Warranties and Customer Service: A New Approach
At Byggmeister we've combined our client service program and our marketing strategy into one single package. The essence of our program is easy: we try to make personal visits to as many of our past clients as possible at least once a year for several years after completion. I have two principal reasons for these visits: First, to monitor our clients' satisfaction with the work we've done; second, to stay in close contact with our client base.
I use a computer alarm program to remind me when a call or visit is due to a particular past project. For older projects I'm less systematic, but generally speaking, I'll call to visit a job older than two years if we're about to start a new project in the area, if I'll be in the neighborhood to look at a potential project, or if I just want to fill my weekly quota of visits.
Like almost all remodeling contractors, I rely heavily on referrals for our new work. I used to spend a couple thousand a year on advertising, but discovered that I was getting very little work from that effort. My lead tracking showed that almost all my work was coming from repeat work or referrals from past clients, so I decided to start spending those advertising dollars on past clients instead to see if I could get more return on my 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, or (most common) plane down doors that have swollen. Sometimes we fix more expensive flaws. When we do go out on a warranty call at a client's request, we make sure to check out the rest of the job and find one or two other things to adjust or correct.
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: I 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. A good 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, six 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 six or eight years and know that everyone on the list still thinks highly of us. In fact, our reference list notes the year we did the work, and we suggest that potential clients call people from a few years back as well as more recent references, just to get an idea of how our work and service hold up over time.
- We're also there (literally as well as figuratively), when the remodeling bug bites a client again. One fourth to one third of our annual leads are repeat clients; almost all of those leads turn into jobs.
- 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.
- Such a client service program is one of the few ways there are to use longevity in remodeling to one's competitive advantage. After a few years, surviving in remodeling feels like walking on a moving sidewalk: Constantly underfoot are those companies who compete largely on price, and the faster they go under, the faster new ones come up to take their place. Generally speaking, the longer you've been in business, the smarter you get, and the more you realize you need to charge to stay in business. So the trick is to give prospective clients tangible, compelling reasons to pay more to hire a company that has shown an ability to stay in business. I believe our client service program does that.
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.
I did some market research (I hired an friend with an MBA for the task) 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. I have never been asked by a client to do something that I thought was unreasonable. I have, however, in moments of inappropriate enthusiasm (if you ask me) or temporary insanity (if you ask my crew) volunteered to do some unreasonable tasks. Revisiting an old job, if poorly handled, can offer great opportunities to get yourself in trouble.
In one instance, a client was disappointed three years after we did her bathroom because the light gray grout she had specified had discolored and stained. I could have simply said: "I'm sorry, but that's something we can't do much about at this point, but I'll be certain to warn future clients that this shade of gray doesn't wear well." Then I could have volunteered a half hour to touch up a few smaller glitches elsewhere in the project. Instead, I offered to regrout the floor (very small tiles + very large floor = miles of grout lines) with a darker gray grout.
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.
This was much more than I needed to offer to meet my objectives of learning from our past mistakes and maintaining a client's loyalty. To compound my foolishness, I didn't follow through on my offer for several months. The client, of course, remembered the offer and reminded me periodically. Finally, under pressure to do something soon to get it over with, I decided to stain the grout. The grout stain worked, but it took about three days to get the end product looking any good and my crew was not at all happy with me. I spent a lot of money and got very little return, but it was my own fault — not the client's.
Basically, though, since our work is fundamentally sound — as is the work of most remodelers — I 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 seven years ago that has since suffered serious exterior paint failure. High indoor humidity levels coupled with a poor wall insulation detail are 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. 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 ask the client to be more judicious in the use of a humidifier in a bedroom.
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. To start, try it on one or two of your favorite past clients whom you haven't talked to for a year or so. Call them up and ask to come visit to check out how the job is looking after all these months. I think you'll find it just as enjoyable and habit-forming as we did. I think you'll also find business will improve as a direct consequence.
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