Home buyer and builder converge at the big moment that the deal happens. But if your company's customer-care process starts at this big moment, it's too late. Earlier in the game, your team needs to plan how to systematically manage a buyer's experience, phase by phase, from the handshakes at the moment of purchase through sustained customer service. Key to your buyers' experience is their belief in your trustworthiness.
Managing a customer's experience is a big shift for many home builders—they didn't have to do it much up to now. Instead, the focus has been on building a quality product. But the importance of customer care is abundantly clear, especially as consumers' buying behaviors evolve in today's marketplace. Surveys of over a million respondents by Eliant since 1986 show time and again that reputation and future referrals for a builder come less from home quality and more from the nature of a customer's experience. An Anishinabe Indian proverb sums it up: “What the people believe is true.”
A salesperson is the first point of significant contact with prospective buyers. Your salesperson's performance during this phase will profoundly affect the nature of the buyer's experience as he progresses through the five other spheres of customer and builder interaction—personalization, financing, construction, home occupancy, and homeownership.
Salespeople and purchase counselors often think that they've done the most important part of their job when the home buyer signs on the dotted line. Not quite. The goal is not simply to sell every prospect a new home today but to sell every prospect a new home today … and his next home tomorrow. And to sell one to Uncle Ted who is moving here from Oklahoma, and one to Helen, an insurance agent who heard about the buyer's incredible experience and visited the sales office to check it out. Once upon a time, success was all about functional architectural design, merchandising, construction quality, closing dates, and financing. It was all about the house, wasn't it? Sure, it's all about the house, if all you want to do is sell a house today.
The long-term view of sales is unfamiliar to many new home salespeople. But it's the reason leading builders are revamping their sales training manuals and upgrading the whole purchase experience rather than focusing exclusively on the transaction.
Imperatives: Purchase Phase
A few key steps will help you deliver the kind of purchase experience that will earn customers' trust from the big moment on:
- If your goal is to hire a purchase counselor whose performance hinges on monetary incentives, you might meet sales targets, but customer satisfaction ratings and litigation costs may suffer. Your salespeople must act to wow customers as much as they look for opportunities to improve their bank accounts.
- The purchase counselor's role is to establish buyer expectations on two essential levels. First, train your purchase counselors to brief customers about the principal staffer for each phase of the experience. Include an explanation of when this person will come into contact with the buyer, the person's name and title, reasons this staffer is well-suited to work with the buyer (“Judy's kids go to the same school as your kids will”), and reasons the buyer might be fortunate to be working this staffer (“You should see how Dave helped the Smiths design their kitchen … it's fantastic”).
The purchase counselor also must make a point of setting realistic buyer expectations about such things as the condition of the home at move-in; the scheduled date of move-in, including explanations for or possibilities of delay; and the likelihood of a punch-list at move-in. Other departments (customer service and construction, for example) need to coordinate with purchase counselors to enable them to benchmark expectations. Also, it's best practice to set expectations at a level that you can exceed 95 percent of the time. That way, you will delight the buyer.
Customer care fails if it's not systemic and constant across all divisional and operational silos. Benchmark your practices versus those of other major builders as you analyze buyers' surveys to prioritize opportunities to improve referrals and customer loyalty. Make sure that all promises made to buyers are planned, not random, and are designed to be exceeded. Conduct workshops designed to generate customer-care action plans, and get senior management to buy into the program.
- Develop a list of “planned surprises,” activities buyers don't expect; allow your representatives to select a planned surprise to wow buyers during the purchase phase. A few ideas: send flowers to the new buyer's home the day after purchase; or take a digital picture of the buyers with the newly signed contract, print it on an office printer, and slide it into a frame for the buyer, along with a disc containing the photo; or take digital pictures and e-mail them to the buyer each week that the house is under construction.
- Eliant research indicates that what most distinguishes a great salesperson from a good salesperson is communication that keeps the buyer informed of construction status without the buyer's having to ask. Train and incentivize salespeople to make these calls (a voice-mail status report message, for example) at least once every two weeks. Buyers typically do not expect this kind of service and are delighted when it occurs.
Extra Tip: Enlightened builders today are increasingly hiring sales talent with service experience in other fields, rather than insisting on a new home sales pedigree. It's easier to teach new home selling skills than it is to change someone into a service-oriented purchase counselor.
Bob Mirman is CEO and Alex Roqueta is president of Eliant in Irvine, Calif. For further info, visit www.eliant.com.
EXPECTATIONS 101: PURCHASE COUNSELORS
Whether you call them salespeople or purchase counselors, your sales team must set realistic expectations for buyers.
- Give the design consultant's name and describe something he or she did to delight other buyers; set a positive expectation for the design experience without exaggeration.
- Clarify the urgency of options selection cut-off dates.
- Explain complexities and circumstances that can't be controlled: weather issues, delays in delivery of materials, variations in natural materials, and a home built by over 300 people and 45 trade partners.
- Set expectations that “perfect” is a goal, not a promise.
- Explain that buyers will likely need to take off from work for such events as escrow, loan appointments, and walkthroughs.
Speed of response to buyer's calls to sales, escrow, or lender
- Specify a number of hours or days for responding to the buyer's calls to each representative. Then, exceed that promise 95 percent of the time.
FOR EXAMPLE A 10-STEP REALITY CHECK
Imagine 7,700 people paying $30 each to tour urban projects, one of which is yours. But your building is being demolished. That's the scenario MJW Investments faced. MJW owns Santee Court, nine manufacturing buildings in the Los Angeles fashion district. The city sponsored a Downtown Living Open House to bring prospects to 13 competing projects while rehab was in its earliest phases, so there were few models—and pricing wasn't available for most projects.
Still, MJW wanted to impress the registrants and distinguish itself from its competitors. Ultimate New Home Sales & Marketing, MJW's sales company, came up with a solution. It stationed 14 rehearsed and trained salespeople at the bus arrival area for Santee Court and throughout the two-block tour. The goal: to set realistic expectations.
The 10-Step Strategy
- Inform guests what they would see.
- Inform guests what they wouldn't see.
- Inform guests what they wouldn't learn today (because the information wasn't available).
- Give a realistic timetable for when and how guests would receive information.
- Locate salespeople throughout the corridor to walk guests to the next “station.”
- During the “walk,” provide guests with more information and answers to their questions, and maybe a laugh or two.
- At each station, set expectations for what guests were about to see at a realistic level.
- Show a model suite on the 10th floor of a building a block away from the first building delivering units.
- Demonstrate views and lifestyles and how space could be used.
- Upon leaving, surprise every guest with a bouquet of flowers.
Survey Says Of the 10,000 tour attendees and several hundred people who responded to the post-event online survey, almost 100 percent were “very satisfied with Santee Court's unusually customer-sensitive approach.” Typical comments included “Santee Court was the best overall experience,” and “All of them except Santee Court were not prepared... .”
QUOTEWORTHY: TRUST'S LONG TAIL
Steve Quaranta, Lennar's vice president of sales and marketing for the Bay Area division, puts emphasis on the importance of gaining trust. So Lennar sets buyer expectations early by promising that the company will be there long after move-in. Lennar's 30-90-330-day customer-care follow-up program greatly reduces customers' anxiety. The commitment assures homeowners that they will be able to comfortably resolve any issue during the first year after move-in.
By communicating and setting expectations early in the relationship, Quaranta says his team has built a foundation to support “clear, honest dialogue throughout the process.” Buyers get detailed information about the entire purchase process and time-line, which is then reinforced at each planned customer touchpoint. And buyers are invited to community parties in order to learn what to expect from the construction process, as well as socialize with their soon-to-be neighbors.
Senior management is so committed to maintaining high levels of customer satisfaction that they take an active role in the walk-through process by participating in the inspection of each and every home. “Our managers systematically visit the homes in groups of two to share opinions and observations,” says Quaranta, “and then provide essential feedback to the field teams for improvement.”
QUOTEWORTHY: TRUST, TRUST, TRUST. IS THAT ALL YOU WANT?
Many home buyers learn to trust their sales counselor but never develop the same level of comfort for their builder's leadership. In far too many cases, the management team that hired the personable sales rep is represented by stacks of rather chilly printed policies, the majority of which are perceived to favor the home builder rather than the home buyer. Meanwhile, research consistently shows that trust in the builder is the basis of positive referrals from homeowners and a lack of trust is the underlying basis for negative referrals.
Richmond American Homes of Fairfax, Va., is one builder that appreciates the importance of customer faith in company leaders, so it has designed a program to bolster that confidence and reduce the anxiety inherent in the purchase process. At its monthly Customer Orientation Program meetings for the Virginia division, every customer has the opportunity to meet, and have access to, every company executive.
The meetings are open to all customers from around the region. Richmond American's home buyers are invited to learn more about the expectations and timelines of the home buying process. And the key to the company's success in building trust is that each customer can interact with division president Pat Annessa as well as key managers from every department.
“Our program is a unique approach to setting the right expectations for our buyers,” says Pamela Fell, the division's vice president of sales, “and to demonstrating our organization's commitment to a positive home building experience.”
Richmond American customers report that these meetings enhance their overall experience because they are both educational and trust-building. “All of the department heads are present, and they all address the group of attendees and take questions,” says Fell. “Homeowners have immediate access to express their specific concerns and, in turn, gain a stronger degree of trust in our leaders' ability to understand and meet their needs. Our customers leave these meetings feeling more comfortable and confident in their experience, knowing that no one is going to hide in their executive office. Putting a face with a name personalizes our process and opens the door to better communication, ultimately leading to better customer service.”
DATA: MEETING COMMITMENTS, REAPING REWARDS
The Tie That Binds
The accompanying chart underscores the close correspondence, over time, between customers' views that a builder is living up to his promises and customers' levels of willingness to spread the good word of recommendation about the builder. This example follows MBK Homes' ever-improving scores—on a weighted three-month average between March 2003 and May 2005—in how customers grade MBK's ability to meet its commitments. As the builder's “met-commitments” scores get better, customers' “willingness to recommend” directly follows that upward arc.
MBK has scored in the top 10 among builders Eliant ranks for over a year. Among the techniques and programs MBK introduced to improve customer focus: a Very Important Buyer (VIB) program (a systematic series of planned e-mails which set realistic expectations); weekly status phone calls; and weekly community team meetings.
Source: Eliant Move-in Survey 2000-2005; MBK Homes
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.