Communication on a construction site is critical, time-consuming and pervasive. It is critical because research has indicated two-thirds of all errors at the job site either directly or indirectly are due to communication-caused problems and difficulties. This is easy for experienced contractors to accept, and it is easy to identify problems resulting from communication breakdowns from their own experience. Studies show proper communication can occupy 60 to 90 percent of a supervisor’s time. The supervisor is the link between the people working on the job site. Any information going to or coming from the worker passes through the supervisor.

In our March 2009 column, “Defining the Customer,” we identified many customers with whom the supervisor interacts. There also are numerous ways in which supervisors interact with those customers. Communication with the customer can be oral, written or technology-based. Oral communication can be informal on a one-on-one basis or in a group setting such as a meeting. Written communication can be to an individual through letters and memoranda, to a group through reports and meeting minutes, or broad-based across the entire project through legal or technical documents.

Technology-based communication is continually expanding. The original technology was the telephone, which evolved from landline to cellular and push-to-talk technology. Along came fax machines, e-mails, and text messaging. The means for communication with the customer are virtually unlimited and can result in either positive or negative interactions. It is the responsibility of the supervisor to ensure the outcome of interaction with the customer is positive.

Where does communication with the customer break down? The typical perception is miscommunication is the only thing that leads to a breakdown. However, there could be a lack of or too much communication. The supervisor has a responsibility to ensure communication with the customer is appropriate, timely, accurate and positive. The supervisor must detect problems in communication when they occur, repair any damage and see that such problems do not occur again. Furthermore, the supervisor has the responsibility to expand opportunities for positive interaction with the customer.

To use communication effectively as a customer-relations tool, several steps should be taken. First, set up standard communication systems on the job and in your work area to ensure the customer is getting timely communication that is appropriate, accurate and positive. The message may not always be positive, but even with a negative message, the communication experience can be positive if problems are handled with honesty and integrity. Second, when communication breaks down, repair any damage and then modify the standard systems to avoid the problem in the future. Provide assurance that it won’t happen again. Third, look for creative ways to expand positive interaction with the customer. Look for ways to create more interaction with a customer at regular meetings. If the customer visits the job site from time to time, look for ways to interact with him or her on those occasions. When the customer is not in a meeting but gets minutes, ensure you represent the company in such a way that the minutes reflect strong customer service.

Communication can be a powerful tool for the supervisor to improve customer relations on behalf of the company. It also can be a strong negative tool, causing problems with customers that will reflect on the company. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to communicate with customers in a positive way, to identify and repair communication problems and to expand opportunities to positively influence customers at all levels.

In the next column, we will continue our discussion of customer relations by looking at why customer relations are so important to the electrical contractor.

ROUNDS is the AGC endowed chair and professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico. E-mail him at jlrounds@unm.edu. SEGNER is a professor of construction science at Texas A&M University. Contact him at rsegner@archmail.tamu.edu.