BUILDER talked with firms across the nation that have been recognized for their top-notch customer service at every step of the home buying process, from model home displays to move-in day.
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Strong customer service is the foundation of a successful business -- that’s no secret -- and in the home building business, serving the needs of the customer is quite literally the starting point in the construction of a dream home. Customer service begins long before a home is built and never really stops, even after buyers have settled into their new place.

BUILDER talked with firms across the nation that have been recognized for their top-notch customer service at every step of the home buying process, from model home displays to move-in day. The following are seven innovative customer service practices from these award-winning builders, designed to satisfy home buyers and earn their loyalty for years to come. These tips are offered by 2017 winners of the Avid Awards, one of the largest assessments of homebuyer satisfaction in North America.

1. Set Expectations Up Front

With so many steps in the home buying process, it’s not uncommon for things to get lost in translation. “More often than not, we find that problems stem from misunderstandings or inaccurate assumptions of the part of our buyers,” says James Furey, president of Richmond American Homes’ Southern California division. “We proactively bring up some of the more common challenges,” so that homeowners know what to expect at each step along the way.

BUILDER talked with firms across the nation that have been recognized for their top-notch customer service at every step of the home buying process, from model home displays to move-in day.
Courtesy Adobe Stock

For example, when home construction progresses from framing into drywall installation, it enters “the ugly phase of construction,” as Lee McLoud, Mungo Homes Charleston division president, calls it. “The house will be messy. It will be dirty. You’ll see holes in the drywall. You’ll see a window break,” he says. But by explaining this to customers up front, a situation that seems disastrous in a customer’s mind can be scaled into proportion, and understood as typical for that stage of the process.

2. Listen Closely and Sympathize Often

Purchasing a home is one of the most challenging decisions a person can face, both financially and emotionally. Building professionals have to recognize this on a person-to-person level and “start with heart,” says Camille Nesbitt-Jenkins, vice president of national customer relations at Meritage Homes. “The first thing to do is to really listen and understand where [customers] are coming from, because everyone comes to the table with their own set of life experiences. If we can understand what’s important to them and why it’s important to them, we can work together to find a resolution.”

3. Foster a Culture of Customer Service

While some may think of customer service as a department or division of a company, Scott Paige, vice president of U.S. operations at Mattamy Homes, attributes the company’s national success to a “culture” of customer service. “It’s what we do in every interaction with a customer, prospect, or homeowner. It’s every team member’s responsibility,” he says. Likewise, McLoud emphasizes that every employee should be “on the same page when it comes to doing the right thing,” and empowered to do so, even if this requires an expensive or time-consuming fix.

4. Keep Communication Open

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When problems do arise, savvy builders don’t try to brush them aside. “Issues will come up -- it’s the nature of our industry,” says Craig Merry, Northern California division president at Richmond American. “It’s how promptly and accurately you communicate and address these issues that is most critical.”

When the builder is at fault, Paige notes, “a simple apology goes a long way.” Even if you won’t be the one to address a customer’s concern, he advises reaching out, apologizing, and explaining what changes they can expect going forward because “it’s that follow-up...that tends to start relieving them of the stress they’re feeling.”

5. See Challenges as Opportunities

Disgruntled customers provide open-minded builders with much-needed feedback about how to improve operations. “A homeowner who is not completely satisfied is a wonderful challenge for us,” Furey explains, because this presents the opportunity to better understand buyers’ needs and adjust processes to meet them. “Don’t shy away from negative customer feedback,” Paige adds, because you may hear the same message coming back again and again, and “small tweaks to processes will go a long way.”

For example, Mattamy noticed that time is very valuable to customers during the decision-making process. As a response, the company started hosting “preview nights” at their design studio. “This allows [customers] to view our selections, giving them an idea of budget and planning prior to their design studio selection process,” Paige explains, so that when the studio appointment rolls around, it can run smoothly and efficiently without customers “second-guessing” their home personalization selections.

6. Be Ready to Constantly Evolve

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Even successful builders must continue to educate themselves and change with the times, says Paige. “It’s no longer about just building a house on a lot in a community -- rather, it’s a house on a lot in a community that can be voice-operated, with light and AC managed from [homeowners’] smartphones, with less waste and materials that are more environmentally friendly.”

That’s no small agenda, and further, builders have to anticipate the changes yet to come. “We have to be diligent to make sure we are in front of any and all issues that may arise, and are always looking for opportunities to be proactive in our process,” Furey says.

7. Don’t Forget the Basics

Even when the industry seems to change and evolve at a breakneck pace, the fundamentals of customer service remain the same. In the scramble to implement the newest technologies and stay ahead of the trends, builders should remember that “the message hasn’t changed,” in McLoud’s words. “Quality is still quality. Doing the right thing is still doing the right thing. Still saying you’re sorry and fixing something when it has gone wrong -- those things don’t change.”

CHIME IN. What makes your buyers ecstatic? What makes them furious? Share your customer service challenges and solutions in the Comments section below.