IF THE LATEST RESULTS FROM J.D. POWER and Associates are any indication, it appears that the continued efforts by home builders to achieve satisfied customers are paying off. After years of measuring customer satisfaction, developing better quality control systems, and empowering employees to take better care of customers, it's evident that builders—and big builders in particular—are building houses that seem to satisfy new home buyers more than ever before. But are new home buyers truly that satisfied—enough to genuinely recommend their builder to their friends and family?

While many builders continue to monitor the quality of the homes they are building—and how satisfied their customers are with them—a small but growing number of builders are recognizing that the paradigm that defines home buyer satisfaction has already shifted. Increasingly, builders are grappling with the fact that it is no longer so much about the quality of the home but more about the quality of the home buying and homeownership experience that drives customer satisfaction and referrals.

“Today, buyers expect quality homes,” says Greg McGuff, division president of Lennar's inland empire region. “You need to take it over the top.”

McGuff has a deep appreciation for what it takes to drive customer satisfaction. When McGuff's division—formerly a part of Pacific Greystone—was acquired by Lennar in 1997, it ranked last internally among Lennar's divisions in customer satisfaction. So when McGuff began planning an implementation of new practices, he knew he had to set a bold vision: “I said, ‘We have to do more than achieve customer satisfaction, we need to be different as a company.' ” That meant not only getting all 158 associates to adapt and develop new processes, building on what made Lennar successful, but also fundamentally changing the objectives of their jobs to focus on the customer. The company is now able to provide a unique experience to its buyers, based largely on building relationships as much as houses.

Today, McGuff's division's scores reflect the efforts: It's the No. 4 division among internal customer satisfaction reports. But for McGuff, that's not the only payoff. “I'm blown away by the buyers who take the time to refer to our people by name when they recall their experience with us,” he says. “These people are saying to us ‘I made a friend.' ”

It'sThe Experience At MBK Homes in Irvine, Calif., president Tim Kane directs his company to focus on three goals: delivering impeccable homes, keeping promises, and exuding gracious hospitality.

Delivering impeccable homes captures the importance of quality. And to Kane, this step is the “must-have,” or the foundation, of the experience. Without it, nothing else can succeed. But, Kane adds, the integrity of MBK's promises needs to be as solid as the homes MBK builds. It's an essential part of creating an underlying level of trust with the buyer, he maintains.

Kane says he appreciates how home building is a lot like manufacturing and how there is a constant pressure to deliver faster. But unlike manufacturing, he says, “the customer doesn't set those dates and then pressure us to meet them.” In order to exceed a customer's expectations, MBK has re-evaluated its entire cycle time and built padding into its scheduling. “Shame on me if I can't meet the dates I've set for myself,” says Kane.

But it's the third goal where MBKstrives to separate itself from other builders. Taking tips from the hospitality industry, MBK uses a variety of “gracious” steps to personalize its relationships with customers, thereby providing more than the buyer expects. For example, pictures of buyers are entered in the computer so employees on the jobsite can identify them by name. And the hospitality effort is extended to subcontractors. “When our construction people see someone they don't know on the site, rather than telling them to leave, they are instructed to walk up, shake their hand, introduce themselves, provide a business card, and ask how they can help,” Kane explains.

While Kane admits that there have been challenges integrating this “experience” philosophy, he likens it to moving a boulder. “It takes so much momentum to get it started, but once it's rolling, it's hard to stop,” he says. “Today, it continues to move along because everyone in the organization realizes they are an integral part of the process.”