When it comes to customer service, April may indeed be the cruelest month. This is when the dreaded J.D. Power and Associates starts to mail out thousands of surveys to people who bought new homes within the last 16 months. Suffice it to say, if you are only now trying to wow customers with a magic trick, it's too late.

That's not to say it's a bad idea to heighten service levels this month. As a matter of strategy, many builder executives routinely call their buyers in the spring to ask if there's anything they could do to improve their sales, construction, or warranty service. Before they do this, of course, they make sure that there is a crew of service people on call to follow up.

FIRST CONTACT But it's clear that to win the now-public customer service sweepstakes, builders need to delight customers from the moment of first contact. Builders that score the highest marks pretty much address any legitimate problem that customers have even five or 10 years after they move in.

The key, says Bob Mirman, president of Eliant, a consumer research company that caters solely to the building industry, is to continually exceed the client's expectations. But before you can do that, you have to set expectations—or your customers will do it for you. Speaking at the Presidential Seminar in Aspen, Colo., Mirman said that it makes no sense to promise a defect-free home. Especially when you consider that even consumers who purchased homes from the top 20 ranked builders in the J.D. Power survey still had, on average, 10 problems per home.

You are better off making promises that you can keep, such as a realistic closing date, how long it will take you to respond to warranty requests, or that you will repair every item listed on presettlement walk-throughs. Keep in mind that the second most important factor in the weighting that J.D. Power uses to compute scores is home readiness.

SCIENTIFIC MATTERS It's important to communicate consistently, both internally and with the customer, said George Casey, president of Christopherson Homes, also speaking at the seminar. “When you say a home will be ready in a July/August time frame,” he said, “your customer hears July, but your super hears August.”

With the help of survey firms, builders are turning customer service into a scientific endeavor. They can tell through survey results when—during sales, construction, or occupancy, for instance—a reassuring call, a visit, or a meeting will have the most positive impact.

Your customer's willingness to refer new buyers to your company hinges on different factors at different times in the home buying process, Mirman pointed out. Midway through the experience, the key driver is the customer's service perception. After move-in, however, the big driver is installation and workmanship.

In our cover story, beginning on page 92, we've identified myriad ways that builders are attempting to delight their customers, whether it's by insisting that salespeople routinely call with construction updates before buyers have to ask, having title companies contact buyers to prepare them for closing, or providing dinner on move-in day.

It's hard to find a builder these days who doesn't believe in the value of customer service. As part of the Presidential Seminar, builders broke into groups to list the primary benefits; more referrals and higher margins topped the list. “If we are going into a slow market,” Casey said, “firms that have focused on customer service may have a strategic advantage.”

Editorial Director

e-mail: bthompson@hanleywood.com