We all realize that to be successful we must meet client needs and win their trust. However, it's also important to realize that their needs don't end with the completion of their projects, and that we must continue to merit their confidence even after the installation work is done.
The service you provide when a post-installation problem arises, and the attitude and speed with which you tackle that problem, will go far in shaping a client's opinion of your firm, and in shaping the things he or she tells friends, co-workers and relatives about you.
To view the matter from a client's perspective, think of how you feel when you shop for a new car. Do you want to do business with a dealer who backs his cars for five years and 50,000 miles or with one whose concern ends when you reach the end of his driveway? Given the importance of earning and maintaining a client's trust, I recommend living by the motto, "If it's not right or there is a problem with the project products, and it's our responsibility, we'll make it right." Now, understand I did not say it was our fault. I said it's our responsibility. This is the way we should all be looking at our service for our customers.
As with any meaningful commitment, there are times when it's difficult to live up to that pledge. However, I've found that with specificity, forthrightness and common sense, a dealership can honor that promise and still separate legitimate problems from frivolous complaints and grievances that fall outside of its responsibility.
A Fair Service Policy
The best way to devise a service policy that's fair to both parties and that eliminates gray areas is to put it in black and white. A simple written clause in your agreements stating where your responsibilities begin and where they end leaves little or no room for misunderstandings and the hard feelings they often provoke. Just state the facts that you want known. Don't make it difficult to read.
As an example, you might explain that, in the event you furnish appliances, service on those products will be handled by an authorized service company in keeping with the manufacturer's warranty. You could continue that any dissatisfaction the client has with those appliances will not be cause for them to withhold money due to you. Such clauses may prevent a lot of unnecessary bickering?and cash-flow problems.
Now I realize that whether these matters are spelled out in writing or not, there are some clients who just are not going to pay as long as they are unhappy. We need to understand that some people will never be happy no matter what we do. In some instances, it's because the client never intended to pay us in the first place. That's a problem you must assess on an individual basis.
For purposes of this article, however, we'll proceed on the assumption that clients are acting in good faith and are making complaints that they believe are legitimate.
In such cases, it's important to respond immediately. Go out to the job site yourself, or send a staff member capable of sizing up the situation. The staff member taking the call or the service-responsibility clause in your written agreements should explain how complaints are handled so that clients know what's involved from the start. This will reassure clients about your commitment while it discourages service calls prompted by the owner's abuse or misuse of a product.
For instance, we tell people that while we're more than willing to come out on a call, we will assess a $35 service charge if we determine that the problem involves misuse on their part. That news often prompts responses such as, "Oh, then I think I'll have my husband take a look at it when he gets home from work."
Reputations on the Line
While such methods are an important means of ensuring that you don't waste time and money on inappropriate service calls, it's even more important to remember that the success and reputation of your company ride on the way you handle legitimate problems. I've told our clients and our staff that we'll stand on our heads and spit nickels if that's what it takes to make our customers happy. That's the way it has to be. Almost right is still not right, and that's not all right. If someone says, "That's good enough," chances are it could be better.
That commitment to going the extra mile brings us to another tough question, however: How long do you go on the call-backs after a project has been installed? What's fair? Six months, one year, three years? I always want to do what's right, but there has to be some limit. My personal feeling is that if a product or project is properly installed, any problem usually surfaces within the first 12 months. But, even with a one-year call-back limit, which seems fair to me, we do have to be flexible in trying to satisfy our clients.
As I said earlier, that's not always easy to do. A few years ago a friend of mine was at a party where another guest told him and 30 other people that she was dissatisfied with the kitchen we had done for her. My friend shared this news with me, and I immediately called the woman to ask what the problem was, since we never had any knowledge about it. She told me she was not happy with the oven that we had sold her. I asked why, and she said that she never did like the oven.
Again I asked why and she explained that it didn't work well. Specifically, she said that the timer always seemed to be off and that the clock didn't really work very well. Had she ever called the service company? No. Why not? She didn?t know.
The oven was 1-1/2 years out of warranty at this point. However, in an effort to make her happy, I paid for a service call on her oven. It was determined that, while all of the other parts of the oven were functioning properly and operating well, the clock wasn't working because its stem had been pushed in and broken off by someone in her household. When informed of this news, she mentioned that her grandson may have hit the clock with a hammer! The cost of a new clock and installation labor was about $250.
I offered to pay for the labor if she would pay for the part to get it fixed. It was at this point that I almost jumped out of my skin. The client declined the offer, saying the clock wasn't worth fixing because she rarely cooked, and besides, she could use a portable timer on those infrequent instances when she did. I asked her to please stop telling people how unhappy she was with the kitchen we had done for her and she agreed.
I'm sure almost all of you have a comparable story, and that's why I can understand why so many dealers are leery of their clients' post-installation calls. While I understand that feeling, I can't endorse it. As responsible business people, we must move beyond that emotion and not arbitrarily assume that all complaints are as ludicrous.
Our first and foremost concern should be fairness for everyone involved. That commitment to fairness involves encouraging legitimate complaints as well as discouraging silly ones. That's why I recommend the use of a warranty product sticker that contains your company's name, and phone number. The stickers should have room for the service phone numbers to call for all of the products your clients purchase from you, as well as the date of the installation. Having a place for the model numbers and the brand of products will help the customer receive the service much more quickly.
We also recommend that the name of all of the tradespeople that worked on the project be listed for easy retrieval of who needs to be contacted should a service call arise. You should have one for kitchen projects and one for bath projects, since the products will vary a bit from one to another. Having this sticker put on the inside of the sink base door or vanity door shows the customer that you care, but more importantly your name stays in front of them every time they see it. It also helps advertise your company to anyone who may see this sticker.
Another idea we use is a system that allows you to send an anniversary card or letter letting the customer know that their one-year warranty is about to expire. If they have concerns that need to be addressed, now is the time to get them taken care of. Some of you may think that this is asking for trouble, but think how you would feel if you received this letter or card as a customer. Chances are if there is something that needs to be addressed they will call you sooner or later. I would rather have them call me now and not have to argue over the warranty period being over. Again, this is another way of meriting the trust that the clients have placed in you.
At this point you need to consider the role that good customer service plays in building profitability. While I don't think it should play a role, the reality is that is does. The best customers you can have are the ones who, in fact, need your help for getting something taken care. When you do this they are now able to see that you really were there when they needed you, and not just for the sale and "see you later."
I think the profits you earn should be made on the sale of the project, not on service. I do believe that it's the profits realized through the complete package's sales that allows us to provide the service that our customers expect.
There is one thing that we do: If a customer, for whatever reason, does not pay their final bill, we do not service their project. We tell them that part of the project they purchase from us is the service. We do not service work that is not paid for, period!!
If we want to continue selling profitable projects, however, properly servicing past clients is crucial. We need to be keenly aware that post-project service is as important to clients as design and product value, and that they will spread the word about prompt, efficient service work. Service your clients as well after the sale as before it and I believe you'll enjoy the referrals that are so important to the success of any kitchen and bath dealership.