I recently received a questionnaire in the mail from The Center for the Study of Services. According to its Web site (www.checkbook.org), this nonprofit consumer organization was founded in 1974 to provide consumers with "information to help them get high-quality services and products at the best possible prices." A quick Google search uncovered several dozen other Web sites, such as Epinions.com and Bizrate.com, similarly devoted to providing satisfaction ratings from consumers.
While these sites mostly rate products, an increasing number also rate services. Many contain lengthy comments by homeowners who either sing a company's praises or tell everyone to steer clear. As consumers become more comfortable using the Web for research, seeking out this kind of online feedback before hiring a remodeler will become routine.
Which brings me back to the CheckBook questionnaire. In addition to asking for ratings of retail stores, health clubs, and auto insurance companies they have used, the survey queries consumers about "Repair Firms," which covers auto repair, major appliances, electronics, and the like, as well as "Home Care Firms," which includes plumbers, roofers, electricians, and window installers, among others.
Assuming that the ratings the survey asks for are designed to address consumer expectations for service companies, we learn almost as much from the questions as from the answers.
So what does the questionnaire want to know? In addition to "overall performance quality," it asks consumers to rate firms on a three-point scale (inferior-adequate-superior) for six qualities: performing the service properly on the first try; starting and completing on time; estimating the cost beforehand; neatness; pleasantness of staff; and advice on service options and costs.
Not exactly rocket science, is it? I like the part about doing the job right on the first try, which, it turns out, is not one of the questions asked on the part of the questionnaire devoted to primary care physicians or dentists. Presumably, consumers expect their doctors and dentists to get it right the first time, but not their remodelers. I thought that was interesting, and it prompted me to compare the two sections. I was also thinking that doctors and dentists are classic "professionals," a condition to which most remodelers aspire, so differences in the questions asked might reflect differences in consumer expectations for the two groups.
What I discovered is that consumers still think about home repair as a commodity, while they clearly consider health care a service. The home repair questions ask about the work product. Was the work done properly and completed on time? By contrast, the health care section asks about the health care experience. How easy was it to reach the doctor by phone? How quickly were you able to get an appointment? How much time did you have to spend in the waiting room?
And while the home repair section includes a question about "pleasantness of staff," the health care questions address the doctor's "personal manner (courtesy, respect, sensitivity, friendliness)" and asks whether consumers thought the doctor spent enough time with them.
I'm probably reading too much into this questionnaire -- or am I? Remodelers spend a lot of energy designing the work product -- making elaborate drawings, writing detailed specifications, putting together schedules. But how much effort do we put into designing the customer experience? Could it be that our focus on the "stuff" of remodeling creates a perception in our customers that what we do is a mere commodity?
Imagine what you could learn about your company if you asked your customers to fill out this kind of survey after their job was complete. Even better, answer the same survey for each job yourself and see where your answers diverge.
The fact is, we understand our customers' expectations for the product of remodeling, but we don't understand our customers' expectations for the remodeling experience. Unfortunately, time is running out on the learning curve. Consumers have always made these kind of judgments about remodeling services, but the Internet has made it a lot easier to spread the word.
What's the word on your company?
Sal Alfano, Editor-in-Chief