Suburbia: It has been a panacea and an expletive. Touted for affordability and maligned for automobile dependence, suburbia is a fact of life in the U.S.
A Matter of Perspective
The most overlooked group in home building could benefit from your time and appreciation.
Some years ago, a building company I work with decided to pull its customer service and warranty people together from all over the country for a 2 1/2-day meeting. The goal was to share experiences, knowledge and information, decide on necessary training and promote teamwork. The builder also just wanted to show these often-beleaguered people they were appreciated. My job was to design and facilitate the experience. The lessons that emerged from this gathering have never left me.
The first thing that struck me was simply how overwhelmed this group of people was just to be given an opportunity to travel and get together off-line for a few days. They had all seen similar meetings take place for sales, construction, finance, etc., but never had the service and warranty people had such an experience. Their level of excitement might have been embarrassing, if it weren’t so sincere.
That was in itself a lesson. Why was a meeting like this so unusual that it was considered a major event? Why do we so seldom shower upon service people the kind of attention we do on those who build and sell the houses -- or count the numbers? In survey after survey, service and warranty personnel show the highest rates of dissatisfaction and turnover in our industry. Our response is to just accept this as the way things are. What’s worse, there is a disturbing tendency to put our newest, least experienced and least trained people out on service duty.
Morale had been sagging among these people (surprise!) in the year before the meeting, so we surveyed them a month ahead in order to tailor the agenda. Just for curiosity, I included this question: "How many of your homeowners would you rate as truly dysfunctional, impossible to satisfy or, as some service people like to put it, defective customers?" The statistics ranged from 10% to 25%.
Things were worse than I had imagined. According to the service personnel, one out of five was impossible to please. A month later, I asked them to take 15 minutes after a break and make a list of every "defective customer" they could think of from the past 12 months. Each defective had to have a name, a lot number or an otherwise specific description -- no generalities. It didn’t occur to anyone that I had asked a similar question previously on the questionnaire.
When they returned, I put them into small groups and had them do a little math. They had to take the specific number of "impossible customers" and divide it by the number of units closed in the previous year. Then we added it up for the whole company. The result averaged about 2%. Then I showed them the statistics from the survey question -- they were floored. Their previous perception of the problem was almost exactly 10 times larger than reality -- by their own calculations.
We had a long discussion about this, and it has come up many times since. In time, the group made sense out of it. The reason the problem seemed 10 times worse than reality was simple. These were the houses, and customers, on which the service and warranty people were spending all of their time. This explains a lot about why service and warranty personnel get so cynical. They deal primarily with unhappy customers. I have retold this story countless times, and it always turns on the light bulb for someone.
By the Numbers
Another exercise led to another revelation. We broke the group into teams and had each walk at least three homeowner orientation-ready houses at appointed times. No one knew they were all walking the same houses. We asked each person to walk the house individually and then review their items with their teams. At the end, we pulled everyone’s stats together and made comparisons. It was staggering.
The number of "items" noted by experienced people walking identical homes varied by as much as 1,000%! Some of it was because of definitions; for example, what exactly constitutes a single paint "item." Some people counted rooms, some walls, some each minute speck. One participant had a unique system that had evolved in his operation whereby every seven paint items equaled one item. (I know, I know ... don’t ask.)
Other variations resulted from different levels and types of experience. One guy had been a trim carpenter, so you can guess where he focused his attention. One surprising set of numbers showed two people from the same operation each recording a home at 14 items but with only four of the 14 matching. Why? One person doing the inspection was 6879. The other one was 48119. It simply made a difference in what they saw.
Our heads were spinning at the end, but we all came away with different thoughts about comparing house with house by number of items. It’s a very tricky business and one in which I have never since put much stock. Don’t get me wrong. We are a long way from eliminating inspections. But none of us at that meeting will ever be so naive or trusting about the quality of the numbers again.
That constitutes most of the surprises, but perhaps most gratifying was the shared knowledge, support and team spirit that came about as a result of the meeting. Morale increased dramatically. People started talking to each other, and the benefit was incalculable. Customers noticed. I’d like to say that a new tradition of getting the service and warranty people together was begun at this company. Unfortunately, a new management team took over shortly after this gathering, and they have never been able to see the need or the benefit. Too bad. They don’t know what they are missing. But perhaps you can start the tradition in your firm. Try it. You’ll be surprised what you might learn.