Settling into my aisle seat on the return flight from my California vacation, I glanced left, then right, appraising the passengers in my row. Including myself, we were five adults, all of whom appeared to be middle-class professionals. Three of the five were reading the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series of children's books, which had been released less than a week earlier. Two months later, I can report that three out of five Professional Remodeler editors have also read and eagerly discussed it.
This ratio joins the list of impressive statistics regarding the book: a record-breaking first print run of 6.8 million copies, advance orders of more than 1.3 million on Amazon.com sites worldwide, 5 million books sold the first day and, according to publisher Scholastic Inc., estimated 2003 sales of $49 million. On top of the numbers, this book and its companions have won near-universal praise for their high quality.
How's that for repeat and referral business? Author J.K. Rowling has created an outstanding product, built an unbeatable brand, captivated existing customers, converted the most unlikely of prospects into raving fans and earned millions of dollars. Wouldn't you like to be able to say the same for your remodeling business?
Sans the British accent and extreme fame, the five remodeling firms identified as winners of the 2003 NRS Awards in Homeowner Satisfaction have done just that. Their ability to delight customers time and again has resulted in stellar reputations, high rates of repeat and referral business, sustainable businesses, strong revenue, and the ability to mark up products and services for high profit margins.
Nobody admits to delivering poor customer service. You talk to your customers on a regular basis, often daily. You work hard, show up on time, respond graciously to blowups and silent seething, and develop answers to questions raised by hidden-behind-the-wall surprises. You even receive words of praise, compliments that mean so much more when they're about the staff members who do so much work for so little glory.
Tallying these achievements, it's easy to conclude that any customer would be lucky to pay you to remodel his house.
This conclusion could very well be wrong.
For one thing, the aforementioned achievements aren't extraordinary. In some markets and in some niches, they are simply the barrier to entry.
For another, just because you talk to customers regularly doesn't mean you're asking the right questions or listening hard enough to find out what they're really thinking. Every time a reader tells me how much he or she loves the magazine, I must force myself to look beyond the surface of that statement and ask, "Why?" What sections does that person like best? Least? What part was most useful? Most enjoyable? Made the biggest difference in his or her business or life?
These are the kinds of tough questions that force your customers to think hard and do some work for you. They might get uncomfortable. You might not want to hear the answers.
You must ask, and then you must listen.
Even better, supplement your verbal exchanges with written ones. This allows you to ask about a standard set of success criteria using the same phrasing so you can compare apples to apples despite differences in projects and personalities.
Perhaps you tell yourself that you know no one can do what you do, where you do it, any better. That might be true. It won't always be if you don't find ways to exceed expectations with every new endeavor. Just like Harry.