By Wyatt Kash. Few issues have been more unifying or brought greater focus to the management of big home builders than the mission to achieve consistently high customer satisfaction.

For an industry that barely measured customer satisfaction a decade ago, the commitment by builders since then to systematically rate their customers' home buying experience has become like a load-bearing wall for home building organizations, supporting performance reviews, compensation plans, work-flow analysis, and a wide range of other internal programs.

In fact, the need for that information has spawned a small industry unto itself that specializes in monitoring and promoting new home buyer satisfaction.

All this buyer feedback has paid many dividends during the past decade. Quality and process improvements have unquestionably made a positive impact not only on the bottom line but also on the industry as a whole.

Still, the biggest payoff has been, and will continue to be, a function of how successfully builders translate customer satisfaction data into new referral business.

How builders can stack the deck in their favor in order to cash in more effectively on all their efforts is the focus of this special edition report of BIG BUILDER magazine. In it, we've tried to provide a strategic roadmap for home builders, highlighting which of dozens of underlying issues offer the greatest chances of improving overall buyer satisfaction and referrals.

For the past six months, we've been working with a company that, this month, unveils a new name, but for the past two decades has been known for its work applying consumer products research techniques to the complex process of buying a new home. The company, National Survey Systems, now known as Eliant, of Irvine, Calif., had already assembled a rich database of what more than 40,000 new home buyers last year felt about their experience buying a new home.

We knew not only how satisfied -- or dissatisfied -- buyers were about everything from their first meeting with builders' sales representatives, to selecting options, to concerns about workmanship, to the final walk-through and move-in experiences. We also knew precisely which concerns had the strongest impact on their satisfaction at each stage of the buying process.

The question was: How well did builders understand the importance of those concerns; and what have builders actually been doing to improve customer satisfaction in those critical areas? So we commissioned Eliant to find out, having them survey some 800 home building executives for this special report.

The results confirmed that while builders have come a long way in improving customer satisfaction, builders clearly underestimate what is really important to customers on certain critical issues, while overestimating (and potentially over-investing in) others. The gaps in perception and the elements that lead most directly to more referrals are broken out by each key phase of the buying process in this report.

To add value to these findings, we also included selected comments from managers who answered our survey on what each is doing to address the issues most critical to buyers' satisfaction. These activities are by their nature localized and may not reflect what each home building company is trying nationally. However, we believe they present an important mosaic of best practices currently in progress. These efforts, together with Eliant's research findings, led us to provide an action plan home builders might consider as they refine their own efforts.

Photo: Katherine Lambert

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Eliant, and its CEO, Bob Mirman, for sharing his insights and his company's data with our readers and for contributing to each of the articles in this issue; and Eliant's Annie Gerard, vice president, and Lauri Christie, director of special projects, for their effort in bringing this research project to fruition. I'd also like to acknowledge the role of Whirlpool Corporation and its continuing efforts to bring actionable research to home building. While Whirlpool had no influence or control over the content of this issue, its sponsorship of this special report made it possible to bring this research to our readers.

We hope this report will indeed provide some useful and actionable steps for all the sales teams and the design center, construction project, and customer care managers among our readers as they continue to aspire to higher levels of customer satisfaction.

Wyatt Kash