NOT EVERY TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCE turns out to be as good for consumers as the marketing hype suggests. How many people really think pumping their own gasoline is better (or cheaper) than full serve? Has the availability of 100 television channels really broadened our intellectual horizons as some initially suggested?

Fortunately, sometimes technology fills a gap that's not being filled by the human equivalent. That's the gap that Carl Mittelstadt, a veteran business consultant and creator of “My New Surroundings,” identified and filled. Mittelstadt worked with Lee Wetherington Homes of Sarasota, Fla., to create a semi-automatic way to increase customer satisfaction.

Michelle Burke-Phillips, executive vice president of marketing for Lee Wetherington Homes, says the company's unique Web site presence has been good for business.

WEB MASTER: You may think that you have explored the limits of Web-based customer care with your firm—until you see what Carl Mittelstadt was able to do for Lee Wetherington Homes in Florida. His “My New Surroundings” interactive Web site has paid off many times over for the builder, by reducing the number of phone calls fielded and keeping customers happy throughout the construction process. What's the secret? Give clients a real-time tool with which to monitor their new home online.
WEB MASTER: You may think that you have explored the limits of Web-based customer care with your firm—until you see what Carl Mittelstadt was able to do for Lee Wetherington Homes in Florida. His “My New Surroundings” interactive Web site has paid off many times over for the builder, by reducing the number of phone calls fielded and keeping customers happy throughout the construction process. What's the secret? Give clients a real-time tool with which to monitor their new home online.

“With our incredibly rapid growth, communication with customers is hugely important,” she says. “My New Surroundings gives homeowners power over that communication.”

Kodak Moment “I got the idea while I was having a home built in Sarasota, Fla., while living in Atlanta,” Mittelstadt recalls. “As I was signing the contract, I saw them staking out the boundaries. I asked them to take photos of the building process and send them to me. I wanted to see what was happening while I was in Atlanta.”

Later, Mittelstadt began to connect his own satisfaction at seeing the “in progress” photos to what he might do for Lee Wetherington. He pitched the idea of a Web site that would raise the builder's J.D. Power scores by focusing on the things customers actually care about.

“I noticed that when I looked at Lee's Web site, it was all about quality and workmanship. But when you look at J.D. Power and Associates surveys, they find that these attributes rank very low in terms of what makes customers happy.

“What inevitably happens,” he continues, “is that people go a little crazy when they build a house. There's often one thing that spoils the relationship with the builder, because they can't get a response.”

Mittelstadt suggested to Wetherington that it could extend its relationship with clients past the closing, at the same time reducing warranty costs, by using a custom Web design called My New Surroundings. The builder gave him the green light.

Walkthrough On its surface, the New Surroundings approach looks like a lot of builder Web sites that offer community information. But what sets it apart are two things: its interactive qualities and its depth.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA.