Imagine if Kylo-Ren hired you to build the Death Star. Given his unstable temperament, willingness to kill, and universe dominating plans, he’d probably not be the easiest client to get along with or even understand.
Slate Magazine recently published an article featuring a series of letters written by the head general of the intergalactic tyrant to the poor general contractor hired to build his planet destroying machine. It is an amusing must-read for general contractors.
We wanted to take this exchange between client and general contractor to the next level and diagnose what’s going on. For each letter, we dissect what seems to be the real issue the customer is raising, and how this relates to typical scenarios a construction contractor might face.
After analyzing the problem, we highlight the (unspoken) basis for the tension and how you, as a general contractor, can manage similar difficult situations, clients and projects and emerge on the other side, with positive testimonials from a happy client, that may still be difficult, but is extremely satisfied and fiercely loyal, guaranteed to generate repeat business.
Let’s diagnose this tricky client-contractor relationship:
1. You won the bid! Congratulations…right?
Things seem to start out on the right foot. The opening of the letter reads as follows:
Congratulations! Your proposal to construct Starkiller Base for the First Order has been selected from a group of very competitive bids. The committee and Supreme Leader were pleased with your assurances of cost-consciousness, as well as your clever maximization of closet space within the living quarters.
However, there is a potential sign of trouble lurking from the outset when you scroll down the letter announcing the lucky(?) contractor has won the bid.
One thing I noticed, though – while your designs fulfill our request for a superweapon capable of destroying multiple planets within a single system, your schematics include an easily-accessible, centralized reactor core…
By the time you read the first letter, two lessons emerge. One, it may not hurt to send something thoughtful or useful to potential clients. The general thanks the general contractor for a gift, though stating that it did “not affect our contractor decision in any way.” Well, people are people and an extra, unique touch can separate you from the competition with other contractors.
Two, it’s important to make sure your clients understand y our proposal and is on board from the beginning. Clear up any doubts or things are that are unclear before starting work, or you may face costly changes down the line that your clients are not willing to swallow. Document everything.
2. Managing the Inevitable…Project Delays
One surprising thing is that the general seems to expect delays and in writing about them, acknowledges the complexity of the task involved:
While of course everyone here in the First Order wishes we were further along in construction, we understand that designing a base capable of draining a star’s energy in 20 minutes is a Herculean task.
The lesson here is that it is good to manage client expectations up front. When submitting your original project estimates for the bid, build in time for contingencies and communicate up front and early when you anticipate delays and why they might happen.
Other takeaways from the second exchange:
- Details and quality matter; you being insistent on not cutting corners and doing the very best job for your client can be very reassuring and help foster some stored up goodwill for inevitable conversations about project delays.
- Some of your design ideas are not needed. The flip side of the above is revealed in the second half of the letter, however, where the general scraps a big portion of work that the contractor has done, complaining about aspects of the design being “unnecessary.”
- On one hand, the client is always right (or they won’t be a client for long!) but you can manage this dynamic as well with careful preparation.
- Build in redundancies and conservative specs in your projects. That way, when you do get clients that are in a rush, ask you to cut corners in order to finish on time and/or under budget, you can be assured that the quality of your work will stand the test of time.
3. Understanding When the Customer Actually is Right
The next letter is really telling, as the general is responding to word that the general contractor is upset about his and Kylo Ren’s decision to alter a part of the design…
My underlings tell me you are upset about our veto of your exterior design for the aboveground command center.
Apparently, the contractor proposed a design that he felt radiated power, but Kylo Ren observed that from his vantage point the supposedly powerful design looked like the center of a bullseye!
The lesson here is to know which battles to wage and fight. Build in quality redundancies and extended time into your bids. Outside of quality and time considerations, don’t get too married to the aesthetics and be willing to let your customer’s personality and priorities be reflected in the plan. In an ideal world, yes you would know your client so well and could channel exactly what they want, but in the case of picky, temperamental clientele, finding parts of the project where they get to put their stamp is critical.
4. Righting the Ship When Things Get Out of Hand
The letters become increasingly tense, as an angry and impatient Kylo Ren begins to kill commanders and the general who is the main point of contact for the general contractor is increasingly under pressure to deliver the Starkiller Base on time. As he writes,
I’m under a lot of pressure these days, and to be perfectly frank, your cost overruns and delays are not helping my standing with Supreme Leader.
Patience with delays and cost overruns has run out. This is where the careful planning and building of your project estimate and identifying where you really can be flexible is critical to save the job. Moreover, what the letter reveals is that understanding what are the critical elements of the project from the client point of view is crucial and realizing this may change over time.
For example, the grandiosity of a tyrant’s vision may lead you to add in a lot of features and design elements that later become a source of contention. In the exchanges, it becomes clear that the real priorities for the project are ones of security and minimizing risk vs. the projection of opulence and power. The expendable storm troopers don’t need luxurious quarters, but the doors do need locks!
Finally, I simply don’t understand why none of the doors have locks. Please install locks on all the doors.
5. It’s Going to Get Ugly Sometimes
You can imagine that the conflicts over design, delays and costs spiraling out of control have left a dangerous would-be tyrant rampaging out of control. The one person on your client’s team who is on your side has lost faith and patience in you. You know things are grim when you get a communication like this:
I’d like you to step up and take responsibility for getting this station online by the promised IY53 date. Supreme Leader will not be pleased if there are further delays, and while I admit it would give me a certain grim satisfaction to see you and everyone at Xizor Construction ripped to pieces with a single wave of Supreme Leader’s powerful hand, I know that could slow the process down even further.
6. Stick to What Matters and Save the Day
In the final letter, we discover that miraculously the project was finished! They all eventually get done, right? (Pretty much). The general is full of praise and is eager to introduce the general contractor to his boss:
It’s been a long, hard road, but we made it! We’re cutting the ribbon on Starkiller Base next week and I hope you’ll be here to celebrate with us.
What we learn from the final letter in the series is that it goes back to quality and attention to detail. The contractor included and held fast on an ingenius design element that saved them “thousands, not to mention a full day of construction.”
Ultimately, coming to a successful resolution with a potentially difficult client on a complex project starts well before construction or renovation even begins. It starts in the initial relationship building and getting to know your client’s real priorities and needs (before the bid is submitted, much less accepted). It means setting your own quality standards high and making your estimates conservative and redundant so that cutting corners doesn’t result in real and costly flaws down the line.
It also means building in areas of the project where your clients can put their mark or make changes without affecting the integrity of the design, and also knowing where you really need to put your foot down and when you should walk away over a conflict about design or execution. Managing expectations, maintaining courtesy, attention to detail, continuing to nurse the relationship (gifting is good), and finding ways to make big impacts (like the example above of saving thousands of dollars with a change in the project) are all important for successfully managing difficult clients, even ones as challenging as Darth Vader’s heir apparent.
How do you manage difficult clients and projects? Let us know in the comments below what your tricks and hacks are for surviving the impossible (and getting paid)!
© 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved. "It’s going to cost how much?" To: Ralph Xizor, Xizor Construction Systems From: Colonel Humpty Hux, First Order 23 Vaderuary IY48 Mr. Xizor, Congratulations! Your proposal to construct Starkiller Base for the First Order has been selected from a group […]