‘What do you mean it's a three-month delay to get the tile guys in here?!" How many times have you heard customers react like that to news that's out of your control? Every builder faces such challenges, which come with building a complicated product in an uncontrolled environment.
Contrary to what you might think, the difference between the best and worst builders in terms of customer satisfaction isn't that problems don't happen to the best. The best still have issues - albeit fewer than their lower-rated counterparts - but they also have employees who know how to treat customers with respect and honesty, even to the point of being too honest.
"Inoculation" plays an important part in these builders' success. While not a magic bullet, inoculation is key to handling customers correctly. Without it, many buyers are left in a state of unpleasant surprise and worry that lowers their builder's customer satisfaction scores.
In medical terms, inoculation occurs when a doctor immunizes someone against a disease with a single dose or a series of vaccinations. You can use the same concept to inoculate your customers against dissatisfaction.
The science behind vaccination is relatively simple: When a harmless amount of disease-causing bacteria is introduced into the body, the immune system develops antibodies to fight off the disease should the person be exposed to a harmful amount. Applied to builders and their customers, this means introducing potential problems to buyers early to reduce the likelihood of massive disappointment should the problems occur.
This might sound like simple proactive communication, which is certainly better than reactive dialogue. Inoculation, however, is much more sophisticated. With proactive communication, you might call customers when something goes wrong to tell them the bad news before they find out on their own. With inoculation, you present scenarios that could happen but often do not. In effect, you are too honest, or hyper-proactive, about the realities of home building. You couple this message with an explanation of how you would address the potential problems if they occur.
The biggest key to inoculation is to follow through with reassurances that you could handle the problems or reduce their impact. Customers want to believe that you have everything under control. If they sense that you don't, you put them in a massive state of worry that will hurt your satisfaction scores.
Inoculation should be scripted so every customer hears the same message. And inoculation should occur throughout the building process, from selling and initial construction all the way through the warranty period.
Inoculation examples follow.
Selling phase: Be upfront about the possibility of delays. So many builders want to set a closing date at contract and intend to deliver on it but then fall short, causing massive customer disappointment.
A good inoculation would be to tell buyers it's impossible to guarantee a closing date so far in advance but that you'll provide a realistic date at a set future date or as soon as possible so they can schedule accordingly. Warn them that unforeseen delays can cause changes, and encourage them to be flexible and understanding. Finally, let them know that the salesperson will monitor job progress and keep them fully informed and that you expect everything to go well because you're better than most other builders at closing on time.
This is no substitute for on-time delivery, and you cannot make up for huge delays. But it does help with minor delays, keeping you and your customers on a level of honest communication and minimizing surprises.
Pre-drywall walk-through: After framing, take the buyers through the house and explain how it's being constructed and what can happen without routine maintenance. For example, show them where the bathtub will go and explain the importance of maintaining the caulk around it. Explain the potential for water intrusion if they don't keep up with maintenance, and show them where visible signs of water damage most likely would occur if they don't maintain a watertight seam.
As part of reassuring them, you could mention that you'll give them a home maintenance kit, including caulk, upon closing. You also could show them how the house is designed for easy access to areas susceptible to damage.
If water intrusion occurs, the buyers will be prepared for it, tempering any significant satisfaction issues.
Final walk-through: Most buyers are so elated to be inside their finished house that they hear only every other word their builder says. Nonetheless, the final walk-through is an important inoculation time. Make it clear that the warranty would cover most things that could go wrong with the home after it's occupied. Go over whom they should contact if they have a problem and the procedures that would be followed to ensure that warranty repairs would be made promptly and to their satisfaction.
Warranty phase: Continue inoculating throughout the warranty period. Let's say you get a call about cracked bathroom tile. Unless you're sending over a tile professional as you speak, don't risk upsetting the homeowners by giving the impression that the repair will be made immediately. Be honest and realistic about scheduling repair work. If the tile pros are backed up three months, say so. But then offer to come out that day and fill the crack with caulk or make some other temporary fix until the actual repair work can occur. Finally, let the customers know that you are tracking this issue and will make sure it is fixed to their complete satisfaction.
A well-orchestrated inoculation program can create enough wiggle room to keep some customers from becoming unmanageable. Keep in mind that inoculation often raises expectations about how things would be handled if something goes awry. Be sure you can deliver on your promise. If you can't, greater dissatisfaction can result.
Inoculation is not a panacea for all that can go wrong in a home. Rather, it contributes to your relationship value with customers by letting them know you're an honest person who will tell them how it is and how it might be. So give them a dose of reality to inoculate them against the unpleasant moments that occasionally can occur in home building.