The history of the American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), for the most part, is the history of the telephone in the United States. AT&T’s roots go back to founder Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone in 1875.

During the 19th century, AT&T became the parent company of the Bell System, the telephone monopoly parents and grandparents always referred to as Ma Bell. It was known worldwide for providing the best phone service in the world.

In 1984 Ma Bell was broken into eight companies by agreement between AT&T and the U.S. Department of Justice. Then, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 rewrote the nation’s communications laws to promote competition among phone companies.


In the year 2000 another phone company was founded, called Verizon. It is the second largest wireless provider in the world with 68,000 employees and revenues last year of $50 billion. You may know Verizon as the “we never stop working for you” or the “can you hear me now?” wireless phone company.

I’ve been on the Verizon system for many years and recently learned an important lesson at the local Verizon sales office. I had bought a new phone a few months earlier and stopped in to say I wasn’t happy with the phone. The sales person looked up my account and found that I didn’t return the phone within the allowed time frame. For that reason, I would have to either keep the phone for two years or buy a new phone at full retail price.

I left the store feeling shortchanged since I had been a loyal customer for so many years. What bothered me most was the “take it or leave it” attitude of the sales person. That’s when I realized that I have occasionally demonstrated this same behavior towards my customers.

When companies are formed, they are usually small and tend to be much more friendly than large companies. Employees at a small company know they can’t afford to alienate their customers, so they work on developing strong relationships based on excellent customer service.

A large company like Verizon whose motto is, “we never stop working for you,” has rules that are contrary to providing what I think is excellent customer service. This kind of situation raises important questions: Can a large company think small? Can a large company provide excellent customer service and develop strong customer relationships that are real?

I’ve given this subject much thought over the last two months and have decided that I need to step back and figure out how to be more user friendly. It is very clear to me that I can be more user friendly if I know that I’ve negotiated a fair contract.


A subcontractor’s biggest risk is the contract he signs. A fair contract is something that can be filed away; then the process of providing excellent service and building a great relationship with the client can begin.

Building a relationship with a client that wants everything his way is difficult and herein lies the problem.

The subcontractor can give and give and smile while doing it, but there comes a point when a subcontractor can’t give anymore. In other words: Any relationship where only one of the parties is giving is not a relationship. A real relationship requires that the two parties be willing to give.

In a recent article, attorney Don Gregory began his piece with a quote made by Rodney King during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, “Can’t we all just get along?” He wrote that “the industry has been driven by conflict that begins when the owner puts one-sided contract documents out for bid,” and he described how these one-sided contracts end up going all the way down the construction food chain.

Are contracts so one-sided that they actually affect the attitude and behavior of people managing construction projects? When a project manager for a GC takes the position that all risk and scope of the work is the responsibility of the subcontractors, how are subcontractors going to respond?

Is the construction industry “driven by conflict,” as a result of risk-shifting contracts? Do one-sided contracts give GCs a sense of superiority that actually affects how they treat subcontractors? I know that I react to difficult GCs similar to how they treat me and my employees.

It’s difficult to have a well-balanced relationship if only one side is willing. It’s even more frustrating when you want to develop a good relationship, while at the same time feel like you’re being taken advantage of.

People look at client relationship problems from a perspective shaped by how that relationship affects them. A co-worker’s or supervisor’s perspective may be far different than the person who is actually dealing with the difficulty.


The way large companies like Verizon look at a problem is through the “rule book.” Decisions or solutions are based on what the rules say, and not necessarily on a situation-by-situation basis or on a person-by-person basis.

We in the construction business need to change our perspective on what business we are really in. We are in the people business, and some people are much harder to work with than others.

How to best work with difficult GCs is something that I’ve struggled with for 25 years, and I have yet to figure out how to move a relationship from difficult to good. I have had it happen, but can’t give a magic formula that will work every time.

Being honest with the client has worked. Asking the client if there is something that can be done to improve the relationship is a good start. By explaining how important the relationship is, and how much you want to have a good relationship is also a good start. Sincere questions or comments like these may be just what it takes to get the relationship started.

We all know that asking is better than telling, but if asking doesn’t work you may want to venture into telling the client how things look from your perspective and then ask them if your perspective is accurate.

Once you and the client find some common ground you can begin to develop the relationship so that each party is in some way giving. Finding something that both people have in common could result in constructive conversations. Once you are having constructive conversations the foundation for building trust develops.


One of the foundational benefits in the construction industry is well-established rules, accompanied by written plans, specifications and subcontracts. When a relationship falls apart or a problem cannot be solved, the construction documents will most likely prevail.

Being clear as to the scope of work included is the first step in building a relationship. If the contract scope of work is clearly defined and there “appears” not to be any “holes,” the relationship has a good start. If, however, a subcontractor enters into a deal where there are “holes,” which the GC will have to pay for, the relationship is going to get off to a rocky start.

GCs get paid for managing subcontractors, which means that whatever a subcontractor doesn’t have, the GC is responsible for. Whatever one subcontractor excludes, another subcontractor or the GC must provide.

When wall and ceiling contractors clearly exclude such things as backing, blocking, caulking, fire stopping, priming, safety wires, weather protection, hoisting or scaffolding, the GC can then look to see if the exclusions are covered by another sub, or if required at all.

I’ve learned that good client relationships begin by being clear because the minute you say the words, “That’s not in my bid,” is about the time the client starts looking at you as if you’ve just sprouted horns.

We can strategize how best to build a relationship with a client, but we all know that if we don’t have enough money to do the job the relationship struggles. Money and having enough of it in your bid can solve a lot of problems.

Thinking “small” is looking out for a client’s best interest as well as your own. Thinking “big” is quite often basing everything on the “rule book.” There is no magic formula, but it appears that a combination of “rules” (the contract) and “attitude” (give and take) is the best way to build a relationship.

As in the case of my cell phone, I’m unhappy with the “rule” part and had hoped there would have been some “give and take.” It’s funny how being on the receiving end of a bad deal makes you think.

Remember: Teamwork Begins with a Fair Contract.