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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."