by Carolina Timberworks

Ask someone who builds timber frames for a living what makes their company different, and you’re likely to hear some variation on the theme of high quality, responsive service, and talented people. Their answer may be truthful, but if you want to build a timber frame, you haven’t learned what you need to know to make an informed decision.

So, how exactly do you do that? Ask better questions, listen carefully, and interview like a pro. Here are some tips from newspaper reporters and the FBI about how to interview people (after all, they do this for a living):

Just like building a timber frame, start with the foundation

There may be no such thing as a stupid question, but some are a lot better than others. It can be helpful to play “let’s pretend”. So, pretend for a moment you have a superpower—any question you ask will be answered. What questions would you like to know the answers to?

As you develop your questions, start by asking yourself what you want to achieve. For example, are you looking for a solution to a particular problem? Are you looking to uncover something? Are you looking for a better understanding? Decided to build a timber frame, but trying to choose between 2 or 3 apparently equally qualified timber frame subcontractors?

Typically, you’ll want to uncover:

  1. Can they do the work?
  2. Will they do it when you want it done?
  3. Can they do it for the investment you’re willing to make?
  4. What would it be like to work with this firm?
  5. Is this timber frame company the best fit, or not?
  6. What could possibly go wrong?

Get comfortable asking questions
You have a right to ask questions—you’re about to write a big check. Furthermore, you have a responsibility to ask questions—if you don’t ask the right questions and bad things happen, you have only yourself to blame.

(Not everyone has to like what you ask. You’re on safe ground as long as your intention and purpose for asking the question comes from a good place. )

Use your powers of observation

Use the part of your brain that has evolved over tens of thousands of years to sense and observe the environment. Do people seem to like working there? Is the phone ringing? Do the other employees avert their eyes when you pass? Notice cigarette butts or litter as you step out of your car? Is the place generally organized or not? Tension in the air? Do you see anyone you would be uncomfortable with in your home?

Ask non-leading questions
A leading question implies its own answer and subtly prompts the respondent how to answer. You’ll learn more if you try not to give clues about how you feel or think about something.

If you were to build a timber frame home, what wood would you choose?
vs
Oak shrinks a lot, correct?

In general, ask open-ended questions
An open-ended question is one that can’t be answered yes or no or by a limited set of possible answers. They encourage the respondent to talk thereby providing you the opportunity to learn things you wouldn’t otherwise.

What are you most proud of about your company and why?
vs
What are your company’s strengths?

Some thoughtful questions:

• What are the challenges you see in our project?
• If we ask for references from recently completed jobs, how would that process work?
• Are you a member of the Timber Framers Guild? (if so, why? If not, why not?)
• I don’t suppose your firm is currently in litigation with anyone?
• We have to stick to our budget. How do we know the timber frame won’t end up costing more?
• Are the people who work here employees or subcontractors?
• Are there any outstanding tax liens or judgments against the company, or the owner(s)?
• Have you ever had an unhappy client? If so, would you share what happened?
• What’s your process for handling changes?
• What’s not included in your price?
• How often will the business owner check in on my project?
• How do we resolve any disagreements?
• May I see your certificates of general liability and workers comp insurance?
• Who would be overseeing my project? May I meet her?
• What’s the best thing that’s happened to your company this year?
• Is your firm licensed to do business in my state?
• How long have you been in business?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 20 percent of small businesses fail within their first year. By the end of their fifth year, roughly half of small businesses fail. After that, only about one in three small businesses get to the 10-year mark and live to tell the tale. After that, survival rates flatten out. Businesses fail in good times and bad, and to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, it happens gradually, then suddenly. Consider for a moment what would happen to the money you’d paid to date, were you in the middle of building a timber frame home and the timber frame manufacturer abruptly ceased operations and stopped returning your calls.

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