At the International Builders’ Show in Orlando, Fla. last month, I had the chance to sit down with two authors who know a ton about generating customer loyalty. One was Jason Forrest, a sales trainer and coach whom I’ve known as a regular contributor to REALTOR® Magazine over the years. He introduced me to Paul Cardis, founder of Avid Ratings, a reputation management and customer service firm for the homebuilding industry. The two co-authored a new book, Service Certainty: The Secret to Customer Loyalty (MJS Press; Dec. 15th, 2016). Here’s an edited transcript of the interview.
Tell me how the idea for this book came about.
Jason: The idea came about just like any book comes from the need to solve a problem. My primary focus was on the sales side and helping homebuilders increase their sales. The problem was, we found that by increasing their sales, their customer satisfaction will go down.
Huh, really? I guess that makes sense, though it’s certainly an unintended consequence!
Jason: Yeah, definitely. I started formulating these ideas about why this might be happening, but I didn’t actually know if they were evidence-based. So since Paul is the industry expert and the wizard behind the curtain when it comes to the research, I really wanted to work with him on this problem. I would basically run my ideas by him and say, “Hey, this is what I believe will improve customer satisfaction. Do you believe this would work too?” We worked through that and then ended up coming up with 15 best practices to make it happen and increase customer satisfaction, service certainty, and customer loyalty.
Paul: Avid’s been working with builders for 25 years measuring customer satisfaction and customer experience, and Jason here has been an amazing leader in helping our clients to change their cultures improve so it was really just a natural fit to put these two worlds together and come away with a more practical book. With more than 30,000 books on customer service out there today, we were going into very red ocean. But one point that we both agreed upon was that making customers happy in an imperfect world hadn’t been written about. And in our business in real estate and homebuilding, let’s face it: We deal with a lot of imperfections in the process, and there really wasn’t a book that was realistic. Jason and I put something together here that I think does that.
Yeah, a lot of the books I’ve read talk about how to improve customer service in a perfect world. But they often lack best practices for real-life situations.
Jason: That’s what is so great about the book. So I’m a sales guy, and the normal trend is salespeople don’t like service. Like, if you’re really great at sales you think, “I want to sell you something and move on to the next guy.” So I had to learn how to convince myself first before I could convince anyone else. What’s great about this book—and this is why it’s so small that you can read it in an hour and a half or less—is that we wrote it in a way that it’s the minimum effective dose. Think of it this way: Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and if you increase the temperature to 213, 214, or 216, it’s still boiling. So you’re wasting energy doing that. We decided to make the book super simple so it’s applicable even to the person who says, “I really don’t like customer service. I don’t want to mess with it.”
What’s a way where sales-focused folks are getting service wrong?
Paul: One of the common problems we see is people who think the solution is, “Well we’ll just go and tell our customers to give us good reviews.” They try and game the system, and they get frustrated in the gaming. That mindset is also evident when you’re thinking “Buyers are liars.” You get mad at the buyer because they’re not happy, as if they came out of the womb that way. Well no, we created them. Of course, there are some buyers—a very, very small percentage—that are just difficult people. But in general we create these difficult customers, so getting your mind right is really an awesome thing and without having your mind right, you can’t move on.
Jason: Yes. It’s also important to think about the service journey. As soon as a customer signs a contract with you, that’s the highest level of emotional engagement they’re going to have with you. Think of it like getting married. The second a person gets engaged, they’re basically saying, “O.K., that’s it. I believe we should be together for the rest of our lives.” Well when you give the girl a ring your goal is to make sure that you provide an experience that’s just as good up to the point of her saying yes to the ring. You know the couple doesn’t need nine months to plan a wedding. They could do this thing in a couple of days, right? It’s a way to put them through purgatory to make sure they don’t do anything to fall short of expectations. It’s called an engagement, but it’s really a test! In the industry, on the day of signing that contract it’s like the engagement ring. You have to get to the move-in day, which is like the wedding day. The customer can easily take the ring off and cancel the wedding any time along the way if you don’t live up to the same promise you did in the dating-to-engagement time as the engagement-to-wedding time.
In gathering the examples you use in this book, did you guys get them from people in the field or did you create hypothetical situations?
Paul: It’s all real stories of actual builders and clients dealing with problems, and a lot of them were pretty interesting too. One particular story that we put in there was one that I affectionately call the “Lemon Man.” We had a customer who dumped 10,000 lemons in their own front yard and let them rot. They wanted to make a statement to the world to say, “Hey, this is a terrible builder and I’m very upset!”
Wow. That’s some serious conflict there.
Jason: Oh yeah. But I think one of the coolest concepts here, which is very provocative, is that a customer sometimes needs conflict in order to generate loyalty. Say a real estate professional takes a buyer out and the buyer is completely in control the entire day. Then buyer thinks they don’t need the help. They’re asking the real estate pro, “Why am I paying you so much money?” That’s why the agent must get into position of strength; they must be in charge. Now I’m not saying you want to actually cause problems, but you do have to create conflict. You have to set clear boundaries and sometimes that creates pushback from the customer. One of the things that we found in the research is that the more the customer is in control, the worse the service scores end up being. Along those same lines, proactively bringing up the conflict and extracting the concerns increases customer loyalty too. If a buyer calls and says, “I have a concern about such-and-such,” and the agent solves the problem then it’s one point to the customer. But let’s say the agent calls the client and says, “Hey I’m curious. Has there been anything that kept you up at night about this purchase you’re about to make?” And the buyer says, “Oh actually yeah…” Well if the agent then solves that problem, that’s one point to the real estate pro. It’s about you bringing it up. You bring it up, you solve it, and you get the credit. If they bring it up and you solve it, you will get no credit.
But that’s scary. I mean, it’s a big thing for an agent to make that phone call and ask if something’s wrong.
Paul: Sure. To be transparent and to own up to problems is a very big deal, because we have all been raised in a perfection mentality. But we are in a different world now, where authenticity matters more. So when things do get screwed up, do we bury them or run away from them? Or do we run at them? That is the key here is that you’re not going to have perfection, and brokers and agents need to embrace that that’s not going to happen.