SEPTEMBER 2003 MARKED THE first year J.D. Power and Associates included the Austin, Texas, market among its rankings of the New-Home Builder Customer Satisfaction Study—and no one was more pleased than David Weekley Homes, which was ranked in the No. 1 position. Although honored by the acknowledgement, the news wasn't completely surprising to executives. “Historically, Austin is in first or second place [in internal scores] within David Weekley's divisions,” says Mike Humphreys, vice president of operations. “We've got a really tenured team in place there.”

Instead, it was the pressure that accompanied the newly won title that came as the biggest surprise. “One of the things J.D. Power told us during our results presentation was ‘You're doing a great job, but if you continue to do the same job you've always done, you're going to fall behind,'” recalls Ken Swisher, president of the Austin division of David Weekley. “They said everyone else would be gunning for us now.”

And it appears the premonitions were right. According to the 2004 study results, which were released Sept. 15, David Weekley was stripped of its title and fell to the third place position in the Austin market. Climbing into the top spot was KB Home, followed closely by Pulte (see chart, page 86).

Although 2004 is only the second year J.D. Power has included the Austin, Texas, market in its rankings, Austin builders achieve the second-highest overall customer satisfaction scores among the nation's 25 markets J.D. Power surveys. The study also found that Austin is up a full seven index points over 2003 (increasing from an index score of 115 in 2003 to 122 in 2004). Based on all 25 markets, that jump is more than double the overall industry improvement rate of three points.

But even before the latest results were announced, David Weekley was planning ahead—for what promises to be a highly competitive market to watch in 2005.

Recognizing the heated environment, Weekley got aggressive in anticipation of a possible slip. In 2003—soon after emerging on the top of the rankings—the builder listened to J.D. Power's suggestions, conducted focus groups with customers, and visited other companies to cull creative ideas for continuous improvement. It was during this intensive soul searching that one low point became crystallized: The division had experienced a 6 percent to 8 percent drop in referral rates between the time the home closed and the one-year mark. “We were losing them after closing—for whatever reason,” says Swisher. “Something broke in their home, and we didn't take care of it as quickly as we should … or [sometimes it was] normal wear and tear on the home. But we were aware we had to work on that.”

What evolved from Weekley's research was a pilot “customer care” program that launched in June 2004. Since most homeowners cited maintenance as their biggest hassle, the division created a “Lexus-style” attitude to maintaining a home for the customer's first year. “Instead of explaining the difference between maintenance and warranty issues in our customer care packet, we just put them together and take care of it all,” says Swisher.

Armed with a list of the 50 most common maintenance items, a “maintenance specialist” makes appointments to visit each home 10 months after closing. “[The specialist] changes air filters, puts bleach down the A/C condensate lines so they don't clog up, sprinkles ant bait around the outside condensers to prevent ants in the contacts, and cleans the aerators on the sink faucets,” says Swisher of the full-service inspection. And by hiring maintenance specialists who also happen to be former small-scale custom builders, David Weekley is able to offer a knowledgeable resource to its homeowners. If a warranty issue surfaces during the inspection, it's noted and turned in by the maintenance specialist. And the company guarantees that a warranty rep will call within 24 hours to schedule a repair.

“So far, so good,” says Swisher of the response to the program. “In the first month, we got seven or eight letters from the 34 customers we saw. They all loved it. A couple even said they'd pay for it.” As a result, there has been some talk about maybe extending this for a small fee for a second and third year. And some of Weekley's other divisions are planning ahead, citing that, “It's too late for the 2004 J.D. Power survey, but I wanted to make sure we got it implemented for next year—then we'll be able to really tell what it did.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Austin, TX.