Many companies survey clients at the end of a project, but Stephen Howell of Howell Design & Build, North Andover, Mass., takes follow-through to another level. At the conclusion of a job, the company hands clients a survey with 40-plus questions covering design, project communication, quality of work, and subcontractor performance. To encourage clients to fill out the form, the company sends a gift basket, which includes coffee, cocoa, and a set of company mugs. Nine out of 10 respond.

Once returned, the survey is duplicated and distributed at an every-other-week company-wide meeting. "Generally," Howell says, "the surveys are very positive, so we want to share the praise with the people who worked on the project, as well as give them recognition in front of other crews."

Beyond that, Howell either writes the client a letter, follows up on the phone to discuss comments, or arranges a personal visit. The visits last about an hour and include the production manager, the lead carpenter, or sometimes both. Often the remodeler finds he has to undertake "a little probing" to get at what's really bothering clients. "People like to keep the relationship pleasant. They're uncomfortable complaining about something when they feel they shouldn't be."

Howell says one of the most important points to remember in discussing what might have irritated clients is not to become defensive. "I've found that if you go and try to 'set the record straight,' it doesn't do anything to improve the relationship." Instead, Howell asks clients how they would have handled particular situations if they were the remodeler.

"People want to help, and if you make them part of the team, they see you as their champion. We want to learn and to listen. We're not a know-it-all company."

Personal visits help secure referrals. In the end, all information is entered in a database and reviewed periodically for possible trends. Howell pays special attention to whether clients felt they got a good value for their money. "A lot of times you do a good job, but if they feel they overpaid, the reference you get is with the caveat, 'Yeah, we were happy, but they were really expensive.'"