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Everything that characterizes a company — from its mission to the way it handles mistakes — emanates from the leadership branch. (Image: Pxhere)
This article first appeared in the PB September 2006 issue of Pro Builder.

Many home builders invest in customer service training for their staff with the goal of providing an outstanding experience at every phase of the home-building process. As commendable as these efforts are, they will always fall short if the company's leadership doesn't model attitudes and behavior. Great leadership can translate into great customer service throughout the organization, but what constitutes great leadership?

Douglas Lipp, an expert on customer service who once headed the training program at Disney Studio's Walt Disney University, emphasizes the importance of leadership while addressing customer service issues. During his keynote address at this year's NRS Satisfaction 1 conference, he told the nation's top home builders that they need leaders who believe in a customer-centric approach to everything they do — even if that means making certain sacrifices to support the team's ability to deliver on the promises made to customers.

Everything that characterizes a company — from its mission to the way it handles mistakes — emanates from the leadership branch. Look at any company that excels in service recovery and is able to adapt to meet new challenges in a changing marketplace and you'll find strong leadership.

Lipp notes a good leader is someone who can outwit, outplay and outlast the competition, especially when it comes to providing and inspiring outstanding customer service for both internal and external customers. Leaders are smarter, quicker to respond and better at sustaining their stronghold in the marketplace.

Because they have these skills, great leaders are better able to overcome stumbling blocks and exploit opportunities.

Common Mistakes in Leadership That Lead to Poor Customer Service

  • Being stuck in the past. When you live in the past, you let the old ways rule. This makes it hard to successfully respond to changes in the economy, culture, marketplace and industry. The home-building industry is dynamic and ever-changing. Those who ignore this fact will have great difficulty satisfying tomorrow's customers.
  • Allowing success to inflate your ego. Once you permit yourself to believe you're the best, complacency often sneaks in. With your guard down, it's easier for the competition to steal away business. That's what happened to the Walt Disney Company 25 to 30 years ago, Lipp says. The company kept basing future projects on past successes. After a string of box-office flops and a threat of corporate takeover, the company woke up to the reality that the business had changed — and the company had better change too if it wanted to survive. Creativity and innovation returned and the studio released such blockbusters as "The Lion King" and "The Little Mermaid."
  • Building silos instead of teams. When your various departments work independently, there's bound to be inter-department strife. And where there's strife, you can bet there is some poor customer service being delivered. Home builders need to tear down silos and create a flat organizational structure that thrives on teamwork. One example of this is a neighborhood quality team, which includes a representative of every department and comes together on a regular basis to discuss a specific neighborhood development.
  • Cutting too deep. Fiscal responsibility is a part of running any company, but when home builders try to save their way to prosperity, they can be short on resources when business takes a turn for the worse. When companies cut, slash and burn too deeply, the first one to feel the pain is usually the customer — the very lifeblood of the business. A good company leader considers how an expenditure truly affects customers before deleting it from the budget.

Ways to Improve the Customer Experience

Meanwhile, good leaders also know how to improve the customer's experience. The following are obvious yet merit mentioning:

  • Do the extraordinary in an ordinary fashion. When customers see you do fabulous things in a routine manner, they have a better perception of you. It's one of the easiest ways to exceed expectations. Some builders choose to think of these things as "wow factors" — unique routines that impress home buyers and differentiate the builders from their competition.
  • Be consistent. This applies to your dealings with both employees and customers. Team members who feel they are treated fairly will reflect that in the service they give customers. Also, by making your expectations explicit, employees will be more reliable in the way they communicate and work with home buyers. On the consumer's side, it's important that all employees treat home buyers with genuine care, respect and generosity each time they communicate with them. A recent survey shows that 53 percent of consumers feel that a bad experience with an employee reflects poorly not only on the employee but also on the management and the company.
  • Embrace change. The country's changing demographic means that leaders need to know how best to serve customers from different cultural backgrounds. By hiring, training and promoting people who think differently, successful leaders are able to assemble a team that can view a business from a variety of perspectives.

What's Required to Make Changes and to Make Them Stick

The connection between adapting to change and providing superior customer service is an important one. As the Disney example illustrates, no one is immune to changes in the marketplace. But it's equally important to note that no one has all of the answers, either.

Lipp fondly points out that even monkeys fall from trees. This old Japanese proverb means regardless of how capable or skilled we are, sooner or later, we all lose our balance and make mistakes — especially if we're not adapting to changes around us. It is important to learn from our successes and mistakes and to apply that learning to the area of customer service, whether it is service to our employees or our customers.

Change is not difficult, Lipp says. "The challenge is in sustaining the change and weaving it into the corporate culture." He maintains that change requires two things: confidence that the change is the right course of action and a support system with people in place to give the change a chance to succeed. Larry Webb, CEO of John Laing Homes, says, "Leading in our industry is all about attracting the best and the brightest. Recruiting, growing and retaining great people is the difference between companies. My role as CEO is to place these people in an environment that is exciting, challenging and loving (yes loving)."

Lipp offers this simple exercise to help you make changes for the better:

  • Create a table with three columns labeled Start, Stop and Continue.
  • With the customer's experience in mind, look at your leadership style and list behaviors and activities that you should start, stop and continue.
  • You can break these into short-term and long-term actions.
  • Then do the same thing for your team, listing behaviors and activities you would like your employees to start, stop or continue, both immediately and in the long-term.

This proactive approach to managing change is much easier and more profitable than having change forced upon you by the marketplace.

Ultimately, company leaders are responsible for customer satisfaction. And those who are the best at modeling, inspiring and rewarding great customer service will always be the most successful. Larry Webb as well as several others in the home building industry exemplify this type of leadership and serve as role models for the rest of us trying to take companies to the next level in this great industry.

Paul Cardis is CEO of NRS Corp., a research and consulting firm specializing in customer satisfaction for the home-building industry. He can be reached at