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Client Relationships

Any credible company will blithely profess that taking care of customers is just “good business.”  Ingraining good customer service into an organizational culture, however, involves an investment of time (which equals money) that not all businesses are willing to make.

For STRITE, customer relations is as necessary a cost of doing business as meeting our payroll. One of the legacies of our company’s founder, Jim Strite, was to make customer care not simply a rigorous discipline, but the subject of on going study. Rather than handing out reading assignments on new construction techniques, which our project managers were already inclined to learn as a matter of perfecting their craft, the STRITE team was asked to study books like “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” As a result, STRITE’s weekly production meetings typically focus as much on the emotional states of our remodel customers as they do on construction details.

To better appreciate how customer relations shape the STRITE culture and its business practices, I recently interviewed vice president Brad Millspaugh on the subject.

Q: Why are customer relations such an important component of a successful remodeling business?

A: We joke that our project managers need to major in construction and minor in psychology, but when you think about it, we’re spending every day in situations that are inherently stressful — we’re going into peoples’ homes, into some of their most intimate settings, and completely transforming them.  That in itself puts people in a pretty vulnerable mindset, and we have to be sensitive to that.

Q: How do we promote good customer relations among our project team?

A: The first thing we do is practice the techniques we’ve learned from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” These include always looking for the “win-win” in a situation and seeking first to understand. That last technique is especially important when you have a customer who is upset about something.  We’ve learned that the best initial response to a customer concern is to simply shut up and listen. Another important attribute of our project managers is the ability to stay calm. Bringing a sense of calm to a situation that is inherently stressful is vital to keeping our customers calm as well.

Q: How important are good communication skills?

A: Extremely important — but good communication goes beyond interpersonal dynamics. It starts with the systems we put in place to keep our customers in the loop on their remodel projects. Over the years, we’ve built layers into our tracking and reporting systems in order to accommodate different customer personality types. This means including levels of detail that satisfy a more “engineering” mentality, or keeping things more high level for customers who simply want to know if we’re on track with deadlines and budget, but don’t want to get into the weeds. Every week, our clients receive an email update of their project status tailored to their particular “need to know.” Things like small business software also helps out in managing the team for quick communication.

Q: What else matters to customers?

A: Responsiveness. We don’t like to get a phone call in the middle of the night from a customer who says that the tarp protecting their construction site just blew off in a windstorm, but we have to not only take that call, but respond to it by going out and fixing the problem. In a case like that, just listening isn’t enough.

Q: What is most upsetting to customers?

A: Not being kept in the loop. When we fail to adequately communicate, and our customers have to contact us to find out what is going on with their project, that’s simply not acceptable. Which brings up another aspect of good customer relationships — the inevitability of error, and our willingness to take ownership for our mistakes and fix them without playing “the blame game.”

Q: What is it about practicing good customer relations that makes it a cost of doing business?

A: When we take on any remodel project, one of the things we tell our customers is that after we’ve created the budget, the description of work, and the project calendar, the only wildcard is them. We don’t mean this in a negative way, but simply to recognize that indecisiveness or tortured decision making can add delays and cost. We’re generally pretty good at recognizing these types of situations up front, and we build it into what we call our “dollars versus relationship transaction” rather than put the burden back on the client when issues arise. I think most of our clients recognize that the more they contribute to the efficiency of the process, the more it benefits them in the end…and that the reverse is equally true — but we’ll treat everyone with the same respect and professionalism regardless. As in any relationship, the true test is how well you hang in there through the not so good times as well as the good times.

Remodeling as a Metaphor
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“I appreciate that everyone wants to manage a budget, but I’ve learned that the last 20 percent you don’t want to put into it is the 20 percent that really distinguishes it in the end.”

“You can decide not to go there and end up with something ‘ho hum,’ or invest it and be glad you did.” — CJ (a STRITE client in Boise’s North End)

It would be ever so nice if we could have whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted it, with no conditions or compromises attached — but the fact is that we all live in the real world.  And if we didn’t discover this by the time we were two years old, there’s nothing like a remodel project to bring us hurtling back to the reality that life is about trade-offs.

STRITE designer Michael Snow recently shared an online article with us on this very theme, and we thought it worth passing along with some insights of our own. The article, “Where Should I Splurge and Where Should I Save Money in a Home Remodel,” should be required reading for anyone contemplating a remodel, and the advice mirrors the discussions we have with nearly every client we work with at the outset of a project.  While we encourage you to read the entire article (along with its excellent sidebar links), we’d like to amplify on some of points it raises.

Very few, if any, remodeling projects will return 100% of your investment, so the decision to remodel should be more about your enjoyment of your home and getting more out of it. For any space, think about your family’s lifestyle, and spend more on the areas that support those priorities. — If your immediate goal is to put your home on the market, it certainly makes sense to prioritize those fixes/enhancements that will most likely get you a good offer.  In the case of most remodels, however, our advice to our clients is to always focus on how a project will enhance their lifestyle.  The reason we have always insisted on a design/build model for our business is to make sure that we focus on lifestyle priorities at the very outset of a project.  That said, it’s at least encouraging to note that the cost vs. value ratio for remodel projects has actually improved in 2013 for the first time in years.

You don’t want to overspend and possibly price your home way out of proportion to the rest of the neighborhood. — Following this advice has a lot to do with how long you plan to live in your home…which is a similar consideration you need to make when the question of “over customization” comes up.  This may be a more relevant issue to a young family than to an older couple, especially if that older couple is looking at modifications aimed at “aging in place.”  To get a good perspective on keeping remodel projects in line with logical enhancements to the style and function of a home, as well as it’s value within a neighborhood context, take a look at our blog, “Confessions of a Serial Remodeler.”

Invest in the Most Permanent, Fundamental Items. — One of the great advantages of remodeling compared with most new construction is the degree of choice you can exercise over materials that improve the durability, efficiency, and functionality of your home.  A good remodeler can guide you through those choices and help you weed out the things that are “the flavor of the month” versus those with more fundamental and longer lasting value.

Buy Cheaper Alternatives That Look the Same as Premium Materials — Thanks to the Internet, you can do your homework on how to get the look and performance that you’re looking for, without necessarily paying “name brand” prices.   An advantage we have after nearly forty years in the remodeling business is that we can do a lot of this homework for our clients, based on relationships with a long list of suppliers.

Spend More on Your Room’s Focal Points — Something we always take into account in any remodel design is the ways that “line of sight” and “flow” enhance the experience of a living space.  We find this to very often be the case in updating kitchens, when taking out a wall can connect a key center of family activity with the rest of a home’s public spaces.

Start Off on the Right Foot — The article recommends creating a realistic budget…and then adding 50% “just in case.”  As a remodeling company that has made “knowing our numbers” an essential part of the value we bring to our clients, our general practice is to allow between 3 and 5% for “additional work requests” (AWRs) that typically arise when a client chooses to add or upgrade something to a remodel project beyond the original scope of work.  In other words, give yourself some “wiggle room” if it means the difference between getting what you want and, as CJ so poetically put it, “ho hum.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trades Party

Next to building or buying a home, a remodel may be one of the biggest investments you’ll ever make — and choosing the right remodeling partner is the single most critical component to whether or not that investment maintains its value.

The best place to start in considering a remodeling partner is to identify those that are registered and/or licensed with the state to do business as remodeling contractors. In addition, check for their membership in local and state remodeling professional organizations, such as NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) and NARI-Idaho, and whether they have certifications in their trades — i.e., Green Certified Professional Certification, Certified Remodeler (CR), Certified Remodeler Specialist (CRS), Certified Remodeler Associate (CRA), Certified Kitchen and Bath Remodeler (CKBR), Certified Lead Carpenter (CLC), Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS), etc.

Other factors to consider include years in business, reputation, recommendations and references, and membership in local business, civic and community organizations. NARI suggests the following questions you should ask prospective remodelers:

  • How long have you been in business?
  • Who will be assigned as project supervisor for the job?
  • Who will be working on the project? Are they employees or subcontractors?
  • Does your company carry workers compensation and liability insurance?
  • What is your approach to a project such as mine?
  • How many projects like mine have you completed in the past year?
  • May I have a list of references from those projects?
  • May I have a list of business referrals or suppliers?
  • What percentage of your business is repeat or referral business?

If you are getting competitive bids, be sure to only work with reputable companies.  We also recommend researching articles and tips from industry websites such as RemodelingMag.com and NARIofIdaho.org to learn more about the importance of selecting a professional remodeler.  Another excellent source for information on local remodeling companies is GuildQuality, which publishes surveys of remodel customers in communities throughout the country.

*The photograph shows A STRITE “trades party” convening at the home of a client at the start of a remodel project.

While people often think of home remodeling as synonymous with building an “addition,” there are a number of reasons it makes sense to remodel besides adding needed living space. Some of the most common reasons that we have seen in our 40 years of residential design and remodel experience are the following.

Updating the Look of Your Home

Like fashion in general, what was once fresh in the layout and design of a home can become stale over time. Believe it or not, harvest gold and avocado were once trendy, but unless you’re way into the “retro” look, you’d probably prefer a more contemporary style for your kitchen. As our case studies demonstrate, Strite has a long track record of design and build updates that wear well with time.

Improving the Functionality of a Living Space

Unless your home was custom built, its design made generic lifestyle assumptions that simply may not apply to you. We find this to be particularly true in the kitchen, where your own unique approach to food and entertaining can make a huge difference in a room’s size, layout and finishes. Your lifestyle and interests are paramount when we address the functional remodel of your home.

Aging in Place

Homes age…and so do we. As we age, we eventually face mobility issues that in turn affect the livability of our homes. Rather than going through the dislocation of moving to a new house, a remodel that transforms obstacles into conveniences (particularly with regard to bathrooms) can be a better option for how we deal with aging in our homes.

To read more about how STRITE design + remodel addresses these and other needs, view the Services page of our website.

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