A customer service dynasty would be just fine with Daniel Schmitt, president and COO of HHHunt, which won its third-consecutive Builder Partnership Achievement Award (BPAA) for delivering the highest level of customer satisfaction.
The home building division of privately owned HHHunt Corp., based in Blacksburg, Va., is 2013?s sole winner based on third-party verification and proprietary customer satisfaction surveys administered by Woodland, O?Brien & Scott, a research and management consultancy for home builders. Companies are recognized for this distinction after undergoing a review of their internal customer service and support process, and attaining an 88-percent score from customers who say they would refer the builder to their family and friends. A 93-percent referral score from customers earns the BPAA?s recognition for Highest Distinction in Customer Satisfaction.
HHHunt won both of those honors as a corporate entity in 2012, and as a division in 2011. This year, the company?s three divisions?Hampton Roads and Richmond, Va., and Raleigh, N.C.?averaged a 95-percent score from customers for ?willingness to refer,? and almost 80 percent of customers rated their home, community, and the HHHunt team as ?highly enthusiastic? as part of a customer enthusiasm gauge that measures a customer?s emotional connection to the home building team.
HHHunt Corp. launched its home building division in 1992.
The builder reached this point not by building quality houses within the delivery time frame, but by providing customer service from the sales experience all the way through the contract, mortgage processing, construction, warranty, and customer care stages.
?You have to have very engaged employees on your team first,? Schmitt says. ?It?s not possible to deliver great customer service if you don?t have committed and engaged people.?
HHHunt(ing) Tips for Capturing Referrals
Call it delighting the buyer or creating raving fans, but here are a few practices that HHHunt uses to deliver customer satisfaction.
? During the preconstruction meeting, managers give the buyers a company-branded mason jar with dirt inside taken from the construction site of their new home. Customers typically experience buyers remorse after signing the contract, but the jar of dirt can reactivate that sense of excitement during the beginning of what will be a long process. As general manager Mike McLendon says, homebuilding is one of the few industries where customers actually see the sausage being made.
? For the final inspection, HHHunt rolls out the red carpet for the buyers right to the front door. The customers also are presented with a gift basket to once again make this part of buying a new home an experience to remember.
? Customers will associate a clean job site with a quality-built home. So the builder expects subcontractors and suppliers to keep the site orderly and broom clean. If a sub shows up to a work area that was left messy by another subcontractor, they have to notify HHHunt; otherwise, that crew will be held accountable for cleanup. ?The things that get done are the things that get measured, and when (the trades) saw us come out weekly and walking the job, they knew we took (cleanliness) seriously,? McLendon says.
? Communicate bad news sooner rather than later. Customers can adjust to problems and delays during the process much better than they would upon learning at the 11th hour that their closing will be delayed by a month.
That ingredient wasn?t widely present before the 2008 housing market crash. The company had some systems and processes in place for construction, but nothing that really focused on the customer experience. Even the communities that HHHunt divisions built in Smith Mountain Lake, Va., or Raleigh, N.C., had a more recognizable brand than did the company itself. Although the builder was closing more than 600 homes annually, it operated a bit like a mom-and-pop company, says Mike McLendon, general manager for HHHunt?s Hampton Roads division.
During the depth of the housing slump about three years ago, senior management reassessed everything from product to people and processes in order to find a way to survive the downturn. They settled on becoming a customer-centric home builder as the best path for success. The initial steps called for retaining Woodland, O?Brien & Scott, which walked the company through focus groups, measurement, and the first stages for creating a company culture of empowerment for employees. Previously, if a customer approached the company with a problem, that first point of contact might have simply transferred the customer to someone who handles warranty issues, community relations, or another corporate silo.
?We started saying that customer service is everyone?s job, so we really focused on empowering people to solve problems,? Schmitt says. ?The first person to come in contact with the customer?s issue, they owned it. They were responsible for taking care of it quickly because we wanted quick responses to our customers.?
That objective did not call for cross-training all employees so they all have some knowledge of what the other departments do, in order to resolve problems. Empowerment required teamwork and lots of communication. The construction superintendent (HHHunt calls them builders), sales agent (sales executive in company lingo), and warranty coordinator work closely together. Every two weeks starting from when a house is sold, the builder and sales executive together call customers to deal with problems proactively as well as tell them about the progress of their projects.
?That forces our front line team to make sure they are walking the jobs, looking at the little things and make sure they are getting ahead of it,? says Pat McCarthy, general manager of HHHunt?s Richmond division. ?Solving problems before they arrive prevents a little problem from becoming a bigger problem.?
A couple of weeks after closing, the warrantee coordinator calls the customer and again six months later to see how the owner is enjoying the new home. During that conversation, the coordinator reminds the customer that a crew will visit on the 11th month to take care of nail pops and other new-house nuisances.
?The point of that is (customers) don?t think we forgot about them,? McCarthy says. ?A lot of times the builders are there during the building process, but once they get the check they kind of want to run away from the buyer. We?re coming it from the point that the customer just spent between $200,000 and $300,000 with us; they want to know that we are there for them, and if we do that, there?s a good chance we?ll get a referral. That?s the cheapest form of advertising.?
Changing any company culture demands that top management truly embraces the new priorities so employees will buy-in. Schmitt says he clearly communicated his expectation that customer service will be superb and employees will be held accountable to deliver great service. If they fall short, then there will be ?a conversation.? But that expectation doesn?t mean heads will roll. Typical HHHunt managers ask their charges what they can do to help them do their job better.
On one project, for example, the foundation was installed incorrectly. The builder on this site typically does not make such mistakes, so McLendon investigated what went wrong. It turns out the office employee who put together the blueprint package made the error. But that mistake occurred because there was a process the employee was either overlooking or wasn?t aware of. However, management was at fault because that person wasn?t properly trained; so more training was provided.
?We don?t just hire and fire,? McLendon says. ?No one comes to work to do a bad job. Typically when people make mistakes, it?s because we haven?t given them the tools to succeed. That?s management?s problem. If (employees) know that you?re concerned, you?re there for them, and if they stumble, you?re not going to throw them away; that?s great motivation.?
Maintaining a customer-centric company demands hiring employees with the right personality. HHHunt is in the process of formalizing those attributes in order to test for them during the interview process. But managers already have a good idea of the qualities they?re looking for in someone who can succeed in delivering customer satisfaction.
Such people can self-manage; they?re sociable, respectful of others, decisive, positive, appear professional, and speak properly. Typical job-interview questions that can raise a red flag are ?Describe how you handled a difficult situation? or ?Talk about a mistake you made and how you would handle that situation differently.? Some candidates answer that they would go by the book with the customer and explicitly point out what the contract covers and doesn?t cover. Those candidates are not a fit.
?You can?t preach to the customer about standards,? McLendon says. ?You have to listen to what the customer is saying and in the discovery process you?ll find out what the real problem is, and then you?ve got to attack that.?
HHHunt measures how it is performing by checking weekly surveys that grade customer enthusiasm for every facet of the builder?s operations. Besides the tabletop survey during closing when the builder asks customers to grade their experience, Woodland, O?Brien & Scott sends homeowners a formal survey 45 days after they?ve moved into a new house. But even before that survey arrives, the builder, sales executive, and general managers will call customers to ask how they are and if they have any questions or problems with their property.
?I can tell by doing those calls if we dropped the ball or not,? McLendon says. Employees and managers have weekly and monthly meetings to talk about their scores and any problems that need to be tackled. The company conducts focus groups with Realtors and home-buying customers just to see what it could do better. Once the employees saw the correlation between being customer centric and higher customer enthusiasm scores, and ultimately customer referrals, they were in.
?Once you get momentum, and you get people to buy in and keep beating that drum, people get enthusiastic about it,? Schmitt says. ?They like these awards and like to see their scores go up. They see how well it works and how it creates more opportunity in the future.?
HHHunt also celebrates. Employees who excel or go above and beyond are recognized and awarded. When an individual is identified in a survey for doing a great job, that person and their entire team get the accolades. Some divisions also have employee experience committees that plan outings every two months for the group such as a picnic, bowling, attending baseball and basketball games, and other activities. The teams also share a monthly lunch and review their survey scores.
?There?s no such thing as a process with no delays, no hiccups, and delivering a house with no problems; we?re not perfect,? McLendon says. ?(Customer satisfaction) boils down to the Golden Rule. Treat people the way you want to be treated. You earn so many points with the customer because you?re not hiding anything from him. Just be proactive and communicate.?
The Builder Partnership Achievement Awards (BPAA) were created by Builder Partnerships, a networking organization based in Littleton, Colo., to provide home builders with third-party validation from a credible source. Teams of industry experts survey home builder customers, analyze results, benchmark the applicant's performance, and validate the results for BPAA achievement level. The BPAA is awarded in two classifications: "Distinction in Customer Satisfaction" and "Highest Distinction in Customer Satisfaction."