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Trump the Wild Card

Adam Helfman outlines his plans for managing and meeting client expectations.

April 30, 1999

Estimate, execute, meet expectations. Done well, these three guarantee client satisfaction and project quality. Estimates and execution are well within the control of most remodelers, but meeting customer expectation is always the wild card.

At Fairway Construction Co. in Southfield, Mich., president Adam Helfman, CR, has put systems in place that trump the wild card. His company defines customer expectations up front, manages them during the project and follows up to ensure that customer satisfaction was truly achieved.

Beginning with the first customer contact and continuing through a series of post-production surveys and analysis, Fairway makes sure its clients know what to expect and that they receive it.

Helfman hasn’t brought the company to this point overnight. In 1997, the NAHB Research Center recognized Fairway as a National Remodeling Quality Silver Award winner. Last year, Fairway won the Gold. Rod Sutton, editor in chief of Professional Remodeler, visited the home offices of this 75-year-old, fourth-generation remodeling firm to see how quality has come home to Fairway.

PR: How does Fairway ensure a positive customer relationship?

Helfman: One of the most important things we do is set expectations at the very earliest point in the process: the first phone call. Query calls are transferred to our lead manager, who is the first impression that the customer has about Fairway. The prequalification process begins there.

After we qualify them, we tell the customer, "At our first meeting, it’s required that you and your husband meet with us together. Is it easier for you to leave late for work or come home early?" That allows them to commit to us an investment in time -- subconsciously. The first meeting is an investment in time for them.

PR: Describe the sales process.

Helfman: The lead manager sets the appointment with the most qualified salesperson-designer for the job and for that area. She writes out a postcard reminding the customers of the appointment, telling them our office hours and her pager number. She’s available 24 hours a day for the customer. If it’s the evening, she’ll be able to page the salesman. After the first meeting, the lead manager calls back the homeowner. How did it go? Did he show up on time? That’s showing that we care, but it’s also internally checking our systems. Did he answer all your questions? Is there anything I can do? She’s getting information, and she’s there to set up the next appointment.

At that point, she contacts the salesman and asks how it went. She types his comments into the lead-tracking software program. It’s integrated into the system, so we’re checking and balancing within the system. Before the job’s even sold, before the contract is written, we’ve already set expectations with the homeowner as to how we operate. I know clients are expecting professionalism. They’re going to get it, and it justifies my price.

PR: How do you prepare the client for construction?

Helfman: Once the contract is written, we send the homeowner a package: the homeowner’s remodeling survival kit. It includes a book we’ve written on the dos and don’ts of remodeling. We’re setting expectations. "Yes, someone will not show up for three days in a row during your project. Yes, we may fail an inspection." It tells them all these things. It’s soft-written, easy to read. It’s sent certified mail.

At the handoff meeting, the homeowner, the salesperson-designer and the project superintendent all meet. The job, blueprints, contract are reviewed. We do this to let the homeowner know the responsibilities are transferring into production. The job responsibilities of the designer have lessened -- not cut off, but lessened.

[It’s] also to remind the customer of what they bought. A lot of times, they’ll remember something promised by somebody else. This puts everyone back on track. The superintendent tells the homeowner when it’s going to start. Right there is where expectations are laid out. We have to perform, obviously. That’s where the responsibility transfers to the project superintendent. The salesman’s required to stop by once a week to see how things are going.

PR: What’s the incentive to stay involved?

Helfman: Initially, it’s a financial incentive. Our salespeople are commissioned, so profitability on the job is important to them. The superintendent is paid a salary but is given bonuses on profitability. He gets a bonus if the customer writes a letter complimenting his work.

At the same time, they all know that we will forego profit for quality. That’s where the rough edge is. Take the lead manager. If the job doesn’t get sold for whatever reason, the customer’s name goes in a rehash report. Every 90 days, she makes phone calls on the rehash report. If she brings a job back to life, she’s paid a bonus.

PR: If I'm a superintendent and know I’m going to be paid on profitability, what’s the incentive to go the extra mile on quality?

Helfman: We know going in that the price has room for quality adjustments. We’re charging for a gross profit of 40%. Their bonus starts at 37%; there’s a 3% cushion built in for them. Since we’re an open-book company, they see all their numbers.

PR: How do on-site job logs help manage expectations?

Helfman: There’s a binder on site. It’s contains a copy of the specs, contract and blueprints, and a pad of paper. It works great as a communication center. Most clients are dual-income, with both working. Communicating this way has helped tremendously. What’s written on site is transferred into the production meeting reports [each week by the superintendents]. That form is given to the production manager, and he has it input into the job-log database. There’s a record. I also have my lead manager call during the middle of the job and ask how it’s going.

PR: Who’s responsible for customer satisfaction after the job is complete?

Helfman: This is where the lead manager comes back in. After the job is closed out, she sends out a survey, "How did we do?" She calls to follow up. Her job is to get that survey completed.

The salesman is supposed to go through a final punchlist with the homeowner. At that point he’s supposed to work on any quality concerns the customer might have.

Service is handled by the superintendent. It’s his responsibility to address the situation and handle it. We have two ways to handle it. Either the person who did the work goes back out, or our serviceman -- who’s like a roving carpenter -- goes out to take care of it. But it gets handled swiftly.

PR: How do you address problems that show up on the survey?

Helfman: Job autopsy. We meet with all the parties, down to the trades. We talk about the job, lay out invoices and blueprints. Start to finish, it takes about an hour. How are we going to avoid this in the future, why did this happen, why did she write this about you?

It’s important that I expound my values and morals onto all my employees so we’re all on the same page. By them seeing me interacting with customers and not hesitating to give something away -- not to buy customer satisfaction but to know that an adjustment is being made in their favor-- lets them know that I’m not afraid. The net result is, they’ll work harder for that.

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