Winning Ingredients

If successful custom home building was a recipe, the ingredient list would be one part skilled builder and trades; one part good land, floor plans and options; and two parts satisfied customers. Because customer satisfaction is such an integral part of the custom home building recipe, custom home builders are focusing more than ever on improving their customer satisfaction ratings.

January 01, 2006

If successful custom home building was a recipe, the ingredient list would be one part skilled builder and trades; one part good land, floor plans and options; and two parts satisfied customers.

Because customer satisfaction is such an integral part of the custom home building recipe, custom home builders are focusing more than ever on improving their customer satisfaction ratings. High satisfaction ratings translate into lucrative referral business that can sometimes feed more than half of all future sales.

Now in its third year, the NRS Customer Satisfaction Award for custom builders goes to Harbourside Custom Homes, Bonita Springs, Fla., winning an NRS Diamond Award and Best in Class Award; and Arcadia Homes, Charlotte, N.C., winning Excellence in Class Award. Each winner represents customer satisfaction at its best.

On the following pages, both winners share best practices for improving customer satisfaction ratings.

Ensuring quality built homes

Harbourside Custom Homes' most important best practice is to ensure a quality built house. To achieve that, Harbourside hires professional superintendents and professional people, in general, to build its houses. "We look for guys with experience," says Frank Jenkins, president of Harbourside Custom Homes. "Many of our guys have 15-plus years experience."

Those builders are supported by careful organization. An integrated computer system keeps each job in check and on schedule. "That keeps us organized with 60 custom jobs," Jenkins says.

The computer only does so much though. Weekly, each supervisor reviews all job files, which contain the invoices and schedules. He then hands it off to a construction consultant, who is assigned to work directly with each customer.

While construction quality is important, Jenkins also has pointed advice for delivering customer satisfaction. "Listen to the customer," he says. Custom homes require extra detail and time, and listening to the customer's wants and needs means helping the customer prioritize and select options and upgrades. Every customer wants something different and the price range can be astronomical. Harbourside doesn't believe in hiking up the prices though. "We sell upgrades at the builder's price," Jenkins says. "In the beginning when we're in the sales stage, that's a challenge because people try and compare us to other builders and say our allowances aren't enough.

"Once we can sit down and make them understand what's going on, it all makes sense," Jenkins says. "You just have to sit down and show them it's apples to apples."

The final element of customer satisfaction is keep the customer informed. Since a large portion of customers are out of state, the construction consultant does whatever it takes to communicate with the customer. To facilitate that, the company uses e-mail and telephone of course, but consultants also use the company Website to review photos. "We have pictures we put on our Website and they have their own password to go in and view their pictures for their home," Jenkins says.

Matching expectations

From start to finish, Arcadia Homes devotes itself to clear communication. Their motto is compare expectations and make sure they match up before ever starting to build.

"That's done as early as the first meeting," Michael Salamone, president of Arcadia Homes says. "It's done through all the pre-meetings during the design and contract agreement too. Finally, it's formally done in a pre-construction meeting, before we start building."

Arcadia would rather turn down a customer than work with someone that will never be satisfied. "Don't be afraid to say no," Salamone says. "Explain to them, we don't feel we can deliver to the expectations you have."

Once a verbal agreement is made, the company draws up detailed specifications. "They can go 20 pages deep, depending on the size of the home," Salamone says. "Even having done all that, there still might be ambiguity."

When ambiguity leads to disagreement, the entire Arcadia team is empowered to make a decision to fix what the customer sees as wrong. "My team is instructed to go ahead and deliver what the customer expects, no questions asked," Salamone says.

"Never focus on the dollar and cents profits of any individual project," Salamone says. "Always think long-term. If that means giving a client even more than you had budgeted, it will come back to you many times over in their satisfaction when they start telling friends and relatives you absolutely have to use Arcadia Homes when you build your next home."

At the end of every construction project, Arcadia's goal is to have a zero punch list. "We don't let anyone move in unless the list is zero," Salamone says. Although things will come up that need to be repaired, Arcadia closes with a clean slate.

Inevitably, there will be repair issues following move in, and Arcadia has warranty technicians on stand-by to handle any repairs that may occur. With any repair, timeliness is the essential. "Even if we can't respond to it immediately, we at least call them and let them know we're on it and when we'll get there," Salamone says.

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