How do you combat that classic consumer complaint often directed at remodelers: “He disappeared after I paid the bill”? More than just calling to check in with clients after a few months, continuing the positive customer relationship you've created takes the concerted effort of you and your staff. It takes planning and communicating from the very beginning of the process to let clients know that you will be there for them after the last nail is sunk and the floor is swept.
CLOSE OUT QUICKLY Customers shouldn't have to ask about job closeout, says Danny Lipford, who, with 30 years experience in the remodeling industry, has spent much of the past decade speaking with homeowners for his nationally syndicated TV show Today's Home owner With Danny Lipford.
Lipford says that consumers often complain to him about remodelers not returning phone calls and about their inability to get in touch with the remodeler after the project is finished. “The comfort level you've created in securing the project should continue throughout,” Lipford says. “Provide an explanation of closeout at the start of a job.” No matter how hard you try, odds are you're not going to get a zero punch list, but you can get close.
Louis Krokover, owner of NewDay Development, in Encino, Calif., uses weekly client meetings to learn about any issues, which he immediately addresses so that his end-of-project punch list is minimal. On final inspection day, Krokover gives clients sheets of paper, each labeled with the name of the room that was worked on. “They have seven days to go through the house and write down anything that is of concern,” he says. “Typically we get anywhere from five to zero items. If I have to send my people back, it's out of my pocket and profit margin.”
Don Van Cura also starts his punch list midproject. “By the time we get to the formal punch list, there isn't one,” says the owner of Don Van Cura Construction in Chicago. “The lead carpenter walks through the project with the homeowner and explains everything. We educate them about their appliances and go through quality control.”
Van Cura himself does a separate walk-through with the homeowner because he knows that they've bonded with the lead carpenter and “might not want to hurt his feelings by saying that something bothers them.”
He has the homeowners mark their calendar with a date a year from the project's end. He reminds them that they can call the company any time if something needs attention, but that after a year the company will “send a lead carpenter to look over the project and spend up to a day doing anything [the clients] need, without charge.” If the client forgets to call, Van Cura contacts them.
This carpenter-for-a-day doesn't really cost anything, says Van Cura, who allows time in the budget if it's going to last a whole day. “The homeowner almost always hires us to do another project, from a ‘honey do' list to remodeling another room.” The event is a line item in the original contract. Probably 80% to 90% of customers take advantage of it. Plus, many clients brag to their friends about the wonderful treatment they're getting.
To complete their punch list and to keep clients happy, cousins Jeff and Bob Jertberg, owners of VanBerg Construction in San Diego, created a position they call “the closer.” At the end of the project they send a general carpenter to the job to focus solely on punch list items. They've found that projects finish more quickly. Anything that comes up after that is warranty work, which the Jertbergs use as a marketing opportunity.
Whether you start working on a punch list midway through the project or you create it on the last day on site, share early on with your client the steps you will take on punch list completion. “A homeowner will look at a project and think there are 100 things that need to be done and ask, ‘How will they finish in a week?'” Lipford says. “Contractors know that a sub might knock out 10 items in a day and a foreman will do another 20. Instead of a customer feeling compelled to create that list, assure them at the start of a job that you will address those concerns.”
POST PUNCH LIST It's inevitable that a client will contact you because something needs fixing. “People will call, even if they don't know about your warranty policy,” says Joel Kristianson, whose company, Crimson Design & Construction, in Naperville, Ill., offers a five-year warranty. “We found that we were taking care of things two or three years later,” he says. “We thought we should market this and use it. We work in a tight geographic area. I live in the community. I run into past clients in the coffee shop.”
CDC's formal process has Kristianson checking in with clients six months after job completion. “We used to do three months, but decided that was too soon,” he says. He calls again at the one-year mark. If the problem is a manufacturing issue, “don't quibble over it,” Kristianson advises.
“It's your issue, no matter what. That's part of being a professional remodeler.” He runs interference for the client with the manufacturer to help streamline the process. Lipford suggests consolidating fix-ups. People don't want to wait for various tradespeople several days in a row. “Knowing someone will be there to get it all done offers clients the comfort level they need.”
He has also found a “now that the dust has settled” letter to be “extremely effective.” It tells clients that the company hopes they like their new space and that there may be minor adjustments that need to be made. “And we want to know about them,” Lipford says. “This lets clients know that just because we've gotten their check doesn't mean we don't remember them.”
Revisiting past clients is a great way to get new jobs, but warranty work shouldn't mean you're giving it away. Build time for warranty work in to your original estimate. “Budget for that time, or it will come out of your overhead,” Kristianson says.
Continued contact should all be designed as part of a process for staying “top of mind” as they say in the marketing industry. It's far easier and less expensive to get work through past clients than it is to find and market to new clients. You want people to simultaneously think of the word “remodeling” and your company's name.
The office of McDowell Inc. of St. Charles is located at a busy intersection on Main Street in St. Charles, Ill., in a historic home. It has a large sign out front. “About 65,000 cars go by our office every day,” owner Sue McDowell says. “We make as much use of that as we can.” The company has customer appreciation barbecues — scheduling them on the same night as nearby concerts. McDowell Inc. sends Christmas presents, brownies, and gift baskets to present-year clients, and sends out 750 holiday cards and stays in touch with past clients via newsletter. After 37 years in business, the company has great name recognition and has developed a brand, but, McDowell says, “you can't assume that will go on forever. You have to keep working on it. We focus primarily on past customers who are our best marketers. They're the key to our future.”
While most companies probably don't have McDowell Inc.'s large physical presence, there are ways to remain in your clients' hearts and minds long after you're gone.
Leave behinds such as instructions about appliance care, photos, and gifts for the homeowner's children are ways of imprinting on the family, their friends, relatives, and co-workers — anyone who comes to visit. Van Cura's office manager, Sonia Santos, creates a photo album for clients with before, during, and after pictures. She makes sure to meet with clients so she's not just a voice on the phone. “The clients share the photos with their friends, and it's a dynamic sales tool for us,” Van Cura says.
Lipford saw that homeowners' children often bonded with his carpenters. Since everyone on Lipford's production team wears logoed hats and shirts, he has the same items made in kids' sizes with the words “Remodeler in Training” on them. “At closeout, we give them a little gift bag with their name on it. They love it,” Lipford says. “The only problem is that the parents tell us the kids don't want to take off the shirts.”
Newsletters sent via e-mail are a great way to keep in touch with clients, but blogs also are becoming a popular way to interact. “Build advocacy by becoming the expert in sharing tips, ideas, and best practices,” Michael Thomas, national president of the Customer Relationship Management Association, says. “For example, if you did a green home addition and offer information on how that kind of remodeling can save clients money, people will want to read that,” he says. “Five years ago it was important to have a Web site; now blogs are replacing Web sites. It's fresh, changing material. People can add their own comments.”
For a good example, visit Landis Construction's blog at www.remodelgreendc.com. The Washington, D.C., company has positioned itself as the green expert. Blog visitors are driven to the Landis Construction Web site.
TECH HELPS You can't take care of your customers if you're not keeping track of who and where they are. Databases are critical for following up with existing and former clients as well as for finding new ones.
But don't wait too long to develop a database. Entering contact information is laborious; it might be worth it to invest in a business card scanner — or an intern.
While many remodelers are familiar with software such as ACT! for contact management, there are also newer Web-based (SAAS, software as a service) products that can be used. “SalesForce.com changed everything,” Thomas says. “You no longer have to load software onto your computer. If I'm out and about and stop by a place with [Internet service] I can sign in online and get information or have it delivered to my mobile phone.” SalesForce .com helps any size business manage the customer life cycle from the first call.
“If you use a system like SalesForce.com and you gather e-mail addresses, you can go to an e-mail provider like Constant Contact and for $15 a month you can send out mass e-mails, newsletters, and announcements to your database,” Thomas says. “It's very affordable for small businesses.”
Other Web-based customer relationship management tools — which won't take up space on your server — include programs by Entellium, LongJump, and Microsoft.
Keeping up with your clients means meeting them in the neighborhoods they populate; more and more, that's going to be cyberspace. “You need to have a presence online and interact with people the way they interact,” Thomas says. “Invest in [these systems]. If you don't, your competition will.”
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