For many clients, customer service often is the deciding factor when a friend or family member asks for a pool builder recommendation.

After all, builders are not just creating a backyard paradise, they’re forging lifelong relationships.

And where market competition is as fierce as ever, who can afford to turn away potential business?

Ensuring builders stay top-of-mind among clients

requires going the proverbial extra mile. And not just after the pool is built, but often during multiple stages of the project itself. Here, five pool builders from across the country discuss how they work to exceed expectations and develop customers for life.

Holland Pools and Spas

Altamonte Springs, Fla.

Rapid response

Prospective clients of Holland Pools and Spas, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder, often are surprised by how quickly a sales representative responds to an inquiry. On weekends, owner and CEO Mike Holland frequently replies himself — and sometimes within 5 minutes of an e-mail’s arrival.

“They’ll say, ‘Gosh, I didn’t think we’d get a call back until Monday, much less from the owner of the company,’” Holland says.

The firm’s policy is to respond to initial queries within an hour. Most of these calls are handled by the company’s service coordinator, who records all of the prospective client’s information and sets an appointment with the designer, taking the responsibility out of the customer’s hands.

“The service coordinator does a great job … making the prospective customer feel extremely important — as well as making sure that every question they have is answered before they get off the phone,” Holland says.

Then, the design team comes to the home, interviews the family, and designs the pool on the spot. They also provide homeowners with a cost breakdown and price quote before they leave.

“We try to do everything in the first appointment,” Holland says. “We don’t want to have a 15-minute sit-down interview with the customer and then say, ‘I’ll get back to you in maybe a day or maybe a week.’”

These initial contacts with the service coordinator and the design team are why first-call closings comprise 50 percent of his business, he says.

“Those first two impressions are extremely important in setting the tone and the expectations for the customer,” Holland says, adding that he also gives clients his personal cell phone number so they can contact him directly during any phase of the construction process.

River Oaks Pools

San Antonio, Texas

Investing in staff

It’s no coincidence referrals make up 70 percent of the business generated by River Oaks Pools, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder. In fact, first-rate customer service is a cornerstone of the company, which was founded 25 years ago by Dan Pendley and his wife Debbie.

And it’s why they invest thousands of dollars each year in customer-service training for their 70 employees.

Staff members are sent to various local and out-of-state seminars with business gurus like Zig Ziglar and Tom Hopkins. In addition, the company keeps a library of books and tapes covering motivation and customer relations.

“When we have our staff meetings, we devote some time and energy to going over customer service — whether it be tapes or videos, as well as real situations that we’re facing,” Dan Pendley says.

At River Oaks, employee performance appraisals are based heavily on “report cards,” or surveys completed by customers after a job is finished.

“If you have the right people that take on your goals and objectives, then those filter down through the different department heads and into the field,” Pendley says.

Pool World

Spokane, Wash.

In the loop

Employees at Pool World communicate with clients on virtually a daily basis for the duration of the project.

These brief status updates are most often made via e-mail, and cover a variety of issues such as reminders about when a tile choice needs to be made, or when an electrician needs access to the garage.

“Rather than saying, ‘Hey, we need to make a decision tomorrow on the interior finish you’re going to be using,’ that’s part of a list that we will be sending them,” says Ted Puryear, inground pool designer and education specialist.

But it’s also important to determine how often customers would like to be contacted before anyone floods their inboxes, Puryear says.

“We actually probe a little bit to find out if this is a customer that does want to be in contact,” he says. “And I’d say 90 percent of them really want to know what’s going on every day.”

To start, the sales staff sends new clients a letter detailing what to expect during the construction process. It informs them, for example, that someone will be coming to their yard to locate the water, gas and power lines.

It also assures them that, even though no crew members may be in their yard some days, that doesn’t mean the company has abandoned them.

“We are reiterating to them that they don’t have to worry — we’re going to get the pool done in the timeframe that we told them,” Puryear says.

Cipriano Landscape Design

Ramsey, N.J.

All together now

Cipriano Landscape Design bills itself as a one-stop shop. The firm builds swimming pools, does its own masonry work, supplies plant material through its nursery, runs irrigation systems, and installs night lighting.

“Our specialty is really taking on the entire outdoor project,” says Chris Cipriano, president of the company.

Cipriano stresses teamwork among his crew and subcontractors to ensure everyone has a clear picture of what the client wants — down to the most detailed color choices.

“Before we start a project, we have team meetings with the subs on the job site, just making sure that everyone is on the same page before anyone steps foot on the project,” he says.

But the customer is an important team member too, which is why Cipriano typically holds weekly design and construction meetings with clients to keep them informed at every turn.

“I think [that kind of communication] is probably the most important part of customer service,” he says.

Once pool construction is finished, homeowners may use the company for related projects such as planting seasonal flowers. And this gives Cipriano the chance to follow up on their satisfaction with the pool itself.

It also keeps the designer’s name top-of-mind for customers, which could explain why Cipriano recently received a referral from a client whose pool he completed nearly a decade ago.

Pacific Paradise Pools

Fountain Valley, Calif.

Think like the customer

When a client was unhappy with the coping and decking work on her pool, Rich Tonti could have argued that the work was up to industry standards, even if it didn’t meet hers.

Instead, the CEO of Pacific Paradise Pools agreed to pull out the $10,000 in decking and reinstall it.

“I just said, ‘This doesn’t meet my standards, regardless of the industry,’” he says.

The homeowner was so delighted with the conflict-free resolution that she immediately began sending referrals to Pacific Paradise Pools. And once the project was completed, she contracted the company for weekly and monthly service.

“We won a customer for life,” Tonti says.

For his business, the true test of customer service comes when problems arise. How a difficult situation is handled can make or break a relationship.

“You have to just do the right thing,” he says. “Put yourself in their shoes. If this were my house, what would I be willing to accept? Would we want to pay somebody to do what we’ve just received?”

And the best way for staff to carry the message forward is often by watching management in action.

“We have to model the behavior that we want to see,” Tonti says. “We need to clarify what the expectations are, and we want to walk away with the client feeling like they want to do business with us again.”