David Weekley Homes and Shea Homes found themselves in the company of legendary brand names such as Apple, Cadillac, and Ritz Carlton this week when they became two of 50 brands to receive the J.D. Power and Associates’ Customer Service Champion designation.

They were the only home builders that made the list  that represents the top 5% of more than 800 brands J.D. Power evaluated for customer service excellence in five areas: people, presentation, price, process, and product.

“Shea and David Weekley did especially well with product, people, and process,” said Dale Haines, senior director of the real estate and construction practice for J.D. Power.

J.D. Power pulled new home sale title documents in more than a dozen major home building markets across the country last year and contacted the home purchasers, asking them to fill out an online survey about their customer experiences, said Haines. Power focused on builders who were closing about 150 homes or more in a year.

The results showed a growing spread between the top and bottom performers in the market, Haines said, adding that during tough times companies that consider customer service just one more part of their job, rather than an intrinsic part of who they are, tend to abandon customer service initiatives.

“We are very honored to be part of the list,” said Ken McDonald, Weekley’s Orlando division president who accepted the award for Weekley on Wednesday evening. “We have always taken J.D. Power seriously and it has always been part of our goal to finish in the top three.”

Rather than let customer service languish during the downturn, Weekley worked to improve it. “Every year we continue to raise the bar,” said McDonald, adding that a big component of the company’s customer service success is the work of its internet sales advisors, who are extremely quick to respond to customers looking on the company’s web site. “Ninety percent of our customers start their home shopping there.” And they expect quick answers to their question as well as a concierge approach from the internet sales contact, he said.

“We feel that our customers are different today than they were during the boom. Their requirements and characteristics are different.”

But all the company’s employees are to be credited with the customer service success, he says.
“Number one, it’s our people,” he said. “We continue to try to recruit the best employees.”

Shea appeared on last year's list as well, and customer service is definitely in the DNA of its employees, said Robb Pigg, Shea’s vice president of operations.

“I think it’s about a cultural commitment to the customer here at Shea,” said Pigg. “[Quality customer service] is a promise that we make to those who shop with us and who buy from us. ... We have been able to develop and maintain people who genuinely care about serving people the best they can. They care about the quality of the service that we provide and that spreads and influences the trades who work on our jobs.”

Pigg said Shea executives are excited to be included in the list for the second year in a row. “This is especially rewarding to be recognized as a customer service champion. It isn’t something you can apply for or that you even know has been undertaken.”

Teresa Burney is a senior editor for Builder magazine.