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Effective communication: A design professional's biggest challenge?

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Today's construction projects can be extremely complex, often requiring the input of dozens of specialists -- all of whom need to communicate with each other. Designers, for example, must interact and communicate daily with diverse personalities in order to inform clients, present proposals, listen to subconsultants, deal with public officials, respond to contractors and resolve inevitable conflicts. In this "sue-first-and-ask-questions-later" world, any or all of these personalities could be the source of a claim against your firm.

In fact, a recent study by professional liability insurer DPIC showed that non-technical factors contribute to 70 percent of claims against design professionals, with communication failures at the top of the list.

This failure to communicate can be managed. Design professionals can anticipate and deal with many of these problems by considering the factors that most often lead to misunderstandings between them and other members of the construction team.

Communicate from the start

It can't be said enough: Never overestimate a client's knowledge of your capabilities, services and procedures. It is your responsibility during the earliest stages of negotiation to explain what you do and don't do as part of your role in a project. Make sure you provide your clients with the information they need to understand your responsibilities and limitations.

Another area that frequently confuses clients involves your opinions of probable construction cost. Each time you use the phrase "cost estimate" with a client, you run the risk of a claim. Instead, when you are required to provide information on the expense of an item or project, it is better practice to use the phrase "opinion of probable cost." This correctly conveys the idea that ultimate costs may -- and often do -- vary from your opinion, while giving you valuable flexibility in defending your efforts.

Communicating during the project

To keep lines of communication open and encourage frequent feedback, schedule regular meetings with all key parties to the construction project. On large jobs, consider scheduling weekly project review sessions with representatives of the contractor, the client, and other design consultants involved. These sessions can often pinpoint potential construction problems before they become serious, and foster solutions that are satisfactory to all involved parties.

Also, plan weekly internal conferences among all key members of your staff working on a project. Make it mandatory that designers identify their progress over the past week. List problems that need resolution and make requests for whatever information is necessary but has not been received. Progress reports of this type serve as an effective diary of the project that can be reviewed after project completion -- or when a project dispute arises. Clients also will find progress reports to be valuable.

Document everything

Remember, no one remembers everything. It is important to record in writing all important discussions that concern or influence a project. Record dates, times and key points of all meetings and telephone conversations with clients, subconsultants and contractors. A written record helps jog the memory and enhances communication. These memoranda and logs are particularly useful if, for some reason, the principal project professional cannot continue and another professional unfamiliar with the project is required to take over and complete the work.

In addition, have all written correspondence that concerns projects or plans reviewed by a senior member of your firm -- a project manager, department head or principal -- before it is sent out to other parties.

Submitted by Jeff Cavignac CPCU, RPLU, president of Cavignac & Associates

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