we’re going to try. But before I will, I’ll pull it back a little bit before I will use any new product, whether it’s a mixed design or a sealer or a

Jeff Girard (16:32):
Pigment, for

Caleb Lawson (16:33):
Instance, epoxy or a pigment or whatever. I’m going to use it for myself and then test it. If it’s a new, let’s say for the sake of argument, a brand new state-of-the-art fiber comes out, it’s combating with AR fiber as the best of the best durability and flexural, whatever, I’m going to buy it. And then I’m going to test it for myself to see if it performs as well as, or better than what I’ve been using before I go use it on a client project. And I think that is one of the biggest failures of most of us as artisans is that we are very apt to say, Ooh, this sounds pretty unfun. We go to the shiny thing. And I’ve done that. I’ve used Jeff, what, 10 sealers at least on client projects. And some of them, I mean, I’m lucky, but I’m lucky that I haven’t gotten, now I have gotten some callbacks on sealers, but my point being, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not a good idea to test something on a client,

Jeff Girard (17:34):
Right? Ever. So expectations of what materials you use is important

Caleb Lawson (17:42):
And no. And understanding those materials for

Jeff Girard (17:44):
Yourself. Another aspect of expectation is timeframe. So you have a customer comes in and says, Hey, I want concrete countertops. I got this big party coming up. Can you do it? And the party’s in like six days. Well, probably not, unless they throw a lot of money at you and you are willing to spend a lot of time in your shop. That’s a very unrealistic expectation on their part that you can just snap your fingers and make it happen. So what is the pace of a normal project? What is the pace of creating something? Well back up? There’s getting in your queue, getting in your production queue because you’re busy. You probably have 2, 3, 4, 5. I used to at peak do eight to 12 projects at a time. That’s a lot of stuff going on. Those are a lot of balls in the air juggling, where do you fit a project in?

Jeff Girard (18:47):
And then they have to be ready for that. So the communication about when do we template what’s needed for templating? What do I need from you before I can start forming? All those things are part of the expectations of delivering this product. And then when the installation date comes, what is expected of them, of me, et cetera, et cetera. Hey, I expect a check setting expectations more than just what is this going to look like? It’s all the whole project from coming in. How do we talk about a project? How do we talk? What kind of information do I need to, what are you getting when I walk out of your house or business? All that, that’s setting the expectations is talking. It’s

Caleb Lawson (19:37):
Very overarching.

Jeff Girard (19:39):
So the more you think about the process and the more you communicate what that is, the better your customers are, they’re going to have a better experience and everything’s going to go easier because everybody understands what’s happening.

Caleb Lawson (19:52):
Well, and I’ll kind of tag onto that, what you mentioned about getting a check at the end, A lot of, I think a big pain point for a lot of us is the discomfort surrounding broaching the topic of, Hey, I actually need to get paid now. And so by setting those expectations up front, when it’s not uncomfortable and you haven’t done anything and there’s not like any tension is a lot easier. I had a project and commercial particularly important in commercial work because large commercial builders will jerk you around. And so if you set that expectation that they need to respect you or they will not receive what they’re being asking you to do is extremely important. I had a big commercial job for the US Tennis Association back seven or eight years ago, big bar tops. And I told the builder early on, I was like, Hey, just so you know, here are the terms of payment.

Caleb Lawson (20:54):
If I show up to the job site and that check is not handed to me when I pull up, I will leave. I not unload a single thing, and you will not get your product until the check is in my hands and there will be a rescheduling fee and all of this. Now, all this is in the contract, but reiterating it because people never read contracts and because that way you’re setting, or if the builder has a 30 or 40 day pay cycle, well send your invoice 30 or 40 days early and say, Hey, this is for that time when I’m going to need it on site. Just be aware of that and setting those expectations and being a little bit bolder without being rude, I think is super important because that’s something that I’ve, I’ve been walked over the years and I know a lot of you have as well. And I think that it’s really important that we say, no, this is how we do business, and if you want to work with us, this is how you get to work.

Jeff Girard (21:44):
And I think finally, to wrap things up on expectations is pricing. The expectation of a lot of folks who don’t know anything about concrete is that it’s cheap, that it’s an inexpensive alternative to say the common materials like granite or engineering courts or something else. And the very first expectation is set is, Hey, this is expensive. This is a high value product that we’re not competing with mass market materials. If price is the n most important, and price is another topic, so I don’t want to jump go down that rabbit hole, but set the expectation that this is an expensive product that you’re probably looking at more than a hundred dollars a square foot, hopefully a lot higher than that. So that’d be, what about a thousand dollars a square meter for the European folks?

Caleb Lawson (22:45):
And a lot of even granites are up to a hundred, 120 a square foot now. So you’re really not doing yourself a service by staying anywhere, even around a hundred dollars a square foot. One, in my personal opinion, I think 135 is about the minimum at this point.

Jeff Girard (23:00):
So setting that expectation that this is an expensive product, and B, it’s not something you get quickly that’s going to help you out. Honestly, it’s going to weed out all those pesky customers that are going to nitpick something because it isn’t what they thought, and it costs more and takes longer than they were expecting. So expect expectations, like I said, span a large spectrum of not only we in the industry and how we do things, but what we do on a step-by-step basis when dealing with a customer.

Caleb Lawson (23:39):
And I would encourage you to really put as many of these expectations as you can out in the sphere, whether that’s on your website or on your Instagram or whatever. I have a whole, I mean, it’s actually a blog post, but it’s on the front page of my website and it’s like, Hey, here are the values that I set for my personal life, and they obviously are going to bleed into my business. And here’s where I’m not going to compromise. I’m not going to compromise on quality. I’m not going to compromise on what I believe should be quality. So if it’s not up to my standards, then it’s not going out the door. And that is not a fast process. I will not be rushed. And I’ve had people comment on it, and I think it’s really as often and as concent, as many places as you can put it, as often as you can, I think is better going to be in your contract. It should also be on your website. It should also be in every email if it’s a quote or an invoice, put all those things in there, put your expectations

Jeff Girard (24:42):
Everywhere. Communicate, communicate, communicate. That’s ultimately the best way to ease people’s minds, make things go smoother and eliminate problems. The best thing you can do is eliminate problems before they happen. It’s a million times easier than trying to fix something after the fact. And so setting the expectations of what they’re getting, when they’re getting it and all that, that happens way upfront. And it’s repeated, just like you said, Caleb. So

Caleb Lawson (25:20):
Yeah, early and often.

Jeff Girard (25:22):
Early and often. So, well,

Caleb Lawson (25:24):
That’s all I have to ask a quick one, but I think it’s pretty packed. And so if you got any questions,

Jeff Girard (25:34):
This is more of a reminder and to seasoned professionals know this beginners, and this is important for them to hear because when

Caleb Lawson (25:44):
You, well, but it’s continuing education. I mean, seasoned professionals too are like, oh, I need a reminder.

Jeff Girard (25:51):
Don’t forget. Oh, I do.

Caleb Lawson (25:54):

Jeff Girard (25:54):
All right. Well,

Caleb Lawson (25:56):
Thanks everybody for tuning in, and we’ll see you next week, live from day one of the legend’s portion of our class. We’re really excited to do that. I think, I don’t know, somebody’s going to be holding a phone and it’ll be live and it’ll be great, but you’ll

Jeff Girard (26:14):
Get to see us, but not in front of a camera sitting at my desk or in your truck. Yeah,

Caleb Lawson (26:19):
Maybe this is my new podcast spot. I don’t know. I kind of like it. Yeah. But yeah, so looking forward to seeing everybody who’s going to come. I think the three day event’s full, isn’t it, Jeff?

Jeff Girard (26:31):
I think it is. Yeah.

Caleb Lawson (26:32):
Yeah. I think maybe one spot left in the two day event. So if you’re thinking about it and you want to come for a couple days, come on. But really looking forward to seeing everybody. And yeah, we’ll see you next week.

Jeff Girard (26:47):
All right. Take care.