Maintaining Your Reputation in the Education/Healthcare Segments
September 8, 2011
Selling that commercial project to a healthcare facility or a school system may just be the easy part. Making a profit on the job, even under ideal circumstances and delivering on time, can be perilous to your financial and emotional well-being. Without a well-crafted plan, you’ll have problems.
With most any healthcare project, whether a hospital, rehab facility, or nursing care center, you’re going to be dealing with patients having a variety of physical infirmities. While you are working for a facility manager, your financial well-being and job progress will be dependent on how well you schedule around site conditions.
Frequently, there are stringent procedures that have to be followed to stop noise, odors, curing adhesives and general debris from creating dangerous conditions. You may be doing a wonderful job of installing lvt in a corridor, but improper blocking of a hallway and not allowing a safe passage during installation will leave you vulnerable.
Take this example: An installer had just spread adhesive over one half of a long corridor, but had not blocked access at several doorways. A visitor had stayed beyond visiting hours, came out a doorway and slipped in the tacky adhesive. It was only through the charm and caring attitude of the installer that serious financial damage to his company was avoided. It is critical that you use plenty of yellow caution-tape, physical barriers and signage to designate work areas.
In healthcare, work hours are usually strictly controlled; most projects are scheduled after 5 p.m., and others will only operate from 11 p.m. until 6 a.m. If you missed that fine print then you’ll be on the hook for significant after-hours labor cost. Noise is also a big consideration. When you’re sick, feeling bad, and not sleeping well anyway, hammering, banging around and periodic loud noises will result in numerous complaints about you and your personnel.
Plan out how you will accomplish demolition and those other parts of the project that will cause excessive noise, dust and debris. Of course, the facility manager should have already thought of this and discussed the parameters with you. Make sure his ideas are realistic. If not, discuss in detail before showing up at the job. Will the project supervisor be on site whenever work is being performed? He should, and you should insist on it. Believe me, there is no worse place to have a question and no answers than in a healthcare facility.
School Business in the Summer
During the summer months, ending around Labor Day, I always think about school business. This always provided a maximum of amount of stress in delivery. Projects that were bid in May and June have to be finished before school opening in late August or September. It is wise to understand and plan for screw-ups, late product delivery, hot weather, no air-conditioning, surly facility managers and a general lack of cooperation among other trades.
It is crucial to have a great working relationship with the school system’s head of facilities. If you start out right, school business can be an annuity for many years; they always have to do some replacement work. Get started in December by inquiring about planned work for the coming year. Find out what is budgeted, what schools are involved, what type of flooring replacement is being contemplated and whether this is part of a major remodeling.
“Chet, I’m trying to do some long-range planning for our summer work, so it would help me to have an idea of what you might be planning. Okay?” In the more relaxed holiday season, you can usually get some excellent insight: “Well, we are scheduled for flooring work in five schools, and major remodeling addition in two others. We’re also going to have other fill-in, last minute requests from our principals. You know how that goes!”
Your obvious interest and willingness to plan ahead will go a long way in making sure you have the inside track on this business. This approach will work best if you already have a term contract in place, but is also effective if you are just trolling for business.
The number one issue for you and your facility manager is this: Will you be able to deliver and install on time? I was intimately involved in a large school remodeling, the flagship of the school system, where the designer had specified a carpet from a second-tier manufacturer. The worst part was the mill rep was not attuned to the realities of school work and didn’t want to be bothered with having an order where a guaranteed delivery date was a requirement. Likewise, the mill was uncooperative and would only promise “best efforts.”
After the third conversation with mill personnel, I took my concerns directly to the school facilities chief. “Rick, I need some help. I sent in an order for all of the carpet for the school, and included a requirement that delivery be made by a specified date as an integral part of the order. The mill has balked at this, is holding the order, and is only agreeing to best efforts (and they seem to be having yarn delivery issues). If I don’t get the carpet on time, I cannot guarantee installation by your drop-dead date. Frankly, I’m not filled with a lot of confidence that this supplier will deliver on time. Can you help me?”
By the next morning, I had a call from the school’s designer who asked if I had some alternate carpet choices within the right color palette. I explored options with three other mills, telling all that “we’re working within a solution-dyed yarn color palette, a total of 6,000+ yards, with a required delivery date of 45 days.”
Only one mill was willing to guarantee delivery, albeit at a slightly higher price. I got the samples, dropped them off to the designer and had approval within 24 hours. Amid some screaming from the original mill (who was still holding the order), I canceled the order and placed one with the second mill. All of this would not have been possible without the help of the senior mill rep who understood school business and dogged the order through credit, manufacturing and shipping.
We actually received delivery four days ahead of schedule and were able to complete installation on time. While the designer had not been happy about making the change, she was thrilled with the end result, as was the facility chief. And I got a change order for the difference in price.
Contrast that happy outcome with our less stellar performance with the same school system some four years later. A combination of slow deliveries, warehouse mix-ups, estimation mistakes, sloppy crew management, poor follow-up and a lot of last-minute orders resulted in several angry phone calls from the facilities chief.
Finally, he demanded a meeting in his office. “You’d better get this under control or I’ll get another company in here. I would have already done it if we didn’t have a history with you. Do you understand?” Yes, I got the message loud and clear; we pulled crews from other jobs and doubled up on supervision and communication. We finally got everything done, but it took me another year to smooth things over.
Having given you some examples, here are several tips for your piece of mind, a lower stress level and financial well-being:
Do not over-commit your resources, especially with time-sensitive school projects. One lesson I learned was that perhaps 90% of the work has to be done in a six-week period. You’re asking for problems if you try to do work for too many school systems. They invariably add many small jobs at the last minute.
When there is remodeling and other trades, your schedule will be compressed and your best laid plans will go awry. Limit yourself and be up front with your client: “In order to give you the best service and top priority, we are limiting our school term contracts.”
Conversely, some healthcare projects are spread out over the entire year; the same principles apply.
It is best to stay within a local geographic area for both healthcare and schools. If you are successful in winning these accounts, they will expect you to be immediately responsive. That is tough to do if you have to travel for 30-45 minutes to get to the jobsite, especially when remedial work must be done starting at 11 p.m. If you cannot oblige them, then you will be seen as unresponsive and your reputation will suffer.
Experienced, qualified personnel with the right attitude are particularly important for healthcare and school work. Whether it’s a project manager, supervisor, or an installation crew, the right attitude is more important than anything else. You can fix a peaking seam or reinstall some flooring a lot easier than repair a reputation damaged by words hastily spoken in anger or frustration.
I always found it was better to have a meeting with the whole team before beginning a high-profile project to remind all of how their behavior could impact project success. I once had a particularly honest comment from an apprentice, who said, “You know, you made me feel good in there [the meeting]…I didn’t realize how I could affect the whole job.”
In spite of the time-sensitive issues, don’t forget the documentation. We never got paid for a middle-of-night floor prep job because of the poor memory of the site supervisor and my lack of paperwork. Or to put it another way, “If you don’t have paperwork, it didn’t happen.” If it’s that important, they will find a way to sign a change order or acknowledge the extra work.
Healthcare and school business can be a wonderful, profitable business niche if you plan for it. If you’re disorganized, it will be your worst nightmare.