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Warranties and Customer Service: A Better Approach

Paul Eldrenkamp

Over twenty years ago we combined our follow-up service policy and our marketing strategy into one single package. The essence of our program is easy: we visit each major project at least once a year for several years after completion. We have two principal reasons for these visits: To learn what products, construction techniques, and designs hold up best over time, and to stay in touch with past clients.

We use a computer alarm program to remind us when a call or visit is due to a particular past project. At our quarterly company meetings, Matt Jancek, our warranty manager, presents a slide show of what he's encountered over the previous three months of past project visits and we have a group discussion of root causes and potential solutions.

Like almost all remodeling contractors, we rely heavily on referrals for our new work. We used to spend several thousand dollars a year on advertising, but discovered that we were getting very little work from that effort. Our lead tracking showed that almost all our work was coming from repeat work or referrals from past clients, so we decided to start spending those advertising dollars on past clients instead, to see if we could get better return on the investment.

On a typical visit to a client, we ask questions about their likes and dislikes regarding our work, and how their view of the project has changed over time. We come prepared to caulk joints that have opened up, adjust cabinet doors that have sagged, plane down doors that have swollen, and other such things. Sometimes we fix more expensive flaws. When we do go out on a warranty call at a client's specific request, we make sure to check out the rest of the job.

We've found in the years since we formally instituted the program that we've been able to reap several benefits:

We discover how our building techniques and the products we use hold up over time. One example of something we've learned is just how important it is to prime (or otherwise seal) all sides of any exterior wood we use that's not pressure-treated. This is particularly true of cedar siding and pine trim. The importance of pre-priming all sides of exterior wood is not news. But it's still not the industry standard to do so: we drive by lots of jobsites with unpainted siding going up, or unprimed trim being installed on a porch or deck. If those builders went back to their jobs four or five years from now they'd be chagrined at how quickly the paint fails or the pine rots.

We discover which design elements clients like best and which they regret. An example of this lesson is the client for whom we built an addition when her children were very young. She couldn't imagine not wanting their bedroom on the same floor as hers. Now, years later, she regrets not putting the master suite in the attic, away from the kid's bedrooms. This is valuable feedback to offer a potential client considering a similar expansion.

We don't have to worry about anyone's forgetting us. Periodic visits let us maintain and even improve the rapport that we were able to establish during the project. We can put on our reference list jobs dating back several years and know that everyone on the list still thinks highly of us.

We can turn lukewarm referrals into enthusiastic ones. Our jobs don't always go as well as we'd hope. Sometimes clients are left with the feeling that we performed adequately, not spectacularly. But if we return in twelve months with block planes and caulking guns all of a sudden they can't remember just what it could have been that irritated them some at the time.

It's fun to see our past clients periodically. It's a real lift to do a job well and to have the homeowner really appreciate your effort; it's just as much of a lift to go back every now and then and see that they still enjoy your work, just as much as when you first did it. In a high-risk endeavor like residential remodeling, personal attention is essential. It's not enough to wow the client once and get the job. To make the most of your sales investment, you have to keep wowing the client, long after the project is complete.

There are hazards in a program like this, of course, but not as many as one might think. To limit the hazards, I try to control expectations and not promise more than I can deliver. For this reason, I do not explicitly call our service program a warranty or a guarantee. Usually, I don't even mention the program to a prospective client. It is really more a marketing tool than a sales tool.

Years ago when we first contemplated implementing this program, we did some basic market research and found that a promise to come back once a year for several years to check out the job did not have much credibility among our target clientele - basically, they said they'd believe it when they saw it. So a promise to come back once a year to service the project will probably not turn a lead into a job. I have found that actually delivering on that promise, however, will generate more leads and jobs.

Some builders who have heard about our service program have been worried about what their clients might make them do if they went back to a past job. We have never been asked by a client to do something that we thought was unreasonable.

Since our work is fundamentally sound - as is the work of most remodelers - we don't have much to worry about on these periodic visits to past jobs. There will be minor flaws to deal with, mostly doors that stick and joints that need to be caulked after the first heating season. Once in a while we may encounter a more serious problem. Even in those situations, though, it works to our advantage to discover the problem early and to be the ones voluntarily bringing it to the attention of the homeowner.

For instance, we built an addition several years ago that almost immediately suffered serious exterior paint failure. Poor rainwater management and failure to back-prime the clapboards were at the root of the problem. We could have got into serious trouble with the client. Instead, because we were the ones who volunteered to the client that the paint was not performing as it should, we established credibility early on. For a time it seemed that the only solution would be to replace the siding on the whole addition, which we were prepared to do. A consultation with a building scientist, however, got us off much easier, and all we had to do was insert plastic spacer wedges at a total cost of about $250 and repaint the house.

In sum, our program of repeated periodic visits to past clients has given us invaluable information regarding our ways of building, has generated a lot of very high-quality leads, and has actually been fun - an unanticipated benefit.

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