I’ve been talking to builders lately about coping with tight lot setbacks. Some build in the city, where it’s commonplace to see a new home shoehorned on a lot with 2- or 3-foot side yards.
Staffing Is The Secret To Happy Buyers, Sales
Seven years ago, Hawthorne, N.Y., builder Martin Ginsburg made it his mission to improve customer satisfaction by multiplying contact points throughout his company with buyers.
|Martin Ginsburg's machine runs on people power. With Ginsburg (center) are (from left) vice president and Westchester division director Billy Riehl, TQM coordinator Susan Wilson, Westchester customer service manager Sharon Brooks, and personal home counselors director Jennifer Loia.|
Seven years ago, Hawthorne, New York builder Martin Ginsburg made it his mission to improve customer satisfaction by multiplying contact points with buyers throughout his company. He's certainly done it.
The results show in this year's inaugural National Homeowner Satisfaction award competition. A score of 179.97 did more than win the NHS award in the category of builders with annual closings between 100 and 500 units. As the highest score recorded in the entire competition, it wins Ginsburg Development Corp. the NHS Diamond award -- the national championship in home builder customer satisfaction.
With the changes Ginsburg began seven years ago, GDC now has probably the highest staffing level among American home builders of employees with customer relationship responsibilities. Among the firm's 135 employees, 33 spend much of their time in direct personal relationships with buyers.
Now consider that the employment roll includes only one salesperson. Ginsburg gets 12 sales reps from Marcon Marketing, a Westchester County firm with which he's had a long relationship. And 15 employees work almost exclusively on rental apartment projects. Many of the GDC customer contact people are in jobs that don't exist in most home building companies.
New Job Titles
For instance, the firm has five personal home counselors, whose job is to hold buyers' hands from contract right through closing and into warranty. High on each PHC's to-do list is an introduction to one of GDC's five options counselors, who take buyers through the upgrade selection process before construction begins. A month after closing, primary customer care responsibility shifts to the 12 managers and technicians in GDC's warranty department. However, it is during construction that GDC absolutely overwhelms buyers with attention.
Martin Ginsburg has an iron-willed determination to delivering defect-free homes in on-time closings. "If buyers move into a home with punch-list items, you've really lost them," he says. "You almost never get them back on your side, at least not to the degree we want them. Your quality is always suspect. You can do everything else right, but if you close an incomplete house, it's all out the window."
To prevent that, GDC staffs each of its six job-sites with four or more construction supers -- a lead super (project manager), a site super, framing super, and finish super. Because the finish super's role in customer relations is so critical, many have assistants to help with their workload. Every job also has three construction laborers (working mostly to keep the site clean) and an administrative assistant.
"We used to do projects with three people on-site instead of nine," Ginsburg says. "But we couldn't keep customers satisfied. We were delivering houses with long punch-lists, and warranty work wasn't getting done promptly. The trades weren't responding when we needed them. The watershed for us was when I went to Benchmark and came back and started our total quality management program. We started measuring everything. We now survey buyers at closing, 90 days after closing, and again at one year. And I read them all."
Ginsburg believes most production builders drop the ball on customer goodwill during construction. "The house is going up, they are anxious about it, and the sales agent who was always available before contract is now too busy to talk to them," he says. "All along the way, from the time a customer first comes into our sales office, we do things -- like give them small gifts -- to let them know we care about them."
Jennifer Loia, who leads GDC's personal home counselors, says the PHCs fill the relationship gap after contract: "One of the gifts we give them is a home ownership manual that's really a guide through our entire buying process right into warranty," she says. "We also coordinate the walks we do with buyers on-site at pre-sheetrock, seven days before closing, and on the day of closing. We set up utilities for them and even help them plan the move-in."
The finish super is the critical contact on the construction site. Site and framing supers handle the heavy work on the job to free the finish super to deal with customers on the details that matter most to them. Westchester division director Billy Riehl says the positions are carefully coordinated: "Every person on the job has specific responsibilities, but each overlaps. The laborers are there to keep the job safe and clean. We worry about that all the time, not just at the end of the day or week. Clean construction sites have a huge impact on customer perceptions of quality and efficiency."
All trades have check-lists for every aspect of their work. They check them and the supers check the work before signing off that the job is complete. "Most builders' supers are so busy scheduling trades and managing traffic on-site that they can only spot-check the quality of work," Ginsburg says. "Our trades' work is inspected, measured and scored for performance. If they don't show up on time or fall down on quality, it costs them points. But at the same time, they know that when they come to our site, the job will be ready for them. They can get in, get done, and get out. Nobody runs tighter jobs and that makes the trades happy."
When buyers show up on-site during construction, it's often because something they've seen -- or even just sensed -- troubles them. GDC's personal home counselors and finish supers are always there to calm the fears. "Their job is to fill the gaps in personal relationships between sales and construction," Riehl says. "We want to see the goodwill that develops in the sales office spread across the whole company."
That's what happens, according to TQM coordinator Susan Wilson, who conducts GDC's internal customer monitoring: "When we do our surveys we always ask if they want to commend anyone for outstanding effort. In almost every case, we get a list of names, not just one or two. The PHCs and finish supers do better than anyone else. If I had to pick one person other than Martin Ginsburg who is responsible for us winning this award, I'd say Fred Carlson, who is one of our finish supers in Westchester. And Karoline Rossini, a finish super in Connecticut, is getting survey scores just as high as Fred's. Our options coordinators also get a lot of recognition."
But GDC's world is not always perfect. That's where the 12-person warranty department comes in. It takes over responsibility for service to customers 30 days after closing. During 2001, it handled 1800 individual items from five active building sites. GDC requires customers to submit written service requests and drop them in an "in box" located in the community. "We respond within 48 hours to set up an appointment where we can have one of our technicians look at the issue," Westchester customer service manager Sharon Brooks says. "We try to fix all small items within 24 hours, five days for bigger ones. Response time is critical. When something is wrong, we must have the same sense of urgency as the customer. We try to respond as if the problem was in our own house."
Ginsburg emphasizes that his company builds communities, not just houses. "We do all of the site planning, landscaping and development work, as well as building the houses. Because we're building whole neighborhoods, we need to bring the people into the picture to complete the community," he says. To do that, Ginsburg acts as a social director, from early in the construction phase. Perhaps three times during the course of construction of an attached community, GDC invites customers to come walk the site with Ginsburg, then have a catered lunch in the sales office.
"Getting people to know each other is important. That's why we throw block parties," he says. "We give them hard hats and take them out to walk the property. But the important thing is that they get to meet each other."
As flabbergasted as many readers may at the high level of staffing Ginsburg employs, he believes he has no choice. "If we are delivering eight homes a month, we have two site walks going on in each of those houses the last week before closing. The PHCs and finish supers have to spend quality time -- unrushed -- with those customers. If we don't have people available to them, it's traumatic. We hear from our buyers how easy we make the process, and we also hear the horror stories they tell us about past experiences elsewhere."
Ginsburg also believes his highly-staffed firm gets the best employees in the market because people enjoy working in such a calm environment. "Our people like the client contact, because they enjoy getting pats on the back," he says. "They'd rather have it that way than work where employees fear customers."
Given what the NHS award competition is teaching us about the importance of personal relationships to customer satisfaction, the wonder is that more builders are not staffed closer to the GDC model. "In our market, we need people to achieve high levels of satisfaction. New Yorkers are probably the world's most demanding customers. Maybe our staffing adds 1% of sales price to our costs. But we have a 25% referral sales rate. That's mostly how we sell. I'll take it."