Read Part 1 in this series; r ead Part 3

With hope, your sales process has not only converted a prospect to a client but also has built a solid foundation for a good working relationship between your company and that client. Sales may be ongoing in terms of change orders and upgrades, but the heavy lifting has been done by the time production takes over. Now it's up to those in the field to maintain and continue building strong customer relations to ensure that clients have a good experience and, ultimately, become fans who will refer your company to others.

Part two of this series on engineering the customer experience focuses on production — on what makes and keeps clients happy as their homes and lives are turned upside down during a remodel.

Illustration: John Still

IDENTIFY THE ISSUES The Schick family's whole-house remodeling project began in May 2007 and includes a 2,500-square-foot below-ground addition to a circa-1932 hillside home overlooking the San Diego harbor. It took three months just to remove the soil from beneath the house. The Schicks became remodeling refugees, first renting a place elsewhere; now in their home, moving from room to room while the project continues. Work is not expected to end until June of this year. How is it possible that homeowner Patty Schick is still smiling?

“We're five months ahead of schedule. We have a fabulous crew. They are here every day at 7 and leave at 4. When they leave, the place is cleaned up. On Monday mornings they prepare us for what the week will be like. They move furniture for us and put things in storage. They know how hard it is to live through this and are really good about forewarning us,” Schick says.

In fact, VanBerg Construction took four months to develop a quote before handing the Schicks a 17-page bid that included every phase, and its cost and payment schedule. “When we signed on the dotted line,” Schick says, “there was no question about what happens when and what's due when. We talked about possible change orders and knew before we started where we would have to be worried, especially in the beginning phases.”

The issues Schick describes are familiar to Geoffrey Graham, who, as founder and CEO of the Atlanta-based customer survey company GuildQuality, has spent years asking building and remodeling clients about their experiences. “The most important thing for homeowners is schedule,” says Graham, followed by punch list and communication. “There might be delays,” he says, “but if a remodeler communicates [about those delays] in a way that a customer appreciates and understands, overwhelmingly the customer is happy.” And those happy customers will recommend their remodeler.

GuildQuality data, culled from 40,000 surveys received from remodeling and home-building customers each year (approximately 7,000 of those are from remodeling customers), show a high correlation between future recommendation and scores in scheduling, punch list, and communication. “A customer might give high rankings in value, or in construction quality, or staying within the budget, or being innovative,” Graham says, “but they won't necessarily recommend [their remodeler].” He also notes the correlation between profitability and high rankings in scheduling, punch list, and communication. “If a remodeling company regularly struggles in those areas, they aren't as profitable as those people who have those things down pat,” he says.

GuildQuality surveys by mail, telephone, and e-mail, and has a return rate of 72%. One might think that disgruntled customers would respond more readily — as judged by the number of angry posters prowling Web chat rooms or publicly reciting their tales of remodeling misery. But, says Graham, “The happiest customers are most eager to give their feedback. Unhappy customers are tired of their relationship with their remodeler and don't want to invest any more time in them. They also understand that any feedback they give you is for your benefit. It's a warning sign for [remodelers using our services] if they only have a 50% response rate.”

TALK IT OUT You have to be proactive and create clear expectations with clients so that frustration doesn't set in. A simple example is letting clients know that no one will be on the jobsite on a particular day, rather than letting them wonder where everyone is and eventually calling in anger.

“About 90% of communication from clients to production managers is about a problem,” says Tim Faller, a consultant and the owner of Field Training Services, in Westerly, R.I. — and a regular contributor to REMODELING. “So production managers may not even want to call a client because they're afraid the conversation will turn to negative things.” Rather than flee this sort of confrontation, they must have it as a priority and deal with it before it happens. “This will eliminate negative phone calls,” Faller says.

Part one of series: Sell It Like It Is