Tips for Pursuing Client Satisfaction

The most powerful marketing force any business can have is a string of satisfied clients who are willing, even anxious, to refer others to that business. Yet many kitchen and bath firms have no formal strategy for assuring that their customers are going to be satisfied.

This month, we'll look at several aspects of developing such a strategy, including client expectations, communication, dealing with problems when they arise and keeping in touch with previous clients.

It's absolutely essential that you manage the expectations clients have about what your company is capable of doing for them. The greatest danger here is over promising and then under performing.

To avoid that, the first area to look at is your marketing. What do you say in your advertising and what's implied on your Web site? Are these all really accurate portrayals of your business' capabilities? If not, you need to either adjust the capabilities or change your marketing.

One of the surest ways to create positive impressions with clients is to exceed their expectations. It's a good idea to price your projects so that you can take care of the little extras and "favors" that inevitably come up, without getting out your change order book.
Scheduling is another area where you need to manage client expectations. If you've been realistic with your job schedule and allowed for some contingencies, it will make it easier to meet or beat the schedule.

One of the most troublesome areas of client expectations is with the products and workmanship itself. Here, it is your responsibility, and to your benefit, to make sure the client is educated as to what to expect and what industry standards are. For instance, the finish on the customer's hardwood floor will not be comparable to that on the person's baby grand piano. Wood, tile and other natural products will have variations in texture and markings and may take stains differently.

With respect to industry standards, this is a term that many of us use rather loosely when defending our work. There are, in fact, industry standards published by various trade groups.

One of the most appropriate for our type of work is the Residential Construction Performance Guidelines provided by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Referencing such a source for industry standards in your contract can prove extremely valuable if you ever are involved in a dispute resolution process with a client.

Handling Problems
While we all strive to avoid any problems with our projects, there are always those "challenges" on every job. The key to keeping a challenge from becoming a problem is to make sure that it's dealt with expeditiously.

If you are aware of a problem, and your client is not, let him or her know that you are aware of it and that you have a solution or are working on one. When a client calls your staff with a concern, make sure you show concern and understand the problem. Secondly, make sure that your client feels that you have taken over the solving of whatever problem has been brought to your attention.

One of the most important aspects of customer service is dealing with voice mail, e-mail or messages. When you receive a message from a client, particularly if the person seems upset about something, it's critical that you respond to the message a quickly as possible. It's human nature to stew about a problem until someone else "takes it over." Likewise, returning calls from upset or irate clients is one of the less pleasant parts of any job. But, experience should tell us that people only get more upset if they feel they are being ignored.

Finally, it seems that when things start to go wrong on a project, it often snowballs until nothing is working out. The best way to prevent this is to immediately give the first problem your full attention and make sure the project gets back on track.

Keeping in Touch
While the best source of ongoing business is the referral of satisfied clients, surprisingly, many of your pervious clients will not be able to remember even your company name after a couple of years, much less the designer's name.

It is important that you set up a strategy to "mine" your referral base. Some things you should consider implementing are an annual contact, a newsletter and an "important client list." All of these things are fairly easy to manage if you develop a client database. Most of us probably already have some software in either our accounting system or e-mail system that can be used for the maintenance of such a database, allowing you to keep track of all of the important aspects of a client's previous job (address, dates, price, etc).

The power of an annual contact has been driven home to me by a personal experience.

Twelve years ago, we bought a home through a real estate agent. Each year on the anniversary of the closing date, we receive a gift certificate for an ice cream cone at a local ice cream shop. Not only do we not forget who sold us the home, if we were ever to sell it, we would certainly return to this agent. In addition, we have referred friends to her. All of this for the cost of a couple dozen ice cream cones!

Newsletters also can keep your name in front of your client. While these are great vehicles for getting your message out and staying in contact, they can be expensive and time consuming to produce.

A more targeted approach is to maintain a list of important clients. These are the clients who are most likely to refer future business to you. Begin the process by having each member of your staff list five "nominations" for the list based on this criteria. Then, review the list with your entire staff to finalize it. Post the list internally (lunch room, etc.) and then develop a plan to make sure that someone stays in touch with each of these former clients.

In short, make sure potential clients understand realistically what your capabilities are, meet their expectations and make sure they are pleased and satisfied with the job you have done.

Then, follow up to maintain the relationship.