LIKE MOST TEEN-AGERS, BILL PROBERT'S daughter had high aspirations for her 16th birthday—especially getting her driver's license and new car. So imagine her disappointment when she drew the Department of Motor Vehicle's toughest instructor and was faulted for entering an intersection on a yellow light that promptly turned to red.

The incident cost her a passing score and, according to her father, clouded all the celebrations on her special day. “It's all about setting expectations,” says Probert, reflecting on the event. And as executive vice president of sales and marketing for John Laing Homes, setting expectations is something Probert understands well.

At John Laing Homes—the public name for WL Homes LLC—the company sets the bar high. “Our internal mission is to deliver the best new home experience in the industry,” cites Probert. But it's the builder's unique delivery of that experience that has set it apart. With an understanding of the stress and anxiety most buyers experience through the entire home buying process, the company has chosen a simple and effective method of differentiation: Make home buying fun.

SEALED DEAL: Packing labels are part of John Laing Homes' creative efforts to ease buyer anxiety. While it seems simplistic at the core, the philosophy's success relies on a delicate balancing act. “We know that buying a home is hard,” says Probert. “Buyers are overwhelmed. It can get complicated, and we know it can be frustrating. So there is no way we are going to tell our customer that we'll make home buying fun.”

Instead, throughout the home buying process, the company is careful to balance the actual experience with the expectations of the customer. Probert likens the approach to the successful business model developed by Southwest Airlines.

Offering a bare-bones flying experience helps keep Southwest's rates and costs at a minimum. And travelers sign on, fully aware that Southwest's cattle-call style of managing passengers is far from personal. “But they have people with a sense of humor and they make it fun,” says Probert. “In the end, the experience that you get is a good one compared to what your expectations are. That's why they do so well.”

Through research, focus groups, and interviews, executives at the Newport Beach, Calif.-based builder realized that buyers were looking for someone who could help them with the home buying process—and that John Laing Homes couldn't seem to find anyone to do that. Determined to fill the void, the company's current relationship marketing program was developed.

Today, the company identifies its customers' needs in three distinct phases. And it has created a variety of internal materials to ensure employees understand the “touches” that are expected in each phase. By organizing interaction, employees are able to offer a consistent level of communication throughout their relationship—and maintain expectations as the customer moves from one phase into another.

TUNED UP: As part of its planned pre-marketing phase, John Laing Homes expects to send prospects a CD called Tools N Tunes. This will give customers a variety of music to listen to while possibly completing a comparative features sheet, choosing pictures from a photo gallery of styles, or determining the specific profile of the home of their dreams. Phase One occurs before a community is opened and serves as a pre-marketing campaign. The company uses this opportunity to position itself in a consultative role. “We tell customers that we want to help them find the home that is right for their family, even if that's not a John Laing home,” says Probert. “That's our core selling philosophy,” and one that is instilled in its staff, in its communication messages, and on its Web site.

Phase Two begins when the community opens—at a time when associates are prospecting, meeting customers, and educating them—and when follow-up is critical. Probert's team created what it calls its Advantage Program, a vehicle to qualify a buyer's level of interest and, at the same time, offer interested parties some personalized tools that help take the mystery out of home buying. After joining, members receive materials such asThe LMNOP's of Home Buying, a book packed with charts, facts, and check lists that humanize the entire home buying experience. It also offers information about financing, helps buyers determine their priorities, and even explores the differences between new and existing homes.