The Golden Rule

Service is what separates the truly professional remodeler from the rest. Remodelers who not only get the job done but also answer questions, soothe fears, clean up, listen well and provide choices create true value for their clients. Remodelers like this also create referrals for themselves. It's a lesson that the winners of this year's NRS Awards for customer satisfaction have taken to heart.

October 31, 2005

The Survey Says: Genuine caring is the best measure of customer satisfaction

Service is what separates the truly professional remodeler from the rest. Remodelers who not only get the job done but also answer questions, soothe fears, clean up, listen well and provide choices create true value for their clients.

Remodelers like this also create referrals for themselves. It's a lesson that the winners of this year's NRS Awards for customer satisfaction have taken to heart. JW Bratton Design/Build of Renton, Wash., and Bowers Design Build of McLean, Va., both have arrived at a level where 100 percent of their clients are willing to recommend them to family and friends.

John Bratton, Owner
JW Bratton Design/Build
Photo by Brian Smale

For JW Bratton, a family-owned and -operated company, being in the remodeling business starts with customer satisfaction.

"If you're interested in working for me, you have a simple job description: It's to remodel your mother's kitchen every day," says owner John Bratton. "All we want to do is to treat our clients the way we would want ourselves and our families to be treated."

On the opposite end of the country, Bowers Design/Build has more employees and bigger projects, but the same values.

"One of the things everyone enjoys about working with this firm is that honesty and integrity is key," says Wilma Bowers, executive director of marketing and strategic planning. "We would not commit to anything unless we knew we could deliver." She adds: "We stress that this is a partnership in spirit, that we're going through this together."

Caring can't be taught, but it should be cultivated, because customers' impression of how much your firm cares might be the most important factor in what they think of it. (See "The Survey Says" sidebar.) A look inside both Bratton and Bowers reveals service-oriented practices that any firm can adapt to develop a customer-first culture.


The Survey Says: Genuine caring is the best measure of customer satisfaction

If you're like most remodelers, you're always on the lookout for ways to improve your customer satisfaction. That's because you know that high satisfaction leads to lucrative referrals, which generate the vast majority of remodeling business.

Using a customer survey will help you to quantify your clients' level of satisfaction and pinpoint areas for improvement. The results of the fourth annual customer satisfaction study by NRS Corporation and Professional Remodeler provide a big-picture look at where remodelers do well keeping customers happy and where they fall short.

NRS asked the 2004 customers of the 241 remodeler and builder study participants a series of key questions, including:

  • Would you recommend your remodeler to family and friends?
  • How many actual recommendations have you made for your remodeler?
  • To what degree did your remodeler care about you and building a quality home?

This was the first year we asked the "caring question," and we were shocked to discover how much the answer mattered to consumers. The higher the firm scored in terms of "genuine caring," the more actual recommendations its clients had made. High satisfaction with the remodeler's level of caring predicted recommendation levels better than any other question asked, from project value to sticking with the schedule.

Two remodeling companies rose to the top of the study, winning the 2005 NRS Awards recognizing excellence in customer satisfaction. Both of these remodelers had 100 percent of their customers stating that they felt their remodeler's staff cared about them and about doing a quality job.

Caring doesn't exist in a vacuum relative to the quality of the work you do; rather, caring is the sum of all that you do for your customers. Remodelers that give warm fuzzies without performing quality work ultimately will fail in customer satisfaction. However, remodelers that do great work but fail to convey caring toward the customer will also underperform.

The NRS survey measured customer satisfaction levels via a mailed questionnaire and an online survey. Winners were determined by adding their total customer satisfaction score with their recommend score to equal the NRS Index score. The NRS Award program announces only the winners in the award categories, and it holds in confidence the results for companies that subscribed to the study but did not win.

Paul A. Cardis is president/CEO of NRS Corporation, a leading research and consulting firm serving the construction industry.


Treat People Right

It's all personal for John Bratton, starting with the decision to put his name on the business. His wife, Lynne, and son Jim helped him start JW Bratton Design/Build in 1994. John met Lynne 20 years ago when he worked in new construction and built her house. The Brattons live in the same suburban Seattle community as their employees, subcontractors and clients. Their children and grandchildren go to school together. Most jobs are within 5 miles of the office. In fact, much of JW Bratton's work takes place in a neighborhood with a golf course; the regular players keep tabs on each project's progress.

Lynne, John and Jim Bratton (truck, left to right) run the family business with a personal touch.   Photo by Brian Smale

"It's not unusual to be at a social occasion with 30 couples and have remodeled probably 75 percent of their homes," says John Bratton.

The survey shows that JW Bratton excels in some extraordinarily difficult areas: the number of items identified on the punchlist, the time taken to correct those items, project value for the price paid, and providing accurate answers to client questions during the sales process.

Don't be all things to all people

JW Bratton operates under a set of unwritten rules that allow the employees to focus their skills. Many of the customers are mid-level managers at Boeing who live in a country club subdivision. Given that John Bratton worked as a subcontractor for new home builders in the '80s and early '90s, he knows the layout and conditions he's likely to find in many of the residences he remodels.

"I price according to the fact that these are people that want a really quality remodel but need to get value for it. They're not going to dig into the retirement account," explains John, who does all the selling. "If you can't sell quality and value, you might as well work out of a truck. I'm too old to work out of a truck."

To keep pricing under control in a high-cost, highly-regulatied region, Bratton subcontracts design work under a personal services agreement. He uses several outside designers and architects, chosen based on job scope and their fit with the client. Clients cannot supply materials or labor. Bratton limits change orders as much as possible.

Hire the best subcontractors

Jim Bratton is the field production manager, joined by three in-house carpenters. Plumbing, electrical, drywall, painting and hard surfaces get subbed out, preferably to small companies that specialize in remodeling.

"Everybody is very comfortable with going into people's houses and geared to single-family remodels. All are either owner operated or run by owner employees. A lot of small, really good quality people," says John Bratton.

Jim Bratton began working with many of the subcontractors in his teens. "Somebody who's been a part of a team for a long time is willing to make a sacrifice, work harder," he says. "They'll do the extra thing because they know you're going to be ready. The first five minutes of meeting with a sub has nothing to do with work. It's a social atmosphere. A lot of our subs, we'll have them on multiple jobs at a time."

The camaraderie reassures clients that conflicts between trades won't arise on the job, says John Bratton.

Keep work in perspective

A cool head and a calm expression go a long way toward keeping a job running smoothly and convincing customers that they're in good hands.

"A problem is what we get paid to deal with," says John Bratton. "The only time we have an urgency is if there is blood involved."

Production meetings every Monday to review the past week and plan the week ahead help to minimize problems. These are followed by a secondary meeting on Tuesday to confirm and solidify the plan. The field employees provide daily updates to the office, while John and Jim do most of the communicating with the client, whether in person or via phone call or e-mail.

"If you say 'Wow,' you can always explain that as something good or as something bad," says John Bratton with a laugh. "But if you start screaming, then you've got a problem."

JW Bratton Design/Build

NRS Index: 196.93
Clients willing to recommend: 100 percent
Clients who made 10 or more recommendations: 55.56 percent
Clients who experienced genuine caring: 100 percent
Type of company: design/build; 90 percent residential remodeling; 10 percent custom homes
2004 jobs: 14
Customer profile: upper-middle class customers with homes built during or after the 1960s
Mission statement: "Excellence can be obtained if you care more, risk more, dream more and expect more."

Understanding the Power of Wow

Many experts insist that customers don't really know what they want; they have to be told. They're wrong — dead wrong. Homeowners do know what they want; they're just not proficient at describing their needs. When you understand the three types of customer needs and how to reveal them, you'll be on your way to understanding your customers' needs as well as, or perhaps better than, they do.

We use the Kano Model of customer expectations, developed by Japanese researcher Noriaki Kano. He has identified three levels of what it takes to make a positive impact on customer satisfaction: the musts, the wants and the wows.

THE MUSTS: Entry-level expectations are the must qualities, properties or attributes. Fully satisfying the homeowner at this level simply gets a remodeler into the market. The musts are also known as the "dissatisfiers." By themselves they do not satisfy a homeowner; however, failure to provide them will cause dissatisfaction. The musts include assumptions and unspoken expectations, such as plumbing and air conditioning that work and a roof that doesn't leak. Missing a must kills the chance of a referral.

THE WANTS: These are the qualities, attributes and characteristics that keep a remodeler in the market. These higher-level expectations are also known as "satisfiers." Customers will specify them as though from a list. They can either satisfy or dissatisfy the customer depending on their presence or absence. The wants include any spoken customer expectations, such as extra-large cabinets and closets, a work warranty longer than one year, and returned phone calls.

THE WOWS: These are features and properties that make a remodeler a leader in the market and produce the highest levels of customer satisfaction. These expectations are "delighters" or "exciters" because they go beyond what the customer might imagine and ask for. Their absence does nothing to hurt satisfaction levels, but their presence improves the overall experience, sometimes significantly. Examples of wows include: guaranteed lower utility bills because of quality construction, gift baskets, frequent informative communications, active listening, lending a helping hand, and true caring for the buyer. Wows are key to achieving high referral rates.

Over time, unspoken wows become spoken wants and, finally, unspoken musts. Indoor plumbing is one obvious example. To get ahead and stay ahead, constantly monitor your prospects to identify the next wows. Providing your customers with the best wows, plenty of wants and all the musts is what it takes to be an industry leader.

Jack B. ReVelle, Ph.D., is the founder of ReVelle Solutions, Santa Ana, Calif.

Bowers Design Build Inc.

Engineer the Ideal Customer Experience

Bowers Design Build, a 15-year-old company in the Washington, D.C., area, takes a scientific approach to customer satisfaction. Which is not to say that the management team isn't concerned about the human touch. Rather, their experience has proven the value of documenting their processes, measuring and evaluating their results, and implementing careful change. Owners Bruce and Wilma Bowers and vice president John Coburn have even developed an "ideal customer experience" model so that everyone in the 30-person firm knows exactly what it takes to make a Bowers customer happy.

Adding a 5-person design team increased the company's employee roster but also, says Bruce (brown coat) and Wilma Bowers, is increasing customer satisfaction.   Photo by William Geiger

"We roll out our thoughts on how things operate," says Coburn, who handles 90 percent of the sales. "They all believe in the same things we do. They all understand our goal: the ideal customer experience."

The NRS survey showed that Bowers outstrips average remodeler performance in a number of areas, doing particularly well in: project value for the price paid, sticking to production schedule, sticking to budget and communicating price changes to the client.

Research what works

Drawing on lessons learned from her 19-year marketing career with Verizon Communications, Wilma Bowers implemented some market research when she officially joined Bowers Design Build four years ago. Detailed post-construction surveys and client focus groups revealed a few areas for improvement:

  • The design timeline. The firm used to work with outside designers. As one client of many, Bowers Design Build and its customers did not always take top priority with the outside designers.
    As a result, the company decided to bring all design in house, a goal that was achieved in 2005.
    "It's a big milestone," says Bruce Bowers. "We have three architects and two designers in house as part of that commitment."
  • Too many people contacting the customer. Clients were getting confused working with multiple employees throughout the course of a project.

Now, no matter how many employees are involved, all key project communication and decisions go through just three people: the salesperson — Coburn or Bruce Bowers — during the sales phase; Dean Cretsigner, the director of architecture, during design development; and the site manager, who is similar to a lead carpenter, once construction begins.

Partner with the right clients

By tracking leads, interviewing customers and assessing the competition, Bowers Design Build has narrowed its focus to the jobs most likely to yield strong profits and prospects most likely to appreciate its services.

"Number one, we do remodeling," says Wilma Bowers. "We don't do landscaping. We have done custom homes in the past, but we've gotten out of that. We focus on one thing, and we do it very well, and we have a proven business model."

The firm's "core" project is a major addition, including a new family room, kitchen and master suite as well as some interior reconfiguration. Staying within 5 miles of the office limits travel time and costs — and with plenty of old, high-priced single-family homes and wealthy homeowners in the region, there's no shortage of remodeling prospects.

Coburn estimates the firm receives 250 calls a year, and of the leads that make it to an in-person meeting, half already know an existing client.

"We do a lot of brand building," explains Wilma Bowers. "Seventy percent of our business is from word of mouth. In the past 12 to 16 months, about 30 percent were repeat clients."

Bowers Design Build targets its customers by income level and home value as well as region. Ultimately, the homeowners who hire the company don't just have money; they don't mind spending it.

"We're extremely fortunate that when you look at the three variables in a remodeling project — time, cost and quality — our client is the client who is looking for quality as the first prong, and then time and then cost," says Bruce Bowers. "In order to provide the service that we do, we have to charge. Our clients want to pay for service. They've already made that decision before they call us."

Set internal and external expectations

Solid internal structure and systems allow the employees of Bowers Design Build to know what the firm can do and what it can't. That keeps everybody on the same page with each other and with clients, especially when it comes to budget and schedule.

Using Excel estimating spreadsheets and Microsoft Project, the Bowers team works together to develop timelines and sales figures before presenting them to clients. The design process has its own schedule of four to 10 meetings, with next steps and expectations outlined for each. All selections must be made before construction begins.

Once construction begins, the site manager shares weekly updates with the Bowers team via e-mail. Although the site manager handles the bulk of client communication during this phase, the accounting department does send out e-mail reminders as payments come due.

"We actually do what we say we will do," says Bruce Bowers. "Clients are shocked when we do it."

Bowers Design Build Inc.

NRS Index: 196.21
Clients willing to recommend: 100 percent
Clients who made 10 or more recommendations: 21.43 percent
Clients who experienced genuine caring: 100 percent
Type of company: design/build remodeling; kitchens, family rooms, additions, whole houses
2004 jobs: 14
Customer profile: Owners of single-family homes with annual household incomes of more than $250,000. Houses must be worth at least $500,000 and located within 5 miles of the office.
Mission statement: "To provide the best overall design/build experience in the towns where we choose to do business."

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