Warranty or not, it’s important to address clients’ problems and concerns or risk being bad-mouthed up and down Main Street. But fear of bad publicity shouldn’t be the motivation for taking care of customers. It’s just good business to keep them happy, even after the home is complete, the warranty has expired and money is no longer exchanging hands.
Building the foundation for the post-sale client relationship begins the minute the client walks through the door. If the relationship is weak during design and construction stages, it certainly won’t hold up very well once the home is complete. Thus, the key to a good post-sale relationship is good pre-sale relations.
When speaking with four successful custom builders from across the country about the ways they build and maintain relationships with their clients, a few similarities emerged. All of them take care of the little squeaks and other imperfections discovered after living in the house for a few months. They all offer home warranties and take care of any problems a month or two before warranties expire.
Other efforts include sending newsletters, calling or sending cards on client birthdays, and providing wine, gift baskets or other goodies upon closing day. Beyond this, builders’ individual efforts may vary, but the common factor they share is going beyond the call of duty — sometimes way beyond — to make clients happy.
“If you were to poll our clients, they all would say: ‘These guys do the right thing, always,’” says Bobby Gross, who owns and operates Windstar Homes in Tampa, Fla., with co-owner David Lesser. “It’s easy to captain a ship when seas are smooth. But when clients feel they’re right about something, and we feel we’re right, the smart thing to do is bite down and manage it. Our clients will tell you that’s what we do.”
One remarkable example of the power of bending over backward to make clients happy revolves around Windstar’s painter. Windstar owns a painting business, and the painter’s wife was expecting a baby. “A client found out she was pregnant and told us, ‘We want to have a baby shower at our home, and provide all the catering.’ So, we all enjoyed an afternoon at this 18,000-sq.-ft. estate we built, and everything was on the client. That speaks volumes about our relationship. Things like that happen frequently because we do the right thing, and we do it consistently,” Gross says.
At Windstar, there are limitless ways to do the right thing. Some of the biggest impacts come from efforts Windstar makes during the construction process. “We had one client struggling over the decision to add lighting control or not. We showed them the cost for that change, and what the builder markup is. They were agonizing over it. We wanted them to enjoy their home, so we removed the markup so they could have it, which we’ll do on occasion,” Gross says.
A Windstar home will always be a Windstar home for the rest of time, Lesser explains. So when one of them is sold, Windstar gets the name of the new owners and sends a gift and letter. “We send out a gigantic flower and fruit arrangement with a letter that welcomes the new owners into the Windstar family. We will treat them like they contracted with us to build their home. The comments and phone calls from that have been fantastic. We believe that’s just doing the right thing,” Lesser says.
As surprising as stories like these might sound, they’re familiar to those at Windstar. “It’s not as though the relationship changes once the home is complete,” Gross says. “If we had not developed a solid relationship through the design/build cycle, there’s not a whole lot you can do to make the post-sale relationship better.”
Empeco Custom Builders
Going the extra mile for clients makes Mark Perlman, president, Empeco Custom Builders in Vernon Hills, Ill., feel good. “There’s a lot of negativity out there about custom home building. As a group, custom home builders don’t always have the greatest reputation. Anything I can do to combat that attitude, I’m happy to do. Besides that, it’s good business. Clients whom I have a good relationship with are more likely to tell people their builder took care of them, and that leads to referrals,” Perlman says.
One of Perlman’s clients decided to stain a wide-plank floor as a do-it-yourself project. Some of the planks shrank, revealing unstained spots between the boards. “I went over there with two guys and got on our hands and knees staining those spots. I ruined a pair of pants, but the client was thrilled and the home looked great, so it was worth it,” he says.
Although Empeco offers a 24-month warranty compared to the more common 12-month version, most times Perlman isn’t looking at a calendar when it comes to issues such as the floor-staining incident. “If it was our fault, or not in some cases, we’ll take care of it, even after the warranty expires,” he says.
Perlman also calls clients on their birthdays, sends newsletters, and brings champagne, wine and a basket of snacks on closing day. Gestures like these often result in letters of gratitude, which Perlman saves.
“I’ve received over 70 letters from happy clients over the years. The most recent one was from last year. It was written three years after the home was completed, and a client was having a condensation problem. Sure enough, we didn’t put enough insulation in one area, so we blew some more in and fixed the problem. The letter states how grateful the client was that we rectified the situation at no charge,” he says.
Another letter from last year is from the family living next door to a house Empeco built. The family’s house was struck by lightning, and their builder offered no help to get the house repaired. “We were happy to help them out and connect them with the right people, and their letter thanks us for that and our prompt response.”
All 70-plus letters are in a book Perlman shows to new clients, but not without telling them his goal is to make them so happy they’ll want to add their own letter to the growing collection, he says.
“Do they still love me? What do they think of me? Are they happy with the work we’ve done?” That’s what post-sales relations boils down to for Jay Grant, president, Grant Homes in Mendham, N.J. “I know there is no such thing as a perfect house on delivery, so when clients have a problem, we’re going to be there, whatever it is. Trust is the key,” Grant says.
Grant typically sends a gift as clients are closing on their new home, and spends around $100 on a nice bottle of champagne and personally presents it to the proud new homeowners. He also sends 50 “We just moved” cards with a picture of the house on front so the clients can send them to their friends and family.
During the design/build process, Grant also has presented clients with a framed artist’s rendering of their home including a brass plate inscribed with “Grant Homes” and the year of completion. While this is done prior to completion, it hangs on the wall well into the post-sale time frame, reminding clients of Grant’s nice gesture, and of his company.
“My goal is to use them for reference for my next project. If I’ve been successful, we can use their home as a model for a potential client walk-through, which reflects on our good relationship. Or my prospect will take my call as a result of the referral. If clients can comfortably give me referrals, that to me is a successful endeavor,” Grant says.
“Never underestimate the value of good word-of-mouth about your company,” he adds. “When new clients tell you, ‘We’ve heard about you and know you build nice houses,’ that’s one of the reasons you extend yourself for clients.”
“The way you finish is the way they remember you,” says Stephen Hann, president, Hann Builders in Stafford, Texas. “You’ve got to finish strong or you’ll fade. It’s harder to regain momentum than it is to keep it going.”
Hann, who was named Custom Home Builder of the Year by the NAHB Custom Builder Committee in 2007, employs all the standard post-sale relationship builders such as sending newsletters, birthday phone calls and sending cards of gratitude on Thanksgiving. He also makes an event out of closing day when keys are handed to the new owners.
“We present them a plant or flower that will be around for a while, and a bottle of champagne we put in their fridge. We celebrate and spend a few hours going through the house, familiarizing them with where everything is,” Hann says.
“Something else we do for our clients is to go back, one time, to do a paint touch-up visit. This is limited, of course. I prepare clients going in that we come through with two guys for four hours in one afternoon and they should be ready with the areas that need work. We understand after living in the home for awhile it settles, and weather has its effects, so we touch up those areas for free,” Hann says.
A happy customer is the goal, but referrals are what it’s all about. “The last time we tracked it, about 92 percent of our work came in as referrals. so I’m going to take care of any issue clients have. I see it as marketing dollars spent,” he says.
Hann believes in the 80/20 rule which states roughly 20 percent of his past clients are active proponents of Hann Builders, or what he calls his champions. “I call those people a few times a year, just to touch base. But I’ve also built some great personal relationships with some of those people. One past client told me he enjoyed the process so much the last time he built with us, that when he wanted to build his next home, he never talked to anyone else. So post-sale relationships can pay off.”