Much has been written and discussed about customer satisfaction over the years, essentially espousing the benefits of a business and its employees going out of their way to meet the customer’s needs and desires. There is no end to the stories of dedicated employees giving up personal time to accomplish this goal of hyper-satisfaction.
What is usually not discussed so openly is the pressure and stress that pursuing this goal puts on an organization, its employees and its profit structure. In this month’s column, we will take a look at how a business can balance the costs and benefits of maintaining a high degree of client satisfaction.
A dissatisfied client usually is the result of expectations not being met. We will look at shaping customer expectations, understanding what those expectations are and the importance of communication with the client.
More than at any time in the past, customers come to us with a set of expectations. The number of publications and television programs that focus on design and remodeling has grown exponentially in the last few years. Add to this the information available on the Internet, and you have a customer who can conceivably come to you with a level of knowledge about our business that is quite remarkable.
This level of knowledge is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the client will possess a good understanding of what you’re trying to do for them; at the same time, a lot of the information out there oversimplifies the complexity of the projects we undertake.
The first step in shaping customer expectations is to develop a strategy to educate the client to the realities of our business and their project. Once you have determined what sort of project and budget your customer has, you must then look at what misconceptions that client has about the kitchen and bath industry, costs, time requirements, etc. This education will normally take place during the course of the design and specification of the project itself, but realistically, it continues all the way through the process.
The usual first step in a project is to get a rough idea of what the client has in mind and prepare a rough estimate of the expected cost of performing the work. This step will normally flush out unrealistic budgets and help you avoid over-investing time and energy on a project that will never go anywhere. Assuming that a budget has been settled upon, the next step is to thoroughly design and specify all details of the project so that there is a clear understanding of exactly what your firm is going to do and what products are going into the client’s project. When it comes to the specifications, do not rely on simply listing manufacturers’ product codes, but include pictures from catalog cuts to ensure that the client really knows what products to expect.
The contract is the place where all of the documentation comes together. The plans and specifications will describe in detail the project that you and your client have agreed upon. The balance of the relationship, payment terms, how changes are to be handled and how any disputes are to be resolved should all be carefully spelled out. One caution here: Make sure your client actually reads and understands your contract; all too often, people sign paperwork without actually reading what they’re signing.
In the course of selling a project, we walk a fine line between warning clients about all the pain and suffering that can go with a remodel and reassuring them that things will go smoothly, with a minimum of life disruption. It’s likely that, through a combination of wishful thinking and denial, most people will enter into a project thinking it will be easier and faster than the reality.
There are several more opportunities that kitchen and bath dealers have to temper client expectations. The first is by providing an information manual to clients. This “handbook” should address the steps involved in the typical project, laying out what to expect during each phase. Such a handbook is an excellent place to discuss the various areas that are often the source of misunderstandings, such as what “match existing” means [stone countertops can vary from sample pieces, etc.].
Another opportunity to clarify expectations is the pre-construction meeting, which usually occurs one week before the project actually starts. Here you can go over the plans and specifications, present the customer with a time line that estimates the schedule for the project and answer any questions the client has about the process. The pre-construction meeting is a good opportunity to set up the communication process between your company and the client.
Of all of the areas that impact customer satisfaction, none are as important as that of communication. Many of your competitors are capable of producing good design and executing the work involved at a high level of quality. In the end, most customers judge the overall remodeling experience based on the relationship they believe they had with the firm with which they did business.
It is inevitable that there will be problems and misunderstandings during the course of a remodel project. How your firm handles these situations will have a substantial impact on how it is judged by your client. Here are some rules we try to follow regarding client communication:
• Update the client the first of each week on the status of the project and what to expect to happen that week.
• If a client calls, try to take the call right away. If the client leaves a message, make sure that you return the call and address the client’s concern within 24 hours (sooner is better).
• When meeting with a client, have a paper and pencil and take notes of what the customer is telling you. This is a visual reinforcement that you are actually paying attention.
• Particularly on larger projects, schedule regular meetings (weekly) at the client’s job site to address any concerns.
These and any other steps you can take to encourage and enhance the communication between you and your client will pay dividends in customer satisfaction and prevent misunderstandings from escalating into disputes or even litigation. Satisfied clients are your best source of future business and should be treasured as the most important asset to your business.