By Bob Mirman and Wyatt Kash. Construction superintendent. Construction representative. Project manager. Builder. Home building firms ascribe many titles to the person responsible for the on-site construction process.

The criteria for success can be just as varied, if not at times super-human. Construction superintendents need to have a strong knowledge of construction practices, world-class patience, and a tenacious, assertive attitude about holding contractors accountable.

Now add to that an increasingly important responsibility: the skill to assure home buyers that the subcontractors and vendors involved in the construction of the home will do their jobs well and adhere to very high quality standards.

Of the 11 major performance categories that drive customer satisfaction and referrals, the experience home buyers have with a builder's "Construction Representative" has the fourth strongest impact on buyer loyalty, right after "Workmanship and Installation," "Construction Options and Upgrades," and "Home Readiness." The "Construction Representative" category controls about 10 percent of the buyer's decision to refer the builder to a friend, according to a new study prepared for Big Builder magazine by Eliant (formerly National Survey Systems, of Irvine, Calif.)

It can be argued that since the superintendent controls the performance of contractors, all 25 contractor specialties evaluated by buyers in "Workmanship and Installation" as well as "Subcontractors' Performance" are also under his control. When the "Construction Representative" category is added to these two categories, they account for more than 41 percent of the new buyer's decision to refer a friend.

Builder's Action Plan
...For ensuring subcontractor performance.
Referral 'Accelerators':
  • Hold vendors/contractors accountable for quality of performance.
  • Use a system in which the home buyer and the builder's staff measure the quality of every contractor's work.
  • Manage contractor hiring decisions/compensation bonuses.
  • After move-in, require vendors/contractors to show up as promised and make repairs or face making a penalty payment to the buyer.
Referral 'Killers':
  • Allow contractors to define quality standards and work to their own level of quality.
  • Fail to hold contractors accountable.

Based on home buyer satisfaction surveys conducted nationwide, Eliant generally found the builder's processes to be more important than the product in influencing buyer loyalty. However, with buyers' evaluation of the superintendent, the opposite is true. Buyers express little interest in the style with which the superintendent manages the process or how he deals with the buyer directly. Apparently, it is the outcome which counts to the home buyer, not the process that leads to it. In fact, in the "Construction Representative" category of the survey, the issue of ensuring subcontractors and vendors maintain high quality standards accounts for more than 88 percent of the buyer's overall satisfaction with the superintendent or project manager (See Figure 3-1).

When builders were asked in a subsequent survey to rank issues within the "Construction Representative" category, there were two incongruities:

1. Builders believed the most important issue to buyers was "Construction representative provided a timely response to buyer's questions or requests." Ironically, this was ranked last (of five issues) in importance to home buyers.

2. Home buyers overwhelmingly selected "Construction representative ensured that vendors and contractors met high standards of quality." Builders ranked this as the third most important issue for construction representatives (See Figure 3-2).

Clearly, the findings suggest even builders with good quality control processes may not be getting the credit they deserve; and that construction representatives who respond quickly and courteously to buyer inquiries may be failing to deliver the real message buyers want to hear.

Builders, Eliant concludes, need to take a much more assertive posture in developing steps in support of construction representatives to convince buyers that the management team is in control of the contractors' quality. This is a public relations effort as much as a construction job. Management of the job site must also include management of buyers' expectations, perceptions, and concerns.

Best practices: What builders are doing to...

...Ensure high standards of quality.
  • Quality control programs and checklists
  • Scope of work clearly defined
  • Rating systems or surveys on subcontractors (with buyers or builders)
  • Third-party inspections
  • Alliances with trade partners

Lennar/US Home, Vice President of Construction:

A program called "Heightened Awareness" was implemented. It focuses on quality built-in and all work being done correctly the first time. We are focusing on quality at each stage of home construction, staying very involved with our building partners to make sure we are continually building our homes with the best practices.

Standard Pacific Homes, Project Manager:

We instituted a "Trade Contractor Alliance" where our purchasing staff meets regularly with owners and presidents of key subcontractors to work out issues and improve the overall process. Part of that system includes a survey of our superintendents where they grade the subcontractors on quality, timeliness, cleanliness, etc.

Greystone Homes/Lennar, Vice President of Operations:

All of our trade associates are asked to attend weekly safety and quality control meetings at each of our communities. Specific quality and safety topics are discussed and worked through by the group. Homes are often walked through by the entire group to visibly inspect specific items and ensure subcontractor compliance.

John Laing Homes, Director of Purchasing:

  • We formed a builder/supplier trade council.
  • Changed a few inferior trade contractors; changed to "Wirsbo" plastic potable water piping.
  • Conducted a "Partners in Excellence" survey regarding our trade contractors, soliciting input from construction, accounting, purchasing, and customer care.

D.R. Horton, Production Assistant:

Heightened accountability: Scope of work is clearly defined and reviewed in depth with each contractor.

Centex Homes, Director of Construction:

Our vendors are aware of the quality we demand. We let them know through our inspection process if there are weak areas. We also share with them customer comments from independent customer satisfaction surveys that indicate quality concerns of our customers.

The articles in this special report were written by Bob Mirman, CEO of Eliant, and Wyatt Kash, editor of Big Builder magazine. Eliant (formerly National Survey Systems) provides customer satisfaction data and solutions to more than 150 of the nation's top home builders including D.R. Horton, John Laing Homes, Lennar Family of Builders, Shea Homes, and Standard Pacific Homes. The firm is considered the largest consumer research company in the country that caters exclusively to the building industry, conducting more than 200,000 home buyer surveys annually. Eliant is recognized for its use of sophisticated, high-tech consumer tracking tools and information management systems to provide builders with timely, actionable information and strategies to increase home buyer satisfaction and building industry rankings.

Headquartered in Irvine, Calif., Eliant was founded in 1984 by Bob Mirman. Mirman is a clinically-trained psychologist who translated the consumer perception tools he had developed while working at General Mills into a series of surveys designed to capture detailed information on the entire home buying experience, including satisfaction up to two years after move in. Builders use Eliant's tracking information to monitor, reward, and modify practices that directly impact home buyer loyalty.

For more information, contact:

18 Technology Drive, Suite 200 Irvine, CA 92618
949-753-1077 ext. 10; 800-814-9595

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