It's a fact: New-home buyers become, by turns, more enchanted and less thrilled with every moment that passes as the months-long, drawn out ordeal of building-to-buy plays out. What's more, in today's environment of buyer uncertainty, trickling sales, and soaring cancellations, home builders need to do all they can to avoid the negative extreme of their home buyers' mood gyrations.

Unfortunately, as balance sheet focus commands more and more time and energy in everyday operations, many builders take cuts in areas they assume will have little direct impact on sales. When the finance department takes a whack at what it regards as "extras," customer satisfaction specialists tend to feel the pang.

"Everyone's resources are stretched; everyone has gone through some layoffs," says Eliant CEO Bob Mirman. "Unfortunately, some people have had to dig deep, and they are now seeing the results of that. The number of complaints is rising, the number of phone calls is increasing, and scores are dropping."

So when all costs fall under close scrutiny and every dollar expended must prove its worth, how do you sustain attention to and resources for customer care? Some builders will answer that you can't afford not to.

As the housing environment makes home buyers more anxious about their prospective purchases, "best practices" companies heighten their sensitivity to where failures can flare up amidst the emotion-laden continuum from hand-shake to hand-off. They focus in on breakdowns and disconnects, finding ways to course-correct the process to better manage buyers' often volatile expectations.

When each and every sale is critical, customer-centric companies work even harder to drive referrals and eliminate cancellations. They know that if the customer experience is excellent, the backlog may actually work as a predictor of solid future cash flow.

Exceptional builders are steadfast in their belief that the quest for high marks in customer care is a journey, requiring constant vigilance and weekly improvement. They perpetually restructure their game plans, underscoring the fact that customer satisfaction is not merely hiring a group of staffers with their names on their shirts, but a full-on integrated strategy.

Under market conditions where sales are a byproduct of price and incentive tactics, customer-centric builders operate around the conviction that customer satisfaction is smart business. They view the customer experience as a core competency and competitive advantage. Further, they count on customer-centricity as a way to make headway–not only during the slowdown, but after the market returns as well.

A proliferation of business structures and enterprise models is endemic to home building, even at the high-volume level. The notion of a single customer care template to implement generically across all home building organizations is ludicrous. "Everyone's map is different, but what is most important is that a company commits to go through and create a process of its own," says Charlie Scott, a partner at home building consultancy Woodland, O'Brien & Associates.

For the present discussion, Big Builder identified five companies that have reinforced their customer care programs and focus, created newly formalized processes, or added people dedicated specifically as customer care champions within the enterprise.

"We have all realized, especially in this market, it's not just about selling the houses anymore," says Melinda Waters of Pacific Union Homes. "It's about providing customers with an experience that they remember."