The devil is in the details, especially in customer service.
“The small things are easy to overlook when you’re focused on the big-picture efforts,” says Debra Smith,
vice president/general manager of Pulliam Aquatech Pools, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Fort Worth, Texas. “So you must make sure somebody’s monitoring them at all times.”
As your business grows, you can’t be in all places at once, of course. You must rely on your staff to care for clients as if they were family. To keep service running smoothly, industry veterans say you need to follow three rules: Project a culture that reflects your customer-care ethic, establish the right organizational chart and arm employees with the tools they need to help clients.
1. Establishing your customer-care culture.
You want your employees to adopt your customer service approach as their own. Developing such an atmosphere means establishing a certain mind-set and backing it up with procedures. “What’s difficult about culture is that it is intangible; you can’t see it,” says JoAnna Brandi, publisher of “The Customer Care Coach,” a weekly self-study program based in Boca Raton, Fla.
“It needs to be perpetuated with the kinds of questions you ask people, the things that are up on the walls,” Brandi adds.
• Use your company mission or other service-related slogans in signage, cards or internal memo pads. “It might be a note with the paycheck reminding employees that it comes courtesy of the customer — and what have you done for him or her this week?” Brandi says. “You could also broadcast a voice-mail message that says, ‘Today’s Tuesday, May 16, and it’s our job to add value to whatever we do with our customers.’”
• Use personal interaction as an opportunity to reinforce your message. It will act as a compass during meetings or while giving advice to an employee. When someone proposes the solution to a problem, Pulliam Pools’ CEO Barry Pulliam always asks the same question: Would you want it in your backyard? The answer determines the next course of action.
“He wants customers to have a pool that we would want in our own yards,” Smith says.
“People who do this right take it on like a religion,” Brandi adds. “They’re evangelical in their zeal for the customer, and it shows up in their sales.”
Paul Porter credits this kind of enthusiasm for the success of his company. “I always tell people, ‘Don’t chase the money — you’ll never catch it. Do the right thing and the money always follows,’” says the president of KPJ Holdings, based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
• But you need to take the intangible and turn it into something identifiable. You must specifically define your customer service standards, experts say. “What does ‘reliable’ mean?” Brandi asks. “You can’t just tell people to be reliable. You have to define it. Name three things that everybody has to do every day that will make you more reliable than the guy down the block.”
How often must you touch base with each client? Porter’s employees phone every Monday to explain what will happen throughout the week.
What if you can’t make it to the job site when originally planned? Ken McKenna doesn’t want the old contractor stereotype to apply to his company, so he made a new rule. “If we’re supposed to be there today and you can’t make it, somebody better call the customer,” says the president/ owner of Tampa Bay Pools, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Brandon, Fla.
“Something can come up, but there’s no excuse for somebody not to contact the customer to let them know,” McKenna adds. “It’s a theme for us.”
2. Setting up a flow chart.
As companies get larger, it becomes impractical to leave customer service to anyone who happens to be sitting by the phone. Tasks need to be precisely delegated with an organizational chart that encompasses the future.
At Platinum Aquatech Pools, James Atlas and Terry Smith have already mapped out what their staff will look like in five years. The president and vice president, respectively, also have come up with job descriptions for each position. As long as the Wheeling, Ill., company is at the beginning of its growth curve, some employees will take care of more than one job. Eventually, each position will have a dedicated worker.
“We look for key indicators to expand by position,” Atlas says. “Since the positions have already been created on the organizational chart, we have a blueprint of what positions need to be filled. It’s just a question of when we need to fill them.”
When forming your organizational chart, leave no stone unturned. Decide who will help clients at each stage of the sales process, from the time the employee makes an initial inquiry until well after the pool is finished. A traditional game plan would leave leads to the salespeople or, better yet, a sales manager who can monitor the big picture. Superintendents and schedulers assist clients throughout construction, and perhaps shortly after the pool is completed.
Some people prefer this arrangement because clients can speak with a staff member who is closest to the work. “Superintendents are the ones seeing the pools,” McKenna says. “They usually have immediate answers, and they’re the ones who meet with the customer.”
When using this approach, pay special attention to easily overlooked areas. McKenna found that after-construction questions and problems, and warranty issues sometimes slipped through the cracks. “The big stuff you don’t miss because it’s part of the regular schedule,” he says. “And you might have multiple people dealing with the homeowner: a scheduler, superintendent and construction manager. Now you get to the end of the pool and the tile’s dirty, and needs to be cleaned. You don’t have as many people, and that’s not a part of the [regular schedule].”
Paradoxically, these problems can make or break the whole interaction, McKenna says. Clients have endured the process for weeks and want to see the project done as soon as possible. Plus, if they’ve made the final payment, they feel powerless. “You can take a good situation and make it bad just because you don’t handle them properly at the end,” McKenna says.
Conversely, attentive after-construction care can turn around a bumpy situation. “If you give them good customer service [at the end], it’s all they remember,” he adds.
But the traditional method may not work for you. You may want to give clients a single contact. Porter, for instance, requires his salespeople to stay in touch with the homeowner throughout the construction process. “They don’t just write the contract and turn it over,” he says. “We feel they made the representation to the customer, so we hold their feet to the fire on it.”
As your company grows, you can then consider an alternative route. When Aquarius Pools reached a volume of about 200 pools per year, President Greg Wolfe created a position called “customer relationship manager.” The job quickly went from part- to full-time.
“My initial thought was that she’d just call them at the beginning to introduce herself and then at the end to tell them how their warranty works,” Wolfe says. Now she calls once a week to update clients on the project and make sure everything is running smoothly.
The strategy paid off for the Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Sacramento, Calif. “We were getting 50- to 65 percent referrals, but now it’s 90-plus,” Wolfe says. “People say, ‘It was great. You called me all the time to let me know what was going on.’” Looking back, he says he probably could have hired a customer relationship manager at the 150-pool-a-year mark.
3. Implementing the proper tools.
Paper and technology can work wonders to help customer service in two ways. First, they make the client’s information accessible to everyone who needs it. Second, they properly and efficiently inform homeowners.
• File share: If more than one person is charged with helping the homeowner, you want some kind of centralized file to which everyone can refer. Smith uses paper files that move down the line from sales to accounting to scheduling to warranty service.
Platinum Pools uses a visual aid that everyone can see. “We have a controlling calendar in our war room, where we have our meetings,” Atlas says. “The horizontal axis has every day of the month for six months, and on the vertical axis, it has every job name. We’ve broken down our construction into 13 or 14 major phases, and plotted them out on the board. At a glance, we have an idea of where every job is, where we’re projecting the next stage to be and what actions need to be taken.”
KPJ Holdings uses computers for this function. A software developed for the company tracks every interaction with a client, while some projects can even be viewed by the salesperson in real time. “Our salespeople have kind of a ticker tape of stock — two screens where they can walk by and see their customer’s jobs on a computer screen, and how they fluctuate all day long,” Porter says. “So if a customer calls and says, ‘What’s going on?’ they can get back to them because they see this thing in real time.”
• Information age: Promising what you can deliver is the major key for securing customer satisfaction. But explaining every little thing can take a lot of time. That’s why some firms create an owner’s manual that explains what to expect during construction and how to eventually take care of the pool.
“Our phone doesn’t ring nearly like it used to,” Smith says. “And people love it. They’re educated and not surprised about what’s going to happen.”
Pulliam Pools also gives its customers a “contract checklist” before they sign on. This piece of paper calls out the fine print that you’ll find on most contracts to make sure they read it. “It says, ‘It’s so important to us that you know everything, we want you to read these specific things — the good, bad or ugly,’” Smith says. After reading the document, the homeowner must initial each item.
To make sure each client gets the right information, the Pulliam Pools staff has scripts for what employees should say at every stage of the construction process. “When someone’s about to have their pool dug, we follow the scripts to make sure we cover all the points,” Smith says. “That way, no matter who is handling it, everyone hears the same thing.” Scripts also address frequently asked questions.
Platinum Pools has found a way to speed up another process — explaining the products and materials that homeowners can choose for their pools. “On our Web site, there’s a password-protected section specifically for our clients,” Atlas says. “When they’re ready to make their selections, they go there and sort through tile, finishes, coping and automatic-cover colors.”