How Does A Contractor Find More Work?

A few years ago, I sat down with an architect friend, Bill Mitchell, to answer a simple question, “How does a contractor find more work?” Bill knows construction. He’s been designing and building residential, commercial and industrial projects for over 30 years. Here’s our list of what it takes to sell construction services in a competitive market:

  • Be the most thorough, most complete, most diligent competitor. If you ask owners, especially private owners, why they selected a particular contractor, the most common response will be, “They gave me a good proposal.” In the eyes of an owner, a contractor who doesn’t respond completely or as expected isn’t likely to complete the job as expected.
  • Be friendly and likable, someone the owner would consider a good contact. No one wants to disappoint a friend. Be a knowledgeable professional resource.
  • Provide something unique, an insight or option the owner didn’t consider. You’ve probably won the job if an owner likes one of your suggestions well enough to request the same feature from other contractors.
  • Respond 100 percent to every concern. The essence of salesmanship is eliminating objections.
  • Make yourself a resource. Offer information the owner may not have considered on topics the owner probably does not understand: codes, zoning, permits, choice of materials and potential problems.
  • Demonstrate your knowledge. Describe jobs you’ve completed and your familiarity with trade contractors active in the community. Mention local planning and building department officials by name. Identify resources or authorities you could use on the project.

Every sale of construction services begins with a dialog between a contractor and the owner. The best jobs will require multiple contacts over several days or weeks. The more often you exchange information with an owner, the more likely you are to get the work.

Be Ready on the Cost Question
Quote a price that’s higher than expected and the job may not happen. Quote a price that’s too low and your casual comment could end up being quoted in a legal brief filed by opposing counsel. Refuse to quote any price and you’ll be considered devious or uncooperative. So what should you say when an owner asks about cost?

No single answer works in all cases. But make one point clear: You can’t quote an exact price yet. Even if you have a ballpark figure in mind, consider keeping that number confidential. Instead, consider one of the following:

  • “That depends on what you decide. It’s a little too early to nail down a price. But I’m sure we can live within your budget. What figure do you have in mind?”
  • “I’ve seen jobs like this go for between $X and $Y. Of course, the cost could be less or more, depending on choices you make. A lot depends on finish materials and when you want to get started. When I know more about the job, I’ll give you a written estimate.”
  • “I don’t want to quote a number off the top of my head. But I have some good references back at the office. I’ll work up some numbers based on those figures and get back to you tomorrow with typical square foot costs.”

Follow these suggestions and you’ll get plenty of offers. But there’s one more question to ask, “Is this the type of work I really want?” It’s a mistake to take work you consider marginal. Even worse than not having enough work is getting stuck on a job likely to end in a loss or a court case. If the job isn’t big enough to warrant your best effort, look for other opportunities.

For a longer version of this discussion, see Paper Contracting: The How-To of Construction Management Contracting by William Mitchell and Gary Moselle.