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Communication, Communication, Communication

Everyone agrees. “Com-munication is the biggest thing,” says Ray Cichocki, a lead carpenter for Great Renovations Inc. in Farmington Hills, Mich.

August 31, 2002
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The customer satisfaction team at Great Renovations includes (top, left to right) Barry Holmes, Steve Clapp, lead carpenter Ray Cichocki, (bottom, left to right) Ben Pouch, office manager Kathy Pouch and president Mark Pouch. Photo: Bednarski Photographics
NHS Award winner

Great Renovations Inc.

NHS Index: 99.3

Location: Farmington Hills, Mich.

Type of company: general remodeling contractor

Years in business: 14

Number of employees: 6

2001 sales: $520,000

Annual jobs: 40-60

Mission statement: "To have our customers feel like they have received value for their investment. To serve them as we would expect to be served ourselves. To be polite and treat our customers and their residence with respect. Our goal is to serve the customer better than they expect."


Everyone agrees. "Communication is the biggest thing," says Ray Cichocki, a lead carpenter for Great Renovations Inc. in Farmington Hills, Mich. "When things go wrong, it ends up being something that someone didn't communicate," says Amanda Johnson, the designer at Small Carpenters at Large in Atlanta. "Ninety-nine percent of the problems in our industry are communication-based," says Chuck Russell Jr., CGR, president of Woodinville, Wash.-based Westhill Inc.

Again and again, employees of the top three companies in the National Homeowner Satisfaction study reveal that listening to clients and keeping them informed are the most important components of customer satisfaction. The similarities don't stop there. The list of shared beliefs and traits that make for happy clients includes:




  •  Customer satisfaction is a team effort. That starts with a customer-focused mission statement and hiring people who already share the company's philosophy.



  •  They believe that you can't satisfy customers without first satisfying your employees. That means giving employees the tools, training and responsibility to do their jobs well, and rewarding them for it.



  •  The salespeople use some variation of relationship selling, which requires becoming a client advocate by asking questions, understanding customers' needs and providing solutions.



  •  Expectations are managed almost daily before and during a project's construction by the main sales, design and/or production contacts.



  •  Pre-construction conferences are a must. Customers are warned about the possibility of finding a surprise behind a wall or other problems than can cause budget and schedule changes.



  •  Schedules are padded to absorb such problems without causing a delay.



  •  Follow-up phone calls, notes and gifts, as well as continued help with handyman-type work, reassure clients that they are customers for life.

    As a result of all of the above, these companies earn the majority of their business from referrals and repeat customers.

    At a small company such as Great Renovations, where every staff member regularly has direct customer interaction, having the right people in place takes priority. President Mark Pouch looks for the right personality and attitude when hiring carpenters by asking open-ended questions to show how an individual thinks. "I want to serve my customers the way I want to be served," he says. "Remodeling is an intrusion, and it's noisy and it's dirty. We want to make this as painless as possible for them."

    His wife, office manager Kathy Pouch, calls past employers for references, and if the person has been self-employed, will call customer references. Mark Pouch goes to job sites and checks on candidates' workmanship. Once hired, Great Renovations carpenters -- especially leads -- are expected to manage themselves.

    Kathy takes initial calls from prospects and asks about where they live and the scope of the work they want done to help qualify them. Her 16 years of experience as a reservationist and customer service representative in a travel agency taught her how to address customer wants and needs. "You develop a compassion for people who are calling," she says. "They're calling us for help."

    After Kathy discusses the call with Mark, she sets up an appointment for an initial meeting. Mark, who does all the sales, takes along a book of before-and-after pictures as well as a packet prepared by Kathy that includes a letter of introduction, certification of insurance, builder's licenses and a list of referrals.

    Mark does more qualifying at the first visit, looking especially for customers who have done remodeling projects before. "That's when we stand out," he explains. He suspects that dissatisfaction with their prior contractors makes his clients that much more impressed with Great Renovations. "You don't want to set their expectations too high," Pouch says. "You want to sell them on what you can do but not over-exemplify it."

    He prepares the estimate with one of his leads. When he presents it to the customers, he's already able to tell them who will do the work, setting up the handoff to production. Mark or Kathy, depending on whom the clients seem more comfortable with, meets customers at suppliers to help with selections.

    Mark and the job's lead carpenter meet the customers at the pre-construction conference. They review the contract, the scope of work, the order of events, where materials should be located and cleanup policies. Setting expectations for frequent communication up front, Great Renovations provides customers with work, cell phone and pager numbers as well as e-mail addresses, and asks for the same in return.

    Then, unless Mark is serving as the lead, he turns the project over to the lead carpenter, although he remains available to the customers and handles the financial aspects of any change orders.

    Lead carpenter Cichocki joined Great Renovations three years ago, bringing a penchant for cleanliness from his time in military service. "When you work with me, you're going to have to bring your white gloves," he says. "I clean as I go." Whenever possible, construction areas are boarded and/or plasticked off.

    Rather than plan a weekly meeting, Cichocki prefers to talk with customers almost daily, either waiting for them to come home, leaving a message on the answering machine or calling them at work to discuss progress, offer suggestions and seek feedback. In addition, he makes a daily punchlist of his own to minimize the punchlist at the end of the project.

    Final walk-throughs usually include the lead carpenter, Mark Pouch and the customers. Great Renovations takes care to manage expectations at this stage, too, explaining, for instance, that as new lumber shrinks in an addition, some cracks will open up and the company will fix them. Cichocki adds that if he's working for a couple, he gets both partners to the walk-through to prevent after-the-fact disagreements and callbacks.

    After each project's completion, Kathy or Mark Pouch follows up with a phone call to the customers to make sure they are happy with the project and to ask them to call if anything comes up. The company has a written survey but doesn't use it regularly.

    When callbacks do happen, Mark and his leads make sure the call is returned the same or the next day and an appointment scheduled within two weeks. "I look at it as a request, not a complaint," Mark says. "The biggest complaint I've heard from customers in general -- not ours -- is you can't get the contractor to come back."

    Great Renovations will do small handyman jobs for existing clients, and Kathy helps maintain contact with them by sending fruit baskets or boxes of candy during the winter holidays. "We take care of those who've taken care of us," she says.


    Small Carpenters at Large asks employees to "leave their ego at the door" and focus on customers. Photo: Robin Nelson
    NHS runner-up

    Small Carpenters at Large

    NHS Index: 97.8

    Location: Atlanta

    Type of company: design/build remodeling, occasional custom home

    Years in business: 22

    Number of employees: 14

    2001 sales: $2 million

    Annual jobs: 31

    Mission statement: "We would like all of our customers to say, 'I'm glad I hired SCAL for my project, and I would do it again!' We want to be known for providing the cleanest and friendliest service while satisfying our customers' needs. On all of our design/build projects, we seek to meet the functional needs of our customers within their budgets, while enhancing the beauty of their homes and their lives."."


    Communication among internal departments becomes critical at a bigger company, such as 14-person Small Carpenters at Large, where customer satisfaction requires more employee interdependence. "I tell people to leave their egos at the door when they work here," says president Danny Feig-Sandoval, CR. He looks for people who make eye contact, listen well and are willing to laugh at themselves. "That tells me they're not too lost in themselves," he says.

    Feig-Sandoval is responsible for most sales, but construction coordinator Rick Wadsworth, CR, and designer Johnson usually accompany him in the initial meeting with clients. Johnson says much of the meeting focuses on asking the clients about what they want in their project and explaining the design/build process. "The most important thing is for customers to be comfortable," Feig-Sandoval says, "having customers feel like they can tell you their thoughts and that this doesn't have to be adversarial."

    Johnson pays another visit to measure and photograph the existing home, and then brings the customers into the office to view three preliminary drawings and photos of similar projects. "They get a feel for what they're paying for and how much detail there is," she says. She does her initial space drawings by hand, feeling that sketches are less threatening to customers than "hard-line computer drawings" that seem final and unchangeable.

    Customers' needs come before company revenue, Johnson says. One recent customer chose SCAL over another remodeler that had pressured her to use all high-end materials, whereas Johnson was willing to suggest a solid-surface material instead of granite. Feedback from Feig-Sandoval and Wadsworth as well as the customers helps Johnson stay on budget rather than upsetting the customers by presenting an option they love but can't afford.

    The signed contract includes a detailed budget and scope of work. Selections are done up front, and allowances are seldom given. Lead carpenter Tim Blakely says expectations are set well up front. "Our proposals are very specific about what we're going to do for how much money," he says.

    Wadsworth promises customers a start time within a two-week window, usually about a month out. A week before the earliest possible start date, he calls the customers to let them know when the actual start date will be. Pre-construction meetings take place a week or two before then, with Wadsworth, Feig-Sandoval, the lead and the homeowners in attendance. They discuss the process to come, the importance of regular communication and the hours when the crew will be on site.

    SCAL keeps a detailed schedule in house to keep it on time and on budget, but customers see only a general schedule. Wadsworth doesn't want to upset customers if a family situation arises or another job runs over and a subcontractor can't make it to the project on a promised date. Building in extra time in case things go wrong means SCAL often finishes up to two weeks early. Wadsworth and the lead carpenters give the homeowners heads-ups along the way in addition to reporting progress. "You have bad news, you share it with the customer right away," says Wadsworth. "That goes for good news, too." One lead is on call every weekend to handle emergencies.

    Leads also designate an area within the house for leaving messages for the homeowners, and vice versa. Blakely even leaves bills there if the customers aren't home, along with a thank-you note. Leads are on site every day, even if running multiple projects. Wadsworth visits twice a week, and Feig-Sandoval usually stops by weekly. When necessary, Johnson and Feig-Sandoval come to the site to meet with the lead and the homeowners to work out details.

    Communication doesn't run between the homeowners and subs, though. "You can talk to a customer all you want about the Braves or the weather, but don't talk to them about the project," Wadsworth tells them. He instructs subs to direct homeowners' questions to the lead carpenter rather than offering opinions without knowing about all the conversations that have taken place.

    Once the gypsum board is up, Wadsworth regularly points out actual or potential problems to the leads to prevent open items at the end of the project. Feig-Sandoval comes to most of the walk-throughs as a final quality assurance measure. "I don't know the number of times that we've redone things the homeowner never catches," Blakely says. "Danny has a very critical eye."

    SCAL provides a two-year warranty and sends out a customer survey immediately after project completion. Feig-Sandoval points out that the company did only $1,500 worth of warranty work in 2001; however, if he thinks the company was at fault for a problem, SCAL will fix it for free even after the warranty has expired. Wadsworth says that even after a job is completed, about 50% of SCAL's clients let the company keep house keys in case they need handyman work or anything else.

    Feig-Sandoval is developing a formal homeowners packet as a leave-behind. He already makes a point of buying each customer a gift, such as a handcrafted wooden bowl, at project completion. "I try to make it appropriate for the customer."


    Westhill's Finishing Touch program includes follow-up cards to customers for 10 years after a project's completion. Photo: Krogstad Photography
    NHS runner-up

    Westhill, Inc.

    NHS Index: 97.8

    Location: Woodinville, Wash.

    Type of company: design/build remodeling, occasional custom home

    Years in business: 28

    Number of employees: 26

    2001 sales: $3.8 million

    Annual jobs: 30-70 (job size has decreased in past year)

    Company philosophy/mission statement: "Commitment to highest-quality construction standards and practices. Professional competence and responsible business practices. Honest and equitable service in all aspects of a project. Strive to deliver 100% of what is promised on time. Keep the best interest of our client in mind at all times.""


    Larger companies require more formal systems for ensuring customer satisfaction and might even have specific people or departments devote most of their time to these tasks. Such is the case with Westhill Inc., which has developed a program called Finishing Touch.

    A sale begins when office manager Sue Tughan takes the initial call and qualifies it using a formatted lead sheet. Then sales manager Tim Russell, the brother of president Chuck Russell Jr., calls back within 24 hours to set up an appointment. On the sales call, he brings along a portfolio of past jobs that match the type of project and budget the prospects seek, plus a company résumé that includes Westhill's history and philosophy as well as client references.

    Good communication starts here, with Tim doing more listening than talking. When he does talk, it's to ask about the potential project and to explain Westhill's process. Prior customers do the rest of the selling for him. "If a prospect calls the references, I've usually sold the job," he says. He also takes prospects to visit jobs in progress if they ask. After receiving the contract and initial deposit, Tughan sends a thank-you letter.

    The pre-construction meeting takes care of any remaining customer questions or concerns, as well as introducing the customers to the production crew. Of special concern is the schedule: Westhill presents clients with a job schedule in bar-graph form -- slightly padded to allow for problems -- as well as a selections schedule notifying them what they have to pick and by what date. The company also explains the impact of any delays in selection on the clients' part. "Try not to set expectations too high," Chuck says. "If you're pretty sure you're going to meet or exceed them, as the project goes along you become a hero."

    Lead carpenters conduct weekly on-site job meetings with the customers and production manager Chuck Russell III, CGR. In addition to reviewing what happened the prior week and what's coming up, discussion of schedule and budget is mandatory. Written notes are kept on file in the office, with copies going to the clients. "When customers are too busy to attend meetings, those are the jobs that have problems," Tim says. "It opens the door for misunderstandings."

    Tughan sends thank-you letters after every deposit, and midway through each major job she sends a survival packet containing a feather duster, earplugs, aspirin, gift certificates for dinner out, and a cookbook for crockpot meals. That's also about the time that customer service representative Dave Coster, who is also a lead carpenter, stops by to address any construction issues that have arisen.

    Near the end of the project is when Finishing Touch kicks in. Coster joins leads on all the big jobs to do a walk-through a week before the homeowners' walk-through, serving as an advocate for the customers. "I'm probably harder on us, meaning quality and workmanship, than our customers and our leads," he says. "Clients really appreciate it when I find something they didn't notice."

    After the homeowners' walk-through, Coster completes any final items and then leaves the clients with a homeowners manual that includes such items as warranty information, Westhill's emergency contact number, paint choices and other product selections, pamphlets on home maintenance, and a letter of congratulations and thanks.

    Ten days after the final billing statement is sent, Tughan sends customers a survey with a cover letter and a self-addressed, stamped envelope for returning it. Once she receives final payment, she has a gift delivered to the customers.

    Five months later, she sends a letter notifying each client that Coster will call within two weeks to discuss the project and schedule an appointment for six-month warranty work if necessary. Coster does all of Westhill's warranty work, returning calls as soon as he receives a message and acting on pages within the hour in emergencies.

    For the next 10 years, on the anniversary of his or her project, each client receives a "congratulations" card from Tughan that includes a reminder of Westhill's painting and handyman services. It takes time and money, but Chuck Russell Jr. builds it into his overhead as a marketing cost.

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