By Jack B. Revelle. Every home builder and construction tradesman wants to get better. Some know how, but many do not. Getting better can mean focusing improvement efforts in a wide range of business activities. Those that offer the greatest promise for return include customer satisfaction scores (these tie to greater repeat sales, increased referrals, and reduced marketing costs); employee satisfaction scores (these tie to reduced turnover/increased retention, less absenteeism, increased productivity, and lower costs of maintaining a high quality, stable work force); and cycle time duration and variation (these tie to greater process predictability, reduced cost of construction, and increased customer satisfaction).

Let's focus on customer satisfaction, an issue of great concern to every successful home builder. If you're like most home builders, you believe you know what your past, present, and even future customers want to see in their newly-constructed homes. Well perhaps you do, but I believe there is still more for all of us to learn about our customers. Many experts insist that customers don't really know what they want, they have to be told. They're wrong! Customers do know what they want, but unfortunately they're not proficient at describing their needs in terms that home builders can easily understand.

On the right is a graphical construct universally referred to as the Kano Model. This graphic takes its name from the Japanese professor/consultant who developed it in the early 1980s, Dr. Noriaki Kano, of Tokyo University.

When you can understand Kano's three types of customer needs and how to reveal them, you, too, will be well on your way to understanding the customer's needs as well as, or perhaps better than, they do.

The Kano Model is useful in gaining a thorough understanding of customers' needs. As portrayed in Kano's Model, there are two dimensions:

  • Achievement (the horizontal axis) which runs from the home builder "didn't do it at all" to the home builder "did it very well."
  • Satisfaction (the vertical axis) which goes from being "dissatisfied" with the product or service to being "satisfied" with the product or service.

Dr. Kano has isolated and identified three levels of customer expectations, such as what it takes to positively impact customer satisfaction. The three levels of needs described in the Kano Model are expected quality, normal quality, and exciting quality. Let's examine each of these.

Photo: Courtesy Dr. Jack B. Revelle

Knowing Needs: Dr. Jack B. ReVelle thinks builders can benefit from understanding the Kano Model, which outlines customer needs.

Expected Quality: Fully satisfying the customer at this level simply gets the home builder into the market. The entry level expectations are referred to as the "must" level qualities, properties, or attributes. These expectations are also known as the "dissatisfiers" because by themselves they are unable to satisfy a home buyer. However, failure to provide these basic expectations will cause dissatisfaction. Examples include: use of seasoned lumber; use of unleaded paint; provision of water-tight windows and doors; and meeting or even exceeding all federal, state, and local building codes. The "musts" include customer assumptions, expected qualities, expected functions, and other unspoken expectations. Normal Quality: These are the qualities, attributes, and characteristics that keep a home builder in the market. These higher level expectations are known as the "wants" or "satisfiers" because they are the expectations that home buyers will specify. Examples include: plenty of options (such as potential room usage, appliance designs, and color choices); sufficient floor plan and elevation choices; and a variety of mortgage lenders from which to select.

Exciting Quality: These are features and properties that make a home builder a leader in the market. The highest level of customer expectations, as described by Kano, is termed the "wow" level qualities, properties, or attributes. These expectations are also known as the "delighters" or "exciters" because they go well beyond anything the home buyer might imagine and ask for. Examples include: a lifetime warranty on the roof; a 20 year guarantee on the air conditioning and heating system; interior walls that can disappear and reappear as needed; and a solar-based water heating and electrical system. Their absence does nothing to hurt a possible sale, but their presence improves the likelihood of purchase. "Wows" not only excite customers to make on-the-spot purchases but also to increase brand loyalty and referrals. These are unspoken ways of knocking the customer's socks way off.

Over time, as demonstrated by the arrow, "wows" become "wants" and "wants" become "musts." For example, toilet facilities that were once outside a house are now inside, single car garages that were once detached are now multiple car attached garages, temperature and humidity controls that were once mechanically-operated are now computer-aided. The home builder that gets ahead and stays ahead is constantly listening to its customers and potential customers so as to identify the next generation of "wows." The best "wows," plenty of "wants," and all the "musts" are what it takes to become and remain an industry leader.

If you collect homeowner survey data similar to that collected by Eliant, formerly National Survey Systems (NSS), in Irvine, Calif., you should be aware that this data can be organized to fit within the parameters of the Kano Model. NSS' data analysis is particularly amenable to the identification of targeted plans for "getting better."

In this way, you can see which are your customers' "musts," "wants," and "wows." Wouldn't it be great to be able to see what your potential customers expect you to deliver (unspoken needs), want you to deliver (spoken needs), and don't know you can deliver (unspoken delighters and exciters)?

Dr. Jack B. ReVelle currently works with builders to implement Six Sigma and other continuous improvement and quality control process techniques. He served as director of the Center for Process Improvement for GenCorp Aerojet and as leader of continuous improvement for Raytheon (formerly Hughes) Missile Systems Co., helping Hughes obtain ISO 9001 registration in 1996. An author of a number of books on continuous improvement, Dr. ReVelle, now based in Tustin, Calif., was also founding dean of the School of Business and Management at Chapman University, in Orange, Calif.