Effective Communication: Environmental Site Assessments

Written by Bill Leedham, P. Geo., CESA

I recently spent time dealing with the frustration of really poor communication from a variety of service providers.  In contrast I also recently attended a post-report meeting with a new client, whose first comment was how pleased they were with the level of communication.  From my viewpoint, I was also quite happy with the speedy and effective responses I received from this client throughout the project.  These vastly different experiences led me to consider some suggestions for improving and maintaining good communication between clients and consultants.

 You can’t tell the players without a program ….

In transactional due diligence work, there can be many stakeholders from vendors, buyers and agents, to lawyers, banks and regulators.  Each stakeholder may have their own unique objectives which can sometimes oppose those of other players in the transaction; often leaving the consultant in the middle.  This can be counterproductive and lead to potentially serious misunderstanding and miscommunication.  Consultants owe a legal and ethical duty of care to their client, and must know who their client is (individual, company, consortium), what their objectives and timeframe are, and whether other stakeholders are involved. If second or third parties are to be involved, this must be clearly defined at the start of the project, to ensure the necessary information can be shared where appropriate, and a letter of reliance can be prepared if necessary.  Establishing a clear channel of communication between client, consultant and other parties is also important.  Any requirements for confidentiality or legal privilege should also be set out in advance.  Repetitive ‘reply all’ e-mail chains and getting caught in a lengthy multi-party decision making process should be avoided.

Timely communication is key

On any project timely communication is paramount, and even more so when due diligence deadlines are present.  Information presented by a consultant after the closing of a real estate transaction may be important, but if received too late it may be un-useable.  If the consultant was aware of the data, but failed to deliver in time, they could be negligent or in breach of contract and subject to litigation.  Similarly, delays in responses or project approval from client to consultant can result in cost over-runs, duplication of work, and failure to meet established deadlines.  Both parties need to set clear timelines for project milestones and to prepare contingency plans for unforeseen obstacles. Some unplanned events can be accounted for (such as delays in utility locates), others come out of left field and we have to adjust as best we can (such as a pandemic lock-down). It’s equally important to state at the time of proposal/award a clearly defined scope of work, budget and contingency allowances, a mutually-agreed approval procedure for project extras, and all payment terms.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say!

Environmental reporting can be complex and full of scientific data and technical jargon. As a consultant, ensure you are speaking plainly so that your target audience can understand.  Some stakeholders are interested primarily in the ‘big picture’, while others are very detail-oriented. I have some clients who had never heard the term Environmental Site Assessment until they purchased a commercial property; and others that could fully describe all the required protocols to complete a Modified Generic Risk Assessment. Know your audience and tailor your approach to their level of technical comprehension.  Clients must also clearly communicate their goals, objectives, timeframes and required comfort level to their consultant.  Both sides should ask questions when needed, and request a detailed explanation when things are unclear.  It helps to have everything in writing to avoid future discrepancies, especially for project changes or extra work items. For any client, if your service provider isn’t giving you answers, or doesn’t explain things to your satisfaction; perhaps it’s time to find one that does.


About the Author

Bill Leedham is the Head Instructor and Course Developer for the Associated Environmental Site Assessors of Canada (www.aesac.ca); and the founder and President of Down 2 Earth Environmental Services Inc. You can contact Bill at [email protected]