Easing the Anguish of Remodeling

The belief of many homeowners that remodeling can be a traumatic experience under the best of circumstances is well established, but a recent news feature that compared home remodeling to a colonoscopy surely gave remodelers more reason to cringe. (New York Times, May 5, 2013, “How Colonoscopies Are Like Home Renovations,” Ezekiel J. Emanuel).

The author bluntly says: “It’s a law of nature: Everyone who undertakes major home renovations ends up loathing their contractor.”

If it’s any comfort, Emanuel continues that the strain of remodeling has nothing to do with the contractor’s honesty, quality of work or the mess they make or don’t make. Rather, it’s about psychology, the way we assess pain and the way we remember it.

Selective Memory

Still, the inference remains: Remodeling is painful. However, it is worth noting that subjects of experiments didn’t judge pain by the overall experience, but remembered pain, or lack of it, at the very end, which had a disproportionate influence on how they evaluated the entire experience, according to the article. The author’s advice to contractors, which seems to advise ignoring some problems to concentrate on a hot button complaint, is to pick something, such as a repair or call-back, that the homeowner really cares about and exceed their expectations on that repair — especially at the very end of the job. In other words, leave them with a positive experience that overshadows earlier inconveniences and bumps in the road.

Remodelers who pride themselves on exceptional customer satisfaction can be expected to — and should — take exception of the broad characterization of remodeling as a painful experience as well as to a somewhat manipulative, and perhaps cynical, attitude exhibited by the author of the aticle. Although equating remodeling and pain may be extreme, an awareness of the prevalence of the perception can help remodelers do everything to counteract that experience and leave their clients with a positive feeling after the job is completed.

The important lessons of the story, even if remodelers take exception to some of its presumptions, are how people experience events and, more important, how they remember them.

How You Made Them Feel

David Roberts, AIA, CR, UDCP, of Roberts Design Build in Evanston, Ill., sums up his feelings about customer service in more agreeable terms by paraphrasing author and poet Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, and people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Accordingly, it’s important for Roberts to know how his customers feel once a job is completed. He uses a third-party firm that specializes in customer satisfaction surveys, particularly in the remodeling industry. “I think our clients are willing to say things to a third-party that maybe they would be hesitant to say directly to me,” Roberts says, explaining his preference for a third-party approach.

“I’ve learned that simply asking clients to provide feedback is really appreciated,” Roberts says. In fact, it is part of his marketing effort to mention early on to clients that they will be surveyed at the completion of the job. “Letting them know you care is really important,” he explains.

“The strength of what we do comes from caring, listening and a real concern about [the clients’] needs and then meeting those needs and expectations and exceeding them,” he continues.

If the survey results are anything but 100 percent positive, Roberts will do some fact-finding and arrange to talk with the client about the problem. “I think it’s appreciated by clients that we take the time to do that,” he says.

For Roberts, gift baskets to clients are a secondary concern in ensuring customer satisfaction. “I don’t believe you can buy their trust or their willingness to refer you; I think you have to earn that by your actions,” he says. However, at the end of the year, he does send out modest gift baskets from a local charity. “It’s not the actual thing that’s important; it’s the thought and where it came from.”

The most important thing is to listen carefully, Roberts advises. “Ask about pets, special conditions, when the cleaning lady is coming and going so we know who is coming into your house at 10 a.m. on Thursday while you’re at work.”

Director of WOW

Lainey Dyer, Henderer Design Build, Corvallis, Ore., reports that she’s changed her title from office manager to Director of WOW, “because that’s what I want our clients to say when they work with us. How many businesses do you know where you walk away [from the experience] and say, ‘Wow, they really go the extra mile’?

“We want to create a customer experience that is like no other. We have tons of competition in town who are really, really good. My job is to spoil our clients, to give them an ultimate experience and to give them a product that is truly outstanding,” she says.

“I call it ‘surprise and delight,’” Dyer says. “Maybe we will leave some of our custom-made chocolates on their counter with a card that says, ‘Have a good day,’ — just doing things that other companies wouldn’t do.”

The company also stages client appreciation events. “We take them to a baseball game once a year or to a wine tasting or to a brewery. We’re having a big chili cookoff this year for all our past clients and vendors,” Dyer says.

Dyer generally finds clients are not hard to please, aside from the fact they’re watching what they spend more closely. “It’s harder to portray the value of your company when people are shopping around and getting bids,” she says, but because a great deal of the company’s business comes from referrals and past clients with whom the company already has a relationship, jobs tend to go smoothly. Corvallis, Dyer notes, is home to Oregon State University, a major hospital and industries such as Hewlett-Packard, giving Henderer a client base of professionals from which to draw. “We have a highly educated clientele who want quality and are willing to pay for it,” she says.

Henderer does not do a formal survey at the end of each job but does do a final walk-through. “We maintain constant communications with the client each week, and if problems do come up, we make sure they’re fixed right away.

“You can’t be ordinary because there are lot of other ordinary guys out there,” Dyer advises. “The competition is stiff, and if you want to win over clients for life you have to be extraordinary. You have to be constantly thinking of things that you can do to make your clients happy; that’s what my job is,” adding that being director of WOW has made her job 10 times more fun.

Lack of experience and especially lack of people skills are what get a lot of contractors in trouble on the customer satisfaction level, according to Paul Paniagua, principal, All Pro Builders Inc., Fullerton, Calif. Those rare people skills don’t always come naturally, he adds.

How People Are Wired

“Understanding how people are wired and how they communicate is huge,” Paniagua says. “If you’re dealing with a Type A personality, they may tend to come off as a little pushy. If you’re an amiable type who loves everybody and wants to be everyone’s friend, you may think that person is mean, but that’s just how they communicate.”

Paniagua cautions that understanding how people are wired has to be sincere. “It’s not a game. It’s about educating yourself about people in general and really knowing how to deal with them and communicate with them,” he says.

Just being a nice guy doesn’t always work, he continues. A remodeler who considers himself to be honest and respectable from time to time is going to come up against people who are unprofessional and rude. Because of that remodeler’s lack of understanding, he may feel pushed into a corner, causing him to respond in a similar manner.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Paniagua says. “I don’t ask my people to stand there and be abused by anybody, but there are a lot of things going on in people’s lives. We don’t know what happened the night before. We’re in people’s homes sometimes two or three months, so we deal with what’s happening at that time.”

People Skills and Growth

Asked if customers are more critical and harder to please today, Paniagua says, “If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have had a completely different answer, because we were in such a different place, even with our own personal growth and people skills. You can keep most people quite happy, but there is a small group who never intend on being happy from day one.”

For all of the remodelers to whom we spoke, customer service is a given. “I really don’t know what it would be like not to do good customer service; it’s something we pride ourselves on,” says Tom Reilly, president, Renovations: Your Complete Remodel Resource, Prescott, Ariz.

Even though Reilly uses a third-party company to measure customer satisfaction, he always does a personal follow-up. In addition, he asks clients’ permission to be surveyed. “I meet with people and it’s usually at that point I reaffirm if it’s okay for me to pass along their name [to the survey company.] I really don’t want to just give out their name without making sure they agree. Some people are funny about that,” he says.

As for whether clients are harder to please these days, Reilly concedes they are. “If you look at the bubble years, 2002 through 2007, customers were grateful that somebody would do the work because new construction was booming. It was hard to get anybody to do remodeling work. Today clients feel they can be a lot more picky because they believe most of us out here are all starving and that we should just fall over backward and be grateful to get a paycheck [from them].”

The reality for Reilly, however, is “we’re getting a lot of leads, doing a lot of bidding, and we’re staying pretty steady with work,” he says. And even though clients have a tendency to be more critical, Reilly feels the company’s workmanship and that of his subcontractors is of a quality that averts most complaints. “All of our subcontractors must be vetted before we invite them into anybody’s house,” he comments.

Speaking of the competition, Reilly agrees that many contractors, because they are working for themselves and are their own bosses, think they can do whatever they want. “If [they’re] in my marketplace and are competitors, I encourage [them] to continue that kind of behavior because more jobs will come my way,” he says.

“Excellence is out there, and if you are not excellent, somebody else will be,” he adds.