When it comes to building a successful company, satisfied customers are the single most important component. That’s why business owners pour millions of dollars every year into better understanding and pleasing their clients.

As part of our Top 50 program, Pool & Spa News commissioned a third-party company, Atlanta-based GuildQuality, to perform customer-service surveys for all entrants who wished to participate. The firm, which specializes in contractors, contacted former clients of the builders who had opted in, and asked their impressions of each company’s expertise, customer service and professionalism.

The results were interesting. While the highest-scoring firm, Adams Pool Solutions, is located in Northern California, seven of the top 10 were in the South. This over-representation of one region speaks highly of old-fashioned Southern hospitality. Also interesting was the fact that there was no discernible relationship between high customer-service scores and the size of a given business or its years in operation.

The reason for this is clear when speaking with these company owners. Rather than discussing complex formulas, many of them cited simple, traditional techniques as the secrets behind great service. For example, one element listed as crucial to success was a willingness to pick up the phone and talk. E-mail and texting are great for quick communication, many say, but there’s just no substitute for a phone call — or, better yet, an in-person visit.

And it’s in tense negotiations that this willingness to communicate becomes most important. It doesn’t take any special commitment to be friendly to a delightful customer, but a caring mind-set toward difficult clients can help not only to diffuse volatile situations, but also  enhance a company’s reputation in unexpected ways.

Here, Pool & Spa News speaks with the companies that ranked highest in GuildQuality’s customer-service survey.

Tony Adams
Adams Pool Solutions

It all comes down to communication. I have one number on my business card: my cell number. I’ll give it to any customer I meet, and I answer my phone. I answer it Saturday, Sunday — even if I’m in another country. Just answer your phone; it’s as simple as that.

We try to call our customers every day [and] our only policy is, make yourself available. All our employees have cell phones, and we tell them, “If it rings, we expect you to answer it.” That solves 90 percent of the problems.

We send out surveys for every renovation project — we don’t need to do it for new construction because we’re talking with the client everyday. But we send those surveys out with the bill and the thank-you letter, and it covers everything from sales to scheduling to construction and so on. If we get a negative response, we call.

Robby Hauk
Hauk Custom Pools, LLC

I believe in making every pool as close to perfect as possible. On one job, I tore out some brickwork near the waterline and redid it three times. By the second redo, even the client was telling me, “I’m sure it’s going to be fine. Let’s just move on.” But I still wasn’t satisfied; I had to get it just right. Now that customer tells his friends, “If you want the closest to perfection you can possibly get, buy a Hauk Custom Pool.”

We have a project coordinator who sends our employees out with an up-to-date schedule of tasks for that day on every customer’s pool. On Thursdays, we generate a customer communiqué, and the customer receives a checklist of remaining items to be completed. It also includes an estimated date of plastering.

My father built swimming pools in the 1950s, but I got my start as an automobile salesman, where I learned that you don’t treat clients the way you think they deserve to be treated — treat them the way they want to be treated.

Customer service is a moving target. What’s important to people changes every year, so you must continue to work to understand what makes them happy.

We survey our customers, and it’s a scary thing because there’s a lot of stuff you don’t want to hear. But I think it’s important because it makes [us all] accountable.

Tara Othank
Rising Sun Pools Inc.

We invest in training, taking time to make sure the staff understands what level of customer service we expect from them.

We know people may have to go a little out of the way to come to us vs. a big-box store, and we don’t really distinguish between someone buying a $2 bag of chlorine or a $20,000 pool — we treat them with the same level of service. We spend time with them, learn their kids’ names. It’s more of a friendship than anything.

We send comment cards with service invoices to learn where we need to improve, and contact every customer who has a complaint or compliment. 

We send out things on Facebook to ask for feedback, and I personally respond to every review about us that appears online.

Because we’re mainly a vinyl and fiberglass builder, there aren’t many day-to-day changes, but we do have a lot of personal contact with our customers. The day of the dig, we hand the customer a sheet that shows them what they can expect to see at two days, five days and so on — and the names of people they can contact for every phase.

We also do an annual photo contest for all new pool customers. The winner gets a $500 store credit and is on the front cover of our catalog, which goes out to 20,000 people.

Editor’s note: Charles Vassallo (above), the current owners’ father, founded Rising Sun Pools 40 years ago. He passed away in 2003.

Jennifer Satterwhite
Puryear Custom Pools

We make sure that our superintendents call our customers every day. Once a week we also do an office call to see that things are OK. We send out a survey at the end of every job, and I personally make a final phone call to the customer, where I actually ask for the worst thing that happened to them. I look for criticism, basically, so I know what to fix.

We don’t do any electronic communication as far as photos and so on. We’re old-fashioned — it’s all by phone or in person.

Once a customer ordered the pool as a Christmas present for their children. We created a 3-D drawing, and they presented it to the kids on Christmas morning. They went into the backyard and outlined the pool in Christmas lights, then took photos throughout the construction process. At one point, there was a lot of snow, which is unusual here, and they built snowmen with inner tubes around them in the spa and they created a book of the photos, thanking us. Those are the customers you really do this for.

Ryder Steimle
California Pools

A passion for great customer service has to be in the DNA of the guy who’s leading the organization. If he isn’t concerned about it, nobody else is going to be. It’s not something you can just talk about or put in a mission statement; you have to get out and show people what you mean and how you do it.

We have surveyed our customers for years, so that’s very much a part of our culture. Our annual award, the Wayne Steimle Award, goes to the office that had the best customer service that year, and it has to be an office that also deals in volume. It is the most coveted award — above sales, profitability and anything else. On the flip side, the Rubber Chicken is given out to an office that’s slacking.

I think the two most important things to a customer are speed and communication. Technology can help that communication, but there’s just no substitute for a phone call. We do a lot of training on that front. You need to talk to the customer on Mondays and Fridays, minimum. We fill in the in-between days with e-mails.

I believe that if you can win over the angriest customer, they will become your biggest fan. I’ve never gone that extra mile for a customer and not seen a return on that investment. It’s always worth it.

Charles Elfert
Pleasure Aquatech Pools

We don’t only want to build a good pool — we want to be there to service the customer when the pool is finished.

I think that’s what separates us from our competitors: We’re in the service business because we think of our work as a long-term investment. For instance, say I install a salt chlorinator on a pool, then some service guy comes along and convinces the customer to switch to tablet chlorine — and down the road, the chlorine in those tabs might damage surfaces or irritate swimmers’ eyes. … The only way we can defend our work is to be there for the client, taking care of the pool throughout its life.

We use a program that prints out work orders for each work phase, and it’s accompanied by an inspection sheet that either my superintendent or I will go through and make sure every task is finished before we move on to the next phase.

I’m not into price-gouging like some of these other guys — actually, we’re one of the higher-priced pool builders in our region — because we don’t cut corners, and we use the best equipment available. There will always be somebody who can make a product for cheaper and sell it for less, but then you’ve got to put money aside for the risk you run, which means you might as well spend a little more to invest in a product that’ll work properly and last.

Vance Dover
Georgia Classic Pool

We have passion about our jobs. We love being able to go in, create spectacular projects and make people happy. We’ve come to realize that every pool we build will lead to another job, but for every customer we make unhappy, we potentially lose 10 jobs.

We definitely utilize e-mail and texting. When clients are out of town, we send photos and keep them updated on the projects at least once a day, sometimes more frequently. We also try never to over-promise, lest we under-deliver. We don’t give anyone false expectations.

We send a survey out when the job’s completed, asking questions like, “What could we have done better?” I figure there’s no point in having our ears tickled with the compliments we might like to hear, so we ask very specific questions about anything that didn’t go as the customer had hoped.

Tim Colon
Pools of Fun Inc.

I can put all the policies and procedures in place that I want — and we have those, don’t get me wrong — but it’s the staff that makes the difference. When I make a hire, I’m looking at them, thinking about whether they’re someone who’ll have the customer’s best interest in mind.

We’re in contact with each customer daily, to head off any issue  before it becomes a problem. At the end of each project, the homeowner fills out a survey grading us through the process, and we share that with our whole staff. I even have secret shoppers go into our stores [because] I’m big on inspecting what you expect.

I use QR codes in the store so customers can scan those into their phones and submit comments about how they were treated. We review those comments with our staff as well.

I make personal phone calls to customers on a regular basis. E-mail is great and so is texting, but proactive phone communication gives the customer a real sense of security. I hire people (project managers) just to call customers, so they never have to wonder what’s happening with their projects that day.

Ted Anderson
Pool Environments Inc.

Our approach is kind of old-fashioned — we think of ourselves as servants. As corny as it might sound, it’s about making sure everyone’s heart is in it.

We make ourselves available to our customers. We return phone calls in a timely fashion, even at 8:00 or 9:00 at night, 365 days a year. We feel fortunate to have the clients we have, so we try to make sure they understand how important they are to us.

We don’t bill clients until we’ve gone through the entire invoice, and checked that every step of what we billed them for actually got done — and done to their satisfaction.

In new construction, we have a scheduler whose job is to manage the interaction between the field superintendent, all the workers and the homeowner — and that’s all that person does. So if I had to chalk our success in customer service up to one single thing, I’d say “communication.”

The personal touch works for us, whether that’s on social networks like Facebook, or through in-person or phone interaction.

We’ve worked with one very successful family — building, remodeling and servicing all their pools for at least two generations. In one nine-year period, we built seven pools for them. So, while some would say the greatest compliment is a referral, to us, the greatest compliment is when a client moves to a new city and asks us to build their new pool, from generation to generation.

Scott Waldo
Platinum Pools

For the last 10 years, we’ve had a private company call everyone we’ve ever built a pool for, and the construction department’s bonuses are based on customer satisfaction. If we make a mistake, everyone in the department is authorized to fix it without discussing it with me or anyone else. Our philosophy is that we don’t worry about profit; we worry about taking care of the customer first, and the rest will take care of itself.

Our scheduling program takes the customer from the time they’re just a lead all the way through their warranty, sending an e-mail whenever something’s scheduled on construction. We do four walk-throughs throughout construction, and if anything isn’t up to the customer’s satisfaction, we stop construction, make them 100 percent happy and then move forward again.

The supervisors have to call every customer every day; the scheduler has to call every customer every day; and the designers have to call every customer every Friday. If we see a problem starting to happen, we do our best to head it off before it gets to be an issue — but the only way you’re going to know that is if you have those lines of communication in place.