The handle on Paul Sullivan’s new, expensive refrigerator refuses to stay tight.
Every couple of days, Sullivan has to take a screwdriver to the handle so it won’t fall off. Oh, and the freezer in this high-end refrigerator—installed in the process of an extensive kitchen remodel—isn’t quite frost-free. Sullivan observes the excess ice in the light of the state-of-the-art LED glow that blinks on every time he opens the door.
Not many customers would let that kind of detail go. They’d call the contractor, invoke the warranty, and demand that the handle be fixed and that the freezer be either fixed or replaced.
In this case, Sullivan would be calling himself. As president of The Sullivan Co., a 14-person building and remodeling company based in Newtown, Mass., he bent one of his own rules when working on his home’s kitchen: Always go with tried-and-true, high-quality appliances.
“If you have a client who wants the newest appliance, sometimes things haven’t been on the market long enough to be tested,” he says. His annoying refrigerator was a new model from an established company; Sullivan bought it because it matched the finish of the other appliances.
“All of the features are great, everything is well organized, and our food has never looked so nice. But the handle is driving me nuts,” he says. A couple of visits from the appliance dealer, and a new gasket, haven’t helped. “If I were a customer, I couldn’t back-burner this,” Sullivan says. “I’d be at the dealer demanding a replacement unit, under warranty.”
Welcome to the character-building world of warranties, callbacks, and customer complaints. Roughly 10% to 20% of remodeling and new-home construction projects involve an after-the-fact visit, estimates GuildQuality, a website that collects and analyzes customer feedback and reviews for home improvement professionals.
Experienced contractors say that warranty work is both inevitable and manageable. It’s possible to channel customers’ experience so that they aren’t surprised when small problems crop up months after they’ve moved in (nail pops, anyone?). And clear, consistent communication not only opens the door for efficient resolution of routine fixes, but also prevents customer frustration from escalating.
Adopt these proven strategies to minimize warranty problems to begin with, and to stay calm and focused when addressing customer problems.
Stay in the Right
You need to avoid doing what you know is wrong. Otherwise, cautions Andy Wells, principal of Normandy Remodeling, “You’ll own that problem forever.”
In the Chicago area, where Normandy is based, homeowners often ask for a walkout deck atop a flat-roofed first floor addition. Wells refuses, saying that there’s no way to properly shield the doorway and water will find its way inside the new flat roof. “Because we service our work, we avoid situations that we know will be a pitfall,” he says.
Wells and other experienced remodelers urge customers to avoid low-end fixtures and appliances. Sullivan says that if he’d stuck to his own standards, he’d have a different, and most likely problem-free, refrigerator. “Aside from my own house, I haven’t had any warranty issues in 2013,” he says, attributing that record in part to working with first-quality materials.
Keep Good Company
It pays to ally yourself with suppliers and subcontractors. Keep in their good graces, and vice versa. Build loyalty by concentrating work with a few subs and suppliers, so that when you call, they come. Major suppliers have their own technical staff who can swing into action to replace a cracked windowpane or a drippy faucet, so their capacity becomes yours, by extension.
Before hiring subcontractors for a big project, qualify their skills and responsiveness on a small job. Ask for evidence of their training, certifications, and willingness to adhere to your standards. Monitor their work and give them consistent feedback so that your standards become theirs.
Responsibility Is Key
As contradictory as it sounds, you should concentrate and distribute responsibility for customer service. Make everyone and one person responsible for warranty work and callbacks. When every employee in your company knows how to handle customer calls, you are assured of a swift triage. And, when it’s one person’s responsibility to monitor quality, you can detect patterns with supplies, subcontractors, and even the occasional problematic customer.
Sullivan authorizes each of his 14 staffers to spend up to $1,000 on the spot to correct a problem. At Normandy Remodeling, “anybody who answers the phone determines if it’s a raging emergency or just a nuisance,” Wells says.
Emergencies escalate immediately to protect the safety of the residents and the property. But garden-variety fixes are sent to the company’s service technician, whose full-time job is to work through trouble tickets, often along with a project manager who traces the origin of the problem to the source.
Talk the Talk
“Customers don’t always feel comfortable expressing minor things to their contractor. They may not be satisfied, but they don’t feel confident bringing it up,” says Erica England, GuildQuality’s marketing manager.
Bad communication can eventually ruin a company’s reputation, which is why expectation management is critical, says Lynn Bacon, who conducts warranty and customer-satisfaction best practice workshops for the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. Bacon has worked with hundreds of homeowners and dozens of new-home builders on post-construction education and troubleshooting. Updating customers at every stage of construction and aftercare quells concerns as they arise.