A MAJOR CAUSE OF CUSTOMER complaints: unmet expectations. For example, the salesperson promises a prospective home buyer one thing and the design center consultant tells him it's been discontinued. Or the customer gets dates for walkthroughs, and then those dates change three times because construction is lagging schedule. Fingers start pointing. Employees start grumbling. Why can't those other people do their jobs properly? Perhaps if everyone knew all it takes to get the job done from beginning to end, they'd be more understanding and would be able to convey more accurate information to the customer.

That was the thought process behind an employee training program called “Change Your Shoes” in the San Diego division of William Lyon Homes. The theme was selected because the company wanted to give its sales team members the chance to walk a mile in the shoes of their buyers and their peers in construction, options, warranty service, and corporate sales and marketing.

“Oftentimes, salespeople's perspective can become very narrow, and we wanted to broaden that perspective so that they could truly understand the selling and buying process from a variety of perspectives,” says Kathy Courtney, director of sales and marketing for William Lyon Homes' San Diego division.

TAKING STEPS: An innovative training program lets employees gain a new perspective. The program took more than a dozen sales managers and paired them with a manager from a different community, getting them out of their comfort zone and into a new location so they could see things with fresh eyes. Assignments included creating a tutorial and a formal presentation on another builder to identify best practices, observing a buyer focus group to hear what buyers were really thinking, and creating the ideal move-in basket for a buyer. They also spent time in a design center and on the job-site with a construction superintendent.

To keep the atmosphere enjoyable, participants received themed incentives, such as foot massages, pedicures, and shoe store gift certificates. Halfway through the program, the team members were treated to an awards luncheon and an evening at a San Diego Padres game to celebrate innovative ideas and improved customer service scores.

One of the major benefits of the training was giving managers an understanding of the issues faced by other departments; that allowed them to accurately explain situations to customers in a positive way and to support each other throughout the home-buying process so that customers couldn't play one supervisor off another.

“It really was a big step, seeing the other guy's problems,” Courtney says. “The result was that rather than saying, ‘This guy won't do this,' they're saying, ‘He can't do this and here's why.' ”

In follow-up surveys of participants, 90 percent said the program significantly increased interdepartmental cooperation toward a shared goal of satisfied buyers. The division also improved its Eliant customer satisfaction scores.

Courtney says she had to smile when the feedback she got from managers after training days included, ‘I didn't think they were organized for us coming.' “We didn't want them to organize,” she says. “We didn't want them to do anything different because we were coming.”

Spending time with other sales team members, customer service, and the construction superintendent were eye openers for Annika Brown, who was working as an options consultant for three William Lyon communities when the training was held (she's since switched to another position).