|Austin Foster meets with Rachel Murray following the third of three projects Construction Ahead completed for her, including a sunroom addition, master suite addition and kitchen/living room remodel.
Photography by Robin Nelson
Four years ago, Austin Foster's Atlanta, design/build firm, Construction Ahead, was averaging about $400,000 per year in installed sales volume. Last year, following steadily increasing annual sales, the firm's volume reached a hefty $1.7 million.
Although a number of factors contributed to this rise in business, Foster places the majority of the credit on his company's ability to satisfy customers. In fact, 92 percent of his business in 2005 came from repeat customers. The other 8 percent stemmed from referrals.
"That says it all right there," says Foster, 39. "My focus has always been to make sure that everybody was happy with the job when we left. And a lot of times, that meant eating a significant amount of profit or me backing up and doing something that wasn't in the agreement. But in order to be able to leave the people happy, I did it."
During the early years of his business, now in its 14th year, it might have been tempting for Foster to take a hard stance with clients whose expectations exceeded either the agreement or just plain business sense — or both. But by sacrificing short-term gains and opting to build solid relationships with long-term customers, Foster has created a steady stream of quality prospects that flows to him.
Truth be told, making the customer happy is the only way Foster, CR, has ever known to do business.
"It's driven by the fact that I don't like to let people down," says Foster. "I want my word to be as good as gold. We may have some bumps, and it may not go perfectly, but in the end my customers will get what they paid for, and the experience along the way will be a good one. It's all grown out of that. That's the root of it all, that I want everybody happy with my work. And you just try to push your guys to understand that and make sure they have that same mentality."
If there's been a difficult part for Foster, it would have to be figuring out how to pull back from the field enough to work on his business rather than in it, while delegating others to work more closely with customers whose happiness has allowed his business to blossom.
During his company's first 10 years, Foster handled all the sales, estimating and project management and employed two carpenters to carry out the production. It allowed him to keep a firm grasp on the business but didn't allow for the type of growth that has come since. Over the last four years, he has added four full-time positions (an office manager, production manager and two lead carpenters), and plans to hire an estimator by January 2007.
"I started realizing I couldn't do it all myself," says Foster. "So I started giving more and more control to my guys and trained them to be lead carpenters about four years ago. We've been following that system since but still keeping that focus on making sure that no homeowner has anything but good stuff to say. You can't get 100 percent satisfaction out of every customer. That's impossible. But we want to try and come as close to that as we can."
At the same time, Foster decided his company needed to become more system-oriented to handle the impending growth. Two years ago, he decided to hire GuildQuality, a customer satisfaction firm specializing in the remodeling industry, to conduct surveys of his clients so he could better document what was clearly a big differentiator for his company from the competition.
"Once I got to the point where things evolved and I was no longer in the field, I realized I really needed some way to continue monitoring customer satisfaction," Foster recalls. "In the beginning, I could track my customer satisfaction by the handshake at the end of the job. I had a good sense of what was going on. And even when I stepped out of the field and was acting as production manager, I was still in contact with homeowners and really staying in tune. I would tell people, 'Hey we've got satisfied clients,' and I was giving reference lists out always. But I wasn't able to quantify it."
|Construction Ahead owner Austin Foster meets with his staff weekly to relay customer feedback and go over results of the GuildQuality surveys.|
GuildQuality provides survey results for every one of Construction Ahead's projects, as long as the homeowner responds. Foster is now able to show prospects third-party data in 14 areas of customer satisfaction: expertise; professionalism; innovation; schedule; construction quality; communication; problem resolution; cleanliness and safety; employees and subs; value; trust; punchlist; whether they would recommend the firm; and whether they would write a letter of recommendation.
"GuildQuality gave me the opportunity to be able to point to these numbers and say, you know what, we're every bit as good as our peers and better than most," says Foster. "And that's been a real big help. It's a way for me to keep control of customer satisfaction when I'm not there every day and still get a sense of how we're doing."
Foster shares individual results from the projects with his staff for training and improvement purposes; he also receives aggregate data over numerous projects from GuildQuality that shows how his company compares to his peers.
Construction Ahead has a 97.8 percent recommendation rate; the remodeling industry average is 68.9 percent. The company's 86.7 percent easier-than-expected rate far exceeds their peers' 76.5.
"I don't have any formal kind of [customer satisfaction] training for my guys," says Foster. "But there has always been, from me, a lot of emphasis placed upon it. I share feedback with them all the time. Anytime I get a note or letter from a homeowner, good or bad — and they're mostly good — the first thing I do is make sure in our regular meetings, that I bring it out. I say 'Look, I got this letter, pass it around and let everybody hear what was said about one of our guys.' It reinforces what we're trying to do and the message we're trying to get out, and it gives the guy who got the comment a sort of bragging rights. He feels good about himself and wants to work that much harder. And the hope is that it kind of pushes him and the others toward doing better so they can get those kind of comments, too."
Foster's personal values are certainly at the heart of Construction Ahead's penchant for creating happy customers. But that doesn't mean there isn't a structured process behind it all.
From the very beginning of the working relationship between him and the customer, Foster creates an atmosphere conducive to achieving their ultimate happiness. He promptly contacts a prospect once a lead comes in and then communicates regularly with them throughout the bid process.
"It's all about keeping your word," says Foster. "I know that sounds pretty simple, but whether it's returning phone calls in a prompt manner, or making sure that when you say you're going to get back to them with a bid on Monday, you get back to them with a bid on Monday, you follow through. Or at the very least, if you can't keep your promise, call on Friday afternoon and say, 'My week went crazy; it's going to be Wednesday,' and then call them on Wednesday and have the bid ready. And that goes from the very beginning all the way through the process. Do what you say you're going to do."
The honest communication doesn't stop once the sale is made. Foster provides the customer with a calendar of the job schedule with the contract, showing all dates of the major steps that the project will entail. This provides the client with the proper expectations from the start, so when the job stays on schedule, they know he has fulfilled all those expectations.
"They're able to follow along and see how we are doing," he says. "In this industry, guys will get the job started, clear out the kitchen and then they disappear for four days and no phone call, so it's important to have something happening at all times. We run our schedule real tight, and we get into trouble with it sometimes when an inspection gets delayed or something. But we try to always have something happening at the job so the customer knows we're working to stay on schedule. If for some reason nothing's going to happen one day, then my guys know the expectation is that the homeowner better hear about it from them directly that, 'Hey, no one's going to be there tomorrow, but we're still working. We had a glitch in the schedule, no worries.' It's all about communication."
Foster also schedules frequent meetings with the customer during the course of the job to keep them informed about what stage they are at, what's happening next, and what changes, if any, have been made to the original plan.
"If there's hiccups or problems, they know about them right away," he says. "We'll tell them we're going to make up the time on the schedule by putting a few more people over here this week or whatever, and they see that we're trying to bring them back on schedule by doing that. It's just keeping them informed about exactly what's happening along the way so they know what to expect; they're not guessing as to what's happening this week. It's not that hard to keep them happy when they see that we're making every effort to keep on the schedule that we committed to in the beginning. And that really goes a long way to keeping them happy."
When major changes are necessary, Foster is diligent in making sure everything is discussed thoroughly and then put in writing. Changes over $1,000 are automatically signed by both the customer and Foster before any of the altered work is done. Even some changes below $1,000 are done in this manner, depending upon the situation.
We have a field change order that if the homeowner wants to move a door or something, the lead carpenter can give them a rough estimate, and they initial it, and it gets sent to the office," says Foster. "We process it and get the actual cost and get it back to the homeowner right away. There's always some gray area. At what price point can you go on with the work and at what point do you have to stop until the actual cost has been approved and signed? Most of the time our leads have a pretty good sense of what they can get away with and what needs to be signed by the office. Again, if you give the customer the expectation of how change orders are going to go and follow through with that process, they respond really well to it."
Keeping the job site clean during the entire project is another area where Construction Ahead excels. Foster learned, like most of the other procedures that keep his customers happy, that cleanliness is important based on his own personal preference for how he likes to work.
"That came from my days on the job," he says. "It's just my personal way that I like to work. I don't like to work in a bunch of clutter, so that whole policy in the way we do things was really to fit me, even though I'm not out there anymore. And we get a lot of good responses from customers about that. We use a portable air scrubber on all our demolition and drywall. It goes a long way towards keeping the dust down. We tell them that we use dust control but that we can't guarantee 100 percent dust-free. But it does make a difference. It's the same with the setup of the job. Our tools and equipment are stored in a nice, neat pile or in an out-of-the-way area. At the end of the day, and certainly on Fridays, when that homeowner comes home, they can walk through their $80,000 kitchen and not have to step over boards or not be able to walk through it and see how it's unfolding and see it and be excited about it. That is one of the things we get a lot of comments about. 'It's so clean, and the job really looks neat.' All that goes back to making it a pleasant experience for them. In a nutshell, it's about not giving them something to gripe about, and you won't have problems."
Foster has formulated his sales and marketing strategy to take full advantage of Construction Ahead's wealth of satisfied past clients. His marketing campaign consists mainly of a quarterly newsletter to past customers, because essentially 100 percent of last year's work came directly from past customers — 92 percent repeat and 8 percent referral.
"Every year's not 92 percent, but all of our advertising is really just reaching out to past customers," he says. "The way I look at marketing, when you start looking at the money, at least in my opinion, you start throwing it out there to the general public, you're really inviting a lot of tire kickers in. So our strategy has just been to make sure that we stay in touch and on top of all the people that we already have dealt with. We let them know how much we appreciate them, that we're thinking about them — and that's fed us a lot more work."
And when Foster is in the competitive bid process, he uses his communication skills to help close the sale.
"When they say, 'We've had two guys come out and they haven't gotten back to us yet,' I say, 'How do you expect their customer service is gonna be when you call them three-quarters of the way through this project and it's over budget and you're behind schedule? How do you think they're going to react then, if right now while the entire profit and all the positives are still on the table, they can't get back to you in a timely fashion? How do you think they're going to be when there is a problem?' And that helps. I close a lot of sales that way."