It’s time to revive that age-old art of keeping the customer satisfied.

"The customer is always right.” That motto has been preached and practiced in every business since the Great Depression. It was printed in big letters and posted on the walls of most retail businesses. The sign did not openly say it, but it meant, “We need you and really appreciate you buying from us!”

Many readers have living relatives who were around in the era referred to as our “greatest generation.” They will proudly tell you how critical good customer relations were to business survival when we had very little work or customers to pay for it.

They will also explain how most of those effective customer-relations practices faded away with our post-World War II building boom when there was more than enough construction for anyone willing and capable to do it:

  • At the top of the black list is lack of trust. I’m certain that most of you have heard about old-school business practices, which simply meant that a man honored his word. You could believe what he told you because he always followed through and fulfilled all his promises.

    We did not need lawyers, arbitration or court appearances to be certain that our work would be quality, on schedule, with customer-satisfied service and warranties.

  • Your customer depends on your knowledge and experience to recommend and install the best and most reasonable solution for his or her situation. On previously designed projects, this expertise is called value engineering.

    Your customer should not expect or accept any extras or change orders unless he or she personally adds or changes something on that project.

  • Time is money. Keeping your promise means meeting or beating your time commitment. This is extremely important when your customer is a general contractor or construction manager who is on a critical path schedule with liquidated damage clauses.

    Your time commitment to a home-owner or business owner is also critical to eliminate frustration and related extra expenses.

    Rapid response with punch lists and warranty work is very important to your contractor customers as well as their customers.

  • Explaining operating and maintenance procedure instructions must be a standard procedure for every customer. This eliminates unnecessary problems and creates an open door for future business.

    I hope that you and all of your employees have continued these critical customer-relations practices. We have many successful second-, third- and fourth-generation contractors in all of the trades who maintain an ongoing relationship with their satisfied customers. I’m sure some of your competitors do the same, giving you more competition at bid time.

  • Testing Your Practices

    You can use a quaint little test of your customer relations practices called the three R’s. We once referred to the three R’s for basic education (reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic), but these R’s are different:
      1. Repeats. How much of your business comes from former satisfied customers? How much is negotiated rather than hard-bid against your competitors?

      2. Referrals. These customers were sent to you by one or more of your satisfied customers. Be certain they will send you to their friends and acquaintances.

      3. Reputation. You certainly have one - good or bad - in your market area. Unfortunately, you do not have the opportunity of hearing everything people say about you and your company. However, you can influence what they are saying with good customer relations.
    A proud reputation is naturally very important to anyone in this great industry, but it is extremely critical in today’s economic recession. There is no doubt that you will get work simply due to a good reputation and lose opportunities with a poor reputation.

    Keep in mind that your customers are not the only people talking about you:
    • Your local building officials and jobsite inspectors share with others in the industry what their experiences have been with you and your team.

    • Your supply houses and rental agencies share what they know or hear about your company.

    • The other trades who work side-by-side with your crews tell their stories to their buddies on the jobsite - and at the bar.

    • Your own employees are either bragging or complaining about the credentials of your company. Let’s hope they defend you if anything negative comes up when they are present.

    • Your competitors will pick up any little rumor about you and spice it up to mar your reputation. Unfortunately, you usually don’t get a chance to hear that negative gossip, let alone defend it.

    Employee Training

    Although Customer Relations 101 is generally not a required subject in most construction companies, everyone knows that it is important. We just assume that it does not need to be taught or monitored. I am certain you’ve seen the breakdown of that word - ass-u-me. It is doubtful that your employees were formally taught Customer Relations 101 wherever they were previously employed, so you’ve got to do it.

    This training can be accomplished in your company with minimal effort and cost. Enclose the simple questionnaire found at the bottom of this page with each employee’s paycheck. Require that everyone answer every question and return it to you with the following week’s time sheet. No name is necessary.

    When you receive their comments, you should meet in groups (large or small, depending on the size of your company) to discuss them:
    • Accumulate the alike comments and give each employee a copy. Read each comment aloud to the group and ask each employee for his or her opinion.

    • Thank employees for their valuable input and future effort to maintain and police customer relations in your successful company.
    Naturally you will receive different comments from office personnel, management team, service techs and jobsite employees. It is especially beneficial for each employee to hear and comment on these varying recommendations.

    I emphasize the crucial need for this business-creating customer relations during our economic recession, but also warn you of the tendency to “slack off” when times get good again.

    When our customer is always right, he or she is always our customer.

    We will continue Customer Relations 101 with specific recommendations for your service department and for your jobsite employees in the next column.