When I ask builders across the country whether they survey their buyers, many of them give me the same answer: “Well, we've talked about doing that. And we will. It just seems like a good idea to wait until we have our customer service program under better control.”

I immediately tell them that this is the wrong approach, because without feedback from customers, you are left with your best guess about what needs to change. While that best guess may be an educated one, it is still just a guess. You can expend a lot of effort, time, and money fixing things customers barely notice while serious annoyances remain unchanged.

Another common explanation for not gathering feedback is believing that your home buyers are all content because none of them have thrown the proverbial tire through your front window. This is a risky assumption; every company gets a few surprises when they begin gathering feedback. You may find survey results gratifying, disappointing, convincing, motivating, or even startling, but the sooner you start gathering feedback the sooner you will have insight into what your buyers are thinking and feeling. Here are a few things to think about before surveying your customers:

Know Thyself. Some builders are focused on building homes; others are primarily interested in selling homes, still others are organized around delivering a great experience to their customers. And some challenge themselves to create a long-term relationship with their clients. You’ll want your surveys to be in sync with your company vision and goals. Builders should know themselves, who they are and what goals they have. Decide whether you want to work with a company that focuses on surveying alone or one that also offers consulting.

Establish Goals. Articulate your objectives to help you identify features that you want in a survey company. Some reasons to undertake a survey include uncovering dissatisfaction, establishing accountability, and uncovering training needs. Once you have a clear vision of why you want feedback, you can consider the many practical aspects of selecting the right company for you.

Timing & Frequency. Think about which points in the sales process you’ll want to gather information; a typical menu begins with move-in and year-end surveys. Some companies offer a five- or six-month contact as well. Collecting feedback during the sales/building process itself may be an additional choice.

Start Small. Start off with a small project; consider asking a customer survey company for a try-out without obligation. This approach may also provide a transition period for staff unaccustomed to feedback, allowing personnel to get comfortable with home buyers reporting on their performance.

Once you have an idea of what you want to get out of a survey, you need to find the right consulting firm for the job. Here are 14 questions to ask:

Survey Method. How does the company you’re considering conduct surveys—email, mail, phone? A combination? Each comes with advantages and disadvantages. One perspective is that phone surveys result in a higher response rate, include more editorial comment that adds depth to ratings, and customers appreciate the personal attention. Another point of view expresses concerns about potential interviewer bias. The solution to that of course is to work with experienced professionals. Whatever method you select, if a customer does not respond initially, are other channels used to make contact? How many attempts are made?

Questionnaire Content. Are the details in the surveys appropriate to your company’s processes? Is branching available—for example, if a home buyer uses your preferred lender, you’ll want to obtain feedback on that relationship. Or if a home buyer purchases an inventory home and skips the selection process, they skip to the next set of questions. Consider rating scales as well. Methods vary but researchers say a 10-point scale produces more precise results.

Solicit Comments. Make sure that there are plenty of opportunities for comments in your survey—often some of the most valuable feedback shows up in these remarks. These range from folks venting frustration to suggesting new ideas to complimenting company personnel or products used in your homes—all worth knowing.

Responses. Be aware of the percentage of customers who respond to surveys; this information should be reported along with home buyers’ ratings. A response rate of at least 50 percent is generally recommended for the results to have credibility; rates exceeding 80 percent can be achieved. Indeed, Pennsylvania-based research firm Customer Follow Up, Inc. sometimes hits 100 percent with their phone surveys.

Custom Details. To what extent, if any, can you add other items or adjust vocabulary? Understandably, survey companies are cautious about changing details within their standard questionnaires because doing so jeopardizes comparisons, but some are willing to add your particular questions.

Survey Translation. Depending on your buyer profile, you will want multiple language editions of the questionnaires involved.

Reporting. Data and comments should be accessible in a variety of configurations such as by range of dates, community, and by individual employee. Do reports include a comparison of your results with your peers? Also, be sure the firm you choose has a system to obtain accurate results--an error either way could send you in the wrong direction with your service efforts.

Alerts. What mechanism is available for alerting you to a dissatisfied home buyer? If anonymous replies are possible, will the survey company—upon your request—contact that buyer for permission to provide you with a name so that you can attempt to resolve the issue?

Other Audiences. Once you have home buyer feedback in place, you may want to add other audiences such as trades/suppliers, Realtors, or employees to your feedback processes. Are these services available? California consulting firm Eliant for instance has recently implemented an innovative evaluation of trades based on builder member feedback. The collective evaluations are shared regionally among Eliant’s builder clients, helping builders make better decisions about which trades get contracts.

Supporting Research. Look at the science behind the survey items themselves. While many details can be included, a difference exists between details builders need to know and those that are nice to know. Are the survey questions based on research that identifies critical topics that are predictors of future business? For example, Eliant has noted a correlation between sales consultants proactively updating buyers about progress on their homes and referrals.

Demographics. Another detail to consider is whether the information offered includes market research. If a builder wants to know why he’s losing sales, a prospective shopper survey can be conducted to learn about prospects’ perceptions of sales staff, showhomes, and product offerings. Or perhaps a builder wants to understand regional demographic and psychographic details to determine the style of products and features that will sell well.

Support Services. Will the survey company participate in rolling out the new process with your staff? When questions are answered the team gains an understanding of the process and its value. Such transparency can prevent employees from feeling uncomfortable because someone is looking over their shoulder.

Company Credentials. Review the survey company’s credentials and skills. Are results validated by a third-party statistician or research analyst? Builders can also ask the survey provider to send them their code of conduct for administering surveys.

Home Buyer Privacy. Names and contact details should not be sold to a third party. This is your customer and your data. Don’t let a survey provider tell you they own the data.

In my next installment of this three-part series I’ll discuss what to do once you receive your survey results.