Customers Want You

Remodeling is like golf. Tens of thousands play the game, but it is the rare player who consistently shoots par or better. Like golf, remodeling is an easy business to enter, but only a few build businesses with highly satisfied customers. Many remodelers, despite their best efforts, struggle to improve and make only halting advances.

From its inception in 2005, the goal of this survey series has been twofold. First, we want to put a mirror to the entire remodeling industry from the perspective of remodeling customers and benchmark performance on a macro level. How often, for example, have you heard about remodeling projects gone awry? Certainly it is a weekly occurrence for many remodelers. Homeowners consider you an expert, so you listen to their stories about the never-ending project, about the truckload of windows they had to send back because they were ordered incorrectly, about maddeningly long absences from the jobsite, or about unexpected cost increases. Therefore, the first goal of this series is to attempt to put numbers to all of those stories. Like the average score in golf, customers, in general, give remodelers a middling score of about 6.5 on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being the lowest level of satisfaction and 10 being the highest level of satisfaction. These middling scores hold true across several performance criteria.

The second goal of this survey series is to identify critical issues by parsing those scores, and thus highlight the places within the remodeling process where remodeler/client relationships require the most focus. We know from previous surveys that remodeling customers offer a wide spectrum of satisfaction scores for their remodelers, contractors and home improvement professionals. We know from past surveys that if a customer says they are willing to either hire their remodeler again, or they are willing to refer their remodeler to a friend, that those remodelers tend to get much higher satisfaction scores. Therefore we have asked these questions again as a baseline for new questions and new potential differentiators.

To enhance the questionnaire this year, we consulted with Geoff Graham, president of GuildQuality, a firm that offers customer-satisfaction measurement and analysis for over 500 builders, remodelers, contractors and architects around the country. In the GuildQuality measurement process, customers grade their remodelers in part based on the number of “punchlist items” remaining to be completed at the time of the final walk-through. This year we added “punchlist items” as a sixth criterion for benchmarking satisfaction alongside overall satisfaction, professionalism, timeliness, price and workmanship. With Graham’s input we added questions about whether customers lived at home during their remodeling project and whether they planned to remodel again in the next 12 to 24 months. One new question gauges satisfaction as it relates to “green” remodeling, while another differentiates between those customers who sought to “improve” their homes vs. those whose projects were aimed at “maintaining” their homes. In the end, all of these factors were superseded by a sense that customers were very forgiving of all remodelers who are attentive, communicative, good at setting expectations, and frequently on the jobsite.

On the job

Based partly on the input of GuildQuality’s Geoff Graham as well as from results of a consumer survey conducted by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, this year we asked our respondents to reflect on the amount of time their remodeler spent on the jobsite. Missing remodelers is a consistent theme among consumers, many of whom have had bad experiences with remodelers who disappear for long periods of time as the timeline for completion drags on. There may in fact be unavoidable reasons for inactivity on jobs — waiting for materials, trade contractor is delayed, etc. — but it is a frequent and potent source of frustration for customers.

According to our survey respondents, the missing-remodeler phenomenon is widespread; fully 36 percent disagreed with the statement: “My remodeler was consistently available to answer questions and was consistently on the jobsite. He or she never went missing for periods of time.” Among that group, satisfaction scores on our six base criteria slipped dramatically: overall satisfaction, 3.76; professionalism, 3.79; timeliness, 2.90; price, 4.05; craftsmanship, 4.33; and punchlist items, 3.81. Conversely, among the 55 percent of respondents who agreed that their remodeler was readily available and never AWOL, satisfaction scores remained in higher ranges: overall satisfaction, 7.88; professionalism, 8.14; timeliness, 7.68; price, 7.63; craftsmanship, 7.95; and punchlist items, 7.92. Among the new questions added to the survey this year, this one offered the greatest spread between the two groups of customers’ views of their remodelers’ performance.

The strong preference to see remodelers on the jobsite and in frequent communication was also evident from the responses to several other questions. About 30 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement: “My remodeler kept me informed about the progress of my job.” Among that group, dissatisfaction reigned, yielding low scores across the spectrum of satisfaction criteria, particularly a score of 2.87 for timeliness. About 21 percent of respondents said their remodeler did not set “realistic expectations for the level of disruption that the remodeling activity caused.” Not surprisingly low scores in the range of 2.85 to 4.08 were given by that group among the six satisfaction criteria.

If your customers are expressing their concerns about you or members of your team being away from the jobsite for long periods of time, you can be certain that your satisfaction scores are headed for the lower ranges. If this issue is not addressed immediately, you can forget about any repeat business or referrals from that customer. Nor can you expect to get any positive word-of-mouth. You may in fact be the recipient of negative word-of-mouth. So, despite the very real difficulties you may encounter in finding time to consistently be with your customers, you need to make it happen.

Some best practices aimed at increased time spent on the jobsite include scheduled weekly meetings with the client. Another way to remain visible and in touch is to incorporate a series of planned touches with your customer throughout the design and construction schedule. You, for example, could make it a rule that you personally conduct all production walk-throughs. Those touches then need to be incorporated into your scheduling software as meetings. Again, very few remodelers are at the top of the satisfaction game, but those that are tend to find ways to be on the jobsite and available for questions.

Personal qualities matter most

It is safe to say that a remodeling prospect who is successfully converted into a customer is confident you will do a good job. And it is safe to say you would have not sold the job unless the client thought you were honest, reliable and able to do a quality job. That is why it is critical to be exacting in your conduct with remodeling clients throughout the entire design and construction process. If you want them to be a source of repeat business and referrals, then you must live up to their basic personal expectations with regard to conduct.

Leaving the jobsite (their home) littered with debris and/or untidy at the end of each day is one sure way to convey disrespect to the client. Over the five years we have conducted this survey, we have documented a huge spread in satisfaction scores between those customers who feel their remodeler kept the jobsite clean at the end of each day, and those who did not. This year was no different. Among the 62 percent of respondents who felt their remodeler kept the jobsite clean, most scores were near 8.0. The 30 percent who felt their remodeler did not keep the jobsite clean, the average score was half as high, approximately 4.0 in most categories.

Being seen as a true professional also creates satisfied clients. In general, it is much better to be seen as an expert in design and construction by your clients. We were surprised to find that only 36 percent of survey respondents agreed with the notion that their remodelers were experts in design and construction. Yet it just so happens that this group, who perceived their remodelers to be experts, awarded very high satisfaction scores. Our sense is that most remodelers usually know a lot more about design and construction than they let on. Clear, concise thinking and speaking goes a long way to convey a sense of authority, professionalism and expertise to your customers. To create a more professional impression with potential customers and clients, remodelers would also do well to consider small details like their attire, the cleanliness of their vehicle, and their preparation before they attend meetings. The cumulative effect of these small details help put you in a more favorable light when it comes to conveying a sense of professionalism and overall expertise.

Personal qualities were more directly addressed by respondents when asked if their remodeler was honest and trustworthy. More than a fourth of respondents, 27 percent, felt their remodeler was not honest and trustworthy. Thus it behooves all remodelers to be exacting in their communication with customers. If even the slightest backtrack can be misinterpreted, you risk taking an enormous pivot backward in your relationship with your client. Catastrophic satisfaction scores of high 2s and low 3s were garnered by the group that deemed their remodeler untrustworthy. Lessons learned as a child — keeping good eye contact during conversations, good posture, etc. — rightly or wrongly help the client form an opinion about you and your character.

Differentiators, but only marginally

Several new questions provided interesting results in that they tended impact satisfaction levels less than anticipated. For example, it had been anticipated that there would be a wide discrepancy between remodeling customers who stayed in their homes and withstood a certain level of disruption to their daily lives vs. those who moved out and avoided those inconveniences. About 14 percent of our respondents moved out during their remodeling projects.

When their satisfaction criteria scores were plotted against the 81 percent of the respondents who did not move out during their remodeling project the spread was negligible — less than a point of separation in scores.

For the first four years of this survey, we had found much higher levels of satisfaction among respondents who had remodeled a vacation home or a rental property as opposed to those who had remodeled their primary residence.

The assumption was that a lack of disruption in daily life had been at the core of the higher scores for these respondents. These new numbers clearly turn that assumption upside down. One can only speculate that moving out is a major disruption in and of itself and that being away from home can lead to major dissatisfaction if a project is delayed, as is the case with a good percentage of remodeling projects.

We also expected to see a larger range in satisfaction scores between those 70 percent of respondents whose projects were rooted in “improving” their homes versus those 22 percent whose aim was merely to “maintain” their home. The spread in satisfaction scores was only slightly larger than a point in favor of those who had “improved.” Thus the question of “improving” vs. “maintaining” did not prove to be a core determinant of overall satisfaction.

Lastly, several recent consumer surveys have shown high levels of consumer interest and satisfaction with green building and remodeling. That is why it came as some surprise that respondents whose projects included green remodeling features did not show the anticipated bump in satisfaction scores. About 36 percent of the survey respondents said that their remodeling project included “green” features such as energy-efficient windows or sustainable building materials. There was a noticeable spread in the craftsmanship criteria of approximately 1.5 points, but that was it. Green is good, but it certainly does not provide as much of a boost in overall satisfaction that it would — all else being equal — actually help push a customer over into the satisfied column from the unsatisfied column.

In the end, going from good-to-great and from great-to-outstanding requires an intense focus on well-planned and executed interactions with your customers. Those that continually improve will create a lasting legacy of satisfied customers that will ultimately push their business to greater heights.