I have explained to prospective customers for more than 16 years, "You can always get something not as good for less money!" Although not eloquently stated, it always impresses customers, causing them to think about quality. Homeowners must be educated to avoid installations that are disappointing or worse. They have to be educated about the products they are considering and the contractors who do the installation.
Initial phone contact with the company
Homeowners respond to advertisements, the Yellow Pages, the company Web site, referrals from friends and neighbors, and even tastefully decorated company vehicles. A company's public image, whether through personnel or advertisement, should inspire confidence and trust. When a call comes to the company, will a friendly sales representative who is knowledgeable, considerate, and attentive take the call? One who will give homeowners confidence to invite the company's representative to their homes? Does the information conveyed let homeowners know that this company routinely performs the kind of work they are asking for and that it isn't an occasional sideline endeavor? Homeowners want to know that the company has insurance, gives free estimates, has a price range for the work, and that samples as well as design services or recommendations are available.
Although the decorative concrete field does not have one certification process, questions can be raised: What type of training has the contractor completed? What projects of a similar nature have they installed? Is the contractor ACI certified? Concrete is a complex material, and at least one person in the company must have the technical knowledge and field experience to deal with its intricacies. Placing decorative concrete is more complex than plain concrete. It involves knowledge about setting times, decorative treatments, full depth and modified polymer cementitious topping possibilities, weather considerations, and more. Experience and knowledge are vital to the success of the project. You wouldn't go to a general practitioner if you required neurosurgery.
Response to homeowner concerns
After convincing homeowners that they have called a "real" company and not "Bob in his pick-up truck," a site visit can be scheduled. Now company owners must evaluate the sales representative's professionalism and product knowledge. Can the "rep" discuss the choice of products, colors, different decorative finishes, and the processes for the different applications? A top-notch, full-service decorative concrete salesperson can make recommendations that might avoid a removal and replacement of existing concrete by installing a 3/8-inch thick topping that saves money, mess, and aggravation. If a topping is not possible, the removal of existing concrete, the base preparation including soils condition, base material, compaction, and pitching of water away from the house needs explanation. Discussion should cover installation variables such as required steps-their types, locations, and number-whether a patio is raised or on grade, the thickness of the concrete, and the associated costs. Also homeowners need information about the strength of the mix design the company uses in order to compare bids from other sources. They must understand concrete in vehicular areas such as concrete thickness and reinforcement requirements (welded wire mesh, fiber, rebar). An important and sometimes overlooked point is how a company controls cracking. It must be discussed and the sales rep should bring up the issue. Let homeowners know that concrete always cracks and explain the reasons why. Hearing "concrete never cracks" is a sign that the company is either dishonest or uninformed. Neither is good!
Raise the questions of design and use to the homeowner. A 750-square-foot patio might be fine for some homeowners but not for large entertainers. Show pictures of work on similar projects for more ideas. Homeowners should see the company's Web site, think about various decorative treatments for the size and purpose of their installation, visit the showroom, and ask for references-in other words, do their homework. Homeowners often ask for design recommendations. They should question the contractor who throws out final prices with little thought and should hire the contractor who brings helpful ideas along with a professionally written proposal detailing the scope of the work with inclusions and exclusions.
Be able to assure homeowners that the work crew coming to their home is responsible, capable, and well behaved. There will not be loud music or lunchtime debris, a sloppy site, or other unacceptable behavior from workers. Then make sure that crew behavior conforms.
Homeowners want a basic understanding of each day's work: prepping, forming, and placing concrete; coloring, imprinting, staining or any of the specialty treatments; and the application of sealers that complete the installation.
Is the proposal negotiable?
This process should not resemble shopping for an automobile. I encourage homeowners to read their proposal thoroughly. Read all the fine print, know the payment terms and honor them. Failure to make timely payments might stop the job and require a remobilization fee that increases the total cost. Homeowners who seek additional competitive estimates should remember that a reputable contractor deserves a fair price and an acceptable profit margin. A contractor who lowers the price just for the asking is someone to avoid. When I receive the call for negotiation, I always ask, "Would you like me to remove the wire mesh or the fiber reinforcement or use a weaker concrete mix design?" Invariably, the answer is no. I state that we will not sacrifice our company reputation to make a sale, nor should customers settle for an inferior product. Expedited payment can be an option for price adjustment.
Now that there is an educated decision to hire the contractor and a signed contract, what comes next?
Scheduling the work
Homeowners together with the company representative should reconfirm the estimated start and completion dates. Homeowners should remember that contractors are subject to a host of factors that make exact start dates difficult. Weather is the No. 1 nemesis that all concrete contractors face. It may be a picture-perfect day after a storm, but rainwater can create conditions that prevent concrete placement. And there are new problems, such as the worldwide cement shortage, that sometimes create scheduling problems. Sometimes jobs take longer due to additions to the work during installation. Owners and contractors should maintain open and regular communication about scheduling.