A great deal has been said and written about customer service and the necessity of putting customers first if you want to have a successful kitchen and bath firm. We have all had buying experiences where we felt like a salesperson, or more impressively, an entire business really saw things our way and took care of our needs. Why, then, is this such a rare occurrence in the kitchen and bath industry, as well as other industries, and what can we do to get our clients to feel this way about our companies?
Among the challenges that face kitchen and bath firms as they attempt to navigate the road to excellent customer service are: the extended time frame that our product requires, the unique aspect of building a product in the customer's home while they try to continue on with their lives and, finally, the stress of a cost that may seem open-ended to them. The prescription for all of these is the same old remedy good and timely communication.
The Long Journey
Because we have been at remodeling for quite a while, we know that it is not unusual for kitchen and bath projects to take many months to go from the start of design to the final completion. Our clients, on the other hand, more than likely have serious misconceptions about how long their "simple" bath remodel is going to take.
Managing expectations should begin the day that a potential customer walks in your door.
Let's say your typical kitchen project takes two months to design and specify, a month from contract signing to start date and then 10 weeks to execute. If a client wants a new kitchen to be ready for a scheduled family function three months away, it's better to face up to this impossibility than to deny that there is a problem. Worse yet is to take on such a project and try to "fast track" it when there is little chance that it will be completed on time.
As mentioned above, the key here is to establish good, clear communication with your client. If it really is too late to finish the kitchen for that family function, you will need to explain in some detail all of the steps involved in producing their project and why meeting their deadline is not realistic. Most clients will be able to grasp this complexity and will appreciate you leveling with them up front.
Assuming that we get by the hurdle of how long the project is going to take, we need to remind ourselves that we are entering a relationship with our clients that will certainly last several months, and may even go on for a year or more. Make sure that you devote the time up front to get to know your clients and their needs.
As you proceed through the planning process, take the time to introduce your clients to as many of your team members as possible. Most people have a significant emotional investment in their homes, and the idea of having strangers in their home, demolishing significant parts of it, can be extremely stressful for them. If you can reach a point where much of your staff is not in the stranger category, this can be very helpful in reducing this stress level when the construction phase of the project actually begins.
As the time approaches for the construction phase to start, you need to help your client prepare for the project and the disruption to daily routines. The next step in developing the relationship with your client is the pre-construction meeting. Assuming that responsibility for the project will pass from the designer/salesperson to the production personnel, this is the time to make that transition. How you manage the pre-construction meeting will have a big impact on your client's perception.
Remember that your client is about to turn their home, or a portion of it, over to your team. It is up to you to make them feel as comfortable as possible with this.
Begin by being prepared for this meeting and have an agenda. This will allow two things to happen: your client will have confidence that you and your staff have thought their project through, and it will allow you to assert control over the situation.
Have a clear, realistic construction plan ready to present to your client. It is also helpful if you have a set of written instructions for your client.
At our company, we have prepared a "client handbook" that details for our client what to expect throughout the project. This document also allows us to communicate to our clients what to expect concerning some of the gray areas that will come up during the course of the project.
Once the project has actually started, the most important element the rest of the way is to keep your client informed as to what is happening with their project. It is great to have a well-prepared plan and time line, but no project ever goes exactly as planned. At the pre-
construction meeting, cover this issue and explain what your plan is to keep your client informed about changes that occur and what impact that may have on the final completion date.
Have a procedure in place that is designed to update your client each week as to what they can expect to happen that week and any decisions or meetings that will be required. You should make it a rule within your staff to make sure that any client phone call is returned the same day that any message is received, particularly if there appears to be a problem. If your client gets the impression that you are attentive to their project and concerns, they will tend to relax and not feel like they have to manage it for you.
At the end of the project, you will have the final chance to leave that lasting impression. There is a tendency to get the client moved back into their kitchen or bathroom and then relax about the final few items on the punch list. Making the completion of these items a priority for your entire organization will leave that final good impression of your organization, to say nothing of saving a lot of time and money by not dragging out this process.
The key to any successful project is to remember that you are working in your client's home. This is usually your customer's major asset, and they are heavily emotionally invested in it. It is important to build a trust relationship with the client and try to get them to take a role as partner in the successful completion of their project. If your client feels their home is in good hands, you will have a successful project and a happy customer.