By Bob Mirman and Wyatt Kash. Conventional wisdom has it that "customer care" is the most important driver of home buyer satisfaction. Everything else, supposedly, pales in comparison.

During the past 15 years, Eliant has been partially responsible for this theory because its early research showed it to be the case, and the conclusions began to circulate within the industry, says its CEO, Bob Mirman.

It turns out that this early theory was only half right, or half wrong, depending on your point of view. About a decade ago, Eliant found that customers expect different things when rating a builder's customer service efforts between the time they first move in and 10 months later as they settle in. So, it started using multiple surveys during the first year after move-in to better measure and understand these differences.

The surveys found that customer care is indeed the key driving force behind homeowner satisfaction, referrals, and loyalty, reaching a peak at about 10 months after move-in. But, for the new home buyer who completes a survey in the first 30 days after move-in, customer service is only one-eighth as important as it will be as the buyer nears the end of the first year in the home.

So, if the satisfaction level of new home buyers is not driven by customer care, what is the primary driver?

Builder's Action Plan
...For improving installation and workmanship satisfaction.
Referral 'Accelerators':
  • Require "Pro-Active Communication" (PAC) as a part of each sales person?s daily routine.
  • Insist on consistently straight walls and 90-degree corners.
Referral 'Killers':
  • Crooked/wavy walls: No. 1 new buyer "Showstopper."
  • Poor quality trim around windows and doors.

Eliant has now confirmed that, to the new home buyer, nothing is more important than his impression of the "initial quality" of his home. Eliant measured this by asking home buyers a series of 25 questions about virtually every aspect of the home's initial quality. In a category called "Installation and Workmanship," new home buyers are asked to rate their satisfaction with such general issues as plumbing operation, countertops, thermal insulation, storage, windows/sliding glass doors, and garage doors. Once again, builders and buyers don't always see eye-to-eye. The most important issue driving buyer satisfaction on the issue of workmanship was how true the walls and framing alignment are, followed by window installation. Builders, in contrast, ranked those issues seventh and eighth, respectively, believing drywall work, interior paint, flooring, and plumbing carried more weight. In fact, interior paint ranked 17th for buyers. Another disconnect: Builders selected two issues as being last in importance to buyers, both of which were ranked in the top five by home buyers. One issue was the garage door and the other was the fireplace, hearth, and mantle work. Similar disconnects occurred with staircases and storage.

Beyond the disparities of priority is the degree to which builders get satisfactory marks on the issues that matter. In Figure 5-1, it becomes clear which initial quality issues are most important to new home buyers and how well builders perform them: The further an issue is plotted to the right of the chart, the more important it is to home buyers' satisfaction. Issues appearing near the bottom of the chart have received relatively lower buyer satisfaction ratings.

For instance, interior paint tends to earn below-average satisfaction ratings; but fortunately, it isn't as critical to overall satisfaction compared to framing, windows, and flooring, which earn average or above satisfaction scores. Those averages reflect national satisfaction scores. They can vary significantly by region and from builder to builder. The important action step for builders is to make sure they identify what items are most important to their customers and then have the systems in place to convey that each reflects high quality installation workmanship.

Best practices: What builders are doing to...

...Ensure high quality workmanship for framing.
  • Training sales representatives
  • Frame-walks with buyers
  • Framing checklists (usually to be signed off prior to payment)
  • Internal quality assurance inspections or walks
  • 3rd-party inspections
  • Panelized construction

Wayne Homes, Vice President of Construction:

Continual training of our framing subcontractors and our field managers on "what is quality to our customers." We?ve developed a detailed quality checklist used by the framing crews as a defect prevention tool. Payment on framing will be delayed until checklist is signed off by a framing contractor.

Centex Homes, Vice President of Construction:

We conduct pre-drywall meetings with our customers and explain what they see in their home before drywall is applied and explain the process to assure quality. We also have frame checks for our framers that they will turn in prior to payment.

D.R. Horton, Director of Purchasing:

Interior walls (in certain regions), with the exception of those that are load bearing, are now done in metal frame; this gives a truer flat surface to where we can hang drywall.

The Estridge Companies, Director of Field Operations:

Framers are compensated with a Quality Bonus for conformance to the checklist.

Neumann Homes, Director of Land Development:

Bought our own "panel" plant to manufacture wall panels in controlled warehouse environment.

Best practices: What builders are doing to...

...Ensure high quality workmanship for flooring installation.
  • Eliminated all carpeting in wet areas
  • Home 100 percent complete prior to installation to minimize traffic

KB Home, Director of Construction:

All tile is installed with a felt underlayment on slabs and a fiber cement backer board on subfloor. Wood floors are covered with protection and traffic is minimized. Carpet is installed just before close.

Bozzuto Homes, Director of Construction:

Cork underlayement installed under ceramic tile when installed on concrete or gypcrete. "Hush step" matting installed under floating hardwood floors. Installation of "Enkasonic" sound abatement matting.

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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