Scotty Reifsnyder

When it comes to clients and the houses he builds for them, Donnie Smith doesn’t want to assume anything.

Smith, owner of J.D. Smith Custom Homes, in Mount Pleasant, S.C., has built many of those homes for clients from out of state. Often those customers are retiring and in need of a residence that can accommodate extended family visits. They come to him, plans in hand, after reading what prior clients have to say about him online. 

“I learn something from every client,” Smith, a builder in the Charleston area since 1998, says. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to volunteer the information. Some part of the project—a scheduling screw-up triggered by change orders, a countertop they weren’t totally thrilled with—might have irritated clients. But they won’t mention it to the homebuilder out of politeness, though they may say something to friends. 

“A lot of times people put on a front,” Smith says.

Tell Us What You Really Think

Knowing what clients really think—by having someone who doesn’t know them ask, via email or phone—is a major benefit. Their online feedback in the form of reviews also makes for an instant reference. 

“A large percentage of our work is corporate relocation,” says Chris Rautmann, president of Rautmann Custom Homes, in Sheboygin, Wis.

Oftentimes, Rautmann says that builders can give prospects a reference, but they might feel “odd calling out of the blue.” Instead, they can read what clients have to say about him online. 

Third-party customer surveys also offer the opportunity for continuous improvement. Rautmann recalls the response that proved to be the lowest his company ever received: four stars out of five. It was accompanied by a punch list. “They were easy-to-fix things we were never notified about,” he says. 

That list included light fixtures that seemed crooked, a half-wall that needed to be better secured and reinforced, and putty holes. “Stuff we normally do in a 30-day walk-through after closing,” Rautmann says. 

Though all this would’ve been managed as part of his process, the disconnect in that particular situation was a call to action. Within five minutes, Rautmann was on the phone. 

Since many custom homebuilders work on only three or four projects a year, and sometimes fewer, that feedback at project’s end carries a lot of weight. Many share it with staff right away. 

“If action is necessary, we take action,” says Doug Ford, president of D.D. Ford Construction, in Santa Barbara, Calif. But, with clients feeling reassured, even wowed, by what they see, “more often it’s a chance to celebrate.” 

Course Adjustments

D.D. Ford Construction surveys custom home (and whole house remodel) clients at three stages: right after pre-construction, in mid-construction (“to see how it’s progressing”), and when the project’s complete. The first and second surveys tell Ford if he is communicating well and if “everybody’s doing their job the way they should be.” If that’s not the case, “it gives you a chance to make a course adjustment.” 

In many cases that’s about customer communication. “A lot of clients go into this knowing there are decisions,” Ford says, “but at some point they underestimate” the sheer number of choices they’ll need to make. 

Every other week D.D. Ford Construction sends each client a summary of where the project’s at, which is written by the project superintendent. “It’s a positive tool and something that clients really like,” Ford says. 

One thing customer surveys have told him, Ford says, is that some clients want to give feedback more frequently. If that’s the case, they’ll get their project review letter weekly.   

The bottom line is, knowing what your clients think is crucial to your business success. If you don’t know, it’s time you found a way to ask.