Are you trustworthy? Maintaining a reputation for reliability is an absolutely essential trait for a successful electrical contractor. That’s how you get referrals, repeat business and invitations to become involved in projects at the earliest stages where you have a good shot at directing progress and heading off potential problems.

To develop trustworthiness with customers, you must understand their needs (even when the customer doesn’t understand them initially), communicate honestly, and live up to your word through consistently dependable action. It’s all about building relationships with customers by demonstrating you and your company are not only knowledgeable and skilled enough, but also that you care enough.

Electrical contractors who are in business for the long haul are proficient at customer relations and influencing customers’ decisions. The best are getting better at it all the time.

I’m not referring only to the contractor’s influence on materials-buying decisions. It’s a given: Most customers have come to feel they can rely on their EC’s judgment in selecting products for installation. Even in the relatively small number of cases where specific brands are named in the project plans and specs (only about 25 percent, as indicated by the “2010 Profile of the Electrical Contractor”), we are able to make brand substitutions at least 70 percent of the time.

But, what I find more significant is this: “As far as the amount of influence ECs have on projects, more than 80 percent report having a ‘medium’ or ‘high’ ability to influence the overall electrical design or specifications with building owners or design team members.” What’s more, the Profile reveals that, even though new construction was held down by the ailing economy, 65 percent of the smallest electrical contractors (those with fewer than 10 employees) performed some design/build or design/assist work last year, and the figure for all larger ECs was an impressive 86 percent.

And, even better, the Profile found “high levels of overall collaboration by ECs early in the design process.” The Profile report also noted that, “The trend toward performing design/build or design/assist work will increase when the economy turns around and BIM [Building Information Modeling] adoption becomes more widespread. Early BIM adopters will have the most influence, earlier in the project life cycle, than those who adopt later.”

The BIM connection is a topic for another day and another column. My point is our influence with project owners is on the rise, and that’s a good thing.

Many ECs may have initially latched on to the design/build trend when incomplete specs forced them to the design table. But now, even though a majority (83 percent) of contractors represented in the Profile said the project plans they receive are still sometimes incomplete (up to 45 percent of the time), design/build has become a preferred project delivery method. One very important reason is that project decision-makers now realize that electrical contractors do not only install electrical systems but can also handle integrated building systems. And since integrated building systems are central to so many sustainable-construction and energy-efficiency projects, electrical contractors who want to thrive in the growing green market are, in particular, well-advised to develop a good understanding of design/build and related issues themselves. They also should have capable people on staff who are talented in customer relations and in providing consultation and design services.

Noting that “Research shows that early integration of design and construction is key to meeting owners’ green building goals,” the Design-Build Institute of America released a second major university study this summer, confirming that design/build project delivery works best on Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) projects. Among other results “verified through external validation of previous research findings,” the study also found: “The constructor (contractor) is a key factor in the success of a project, and early involvement in the design phases increases the probability of meeting green goals.”

In addition to LEED work, many other types of jobs and projects benefit from the electrical contractor’s early involvement in the process as a trusted adviser—performing energy audits and following up, installing energy management systems and monitoring devices, providing energy-efficient lighting retrofits and ongoing relamping services, and much more, in green, high-tech and traditional markets, alike.

Developing knowledge and technical skills is a prerequisite to being invited to participate in the planning stage of such projects. But it is demonstrating reliability, as well as capability, that earns those initial—and repeated—invitations.