Building trust Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2010

When Hugh Harris answered his phone, a woman was furious that the siding Dixie HomeCrafters had installed nine years ago had faded from brown to pink.

The $110 million home improvement company has a 100 percent guarantee on its work, but he vividly remembered that she wanted a color they didn’t carry, so he reluctantly used a product he didn’t like to meet her wants.

But instead of an “I told you so,” he wanted to stand by the company’s promise. He tracked down the company that had acquired the faulty siding maker, and it agreed to provide new, quality product if he provided the labor. So an entire $18,000 job got replaced at no cost to the customer.

“They sent me a letter thanking me and couldn’t believe that we actually stood behind what we said we wanted to do nine years later on such a large job, but that’s what we do — we take care of our customers,” the CEO says.

Smart Business spoke with Harris about how to build customer relationships.

Stay true to your word. It’s just straight business. I’ve worked my business philosophy my whole life like this — do what you say you’re going to, do it when you say you’re going to do it, and it makes for a good situation for both parties. You don’t have to lie, cheat and make things sound better than they actually are as long as you have good stuff to begin with. Just follow through.

That’s all people want nowadays — give them a fair shake. Tell them what you’re going to do. Then you go do it. We do our business a little bit different than most contractors do. It doesn’t matter if the job is $2,000 or $50,000, we don’t take any money upfront and nobody in the middle (does either). Our customers, they pay us when they’re 100 percent satisfied with the job. It ensures good quality work from my contractor who does the job because nobody gets paid until that customer is happy. It’s just the old-fashioned way of doing business really.

Be active in customer service. No matter what your title is or how big your company is, go out and actually go on the street yourself and go to your customer’s home and look at a job that you’ve actually completed and interview the customer. Even if you don’t sell the customer something, at least do a follow-up call to see how courteous your salesperson was and make sure that they cover all the bases and try to figure out, if they didn’t sell, why, and if they did sell, why. If they did sell, let the job be completed and go out and look at it. Check what you expect.

Ask questions of customers. Just straight talk — if you treat people right and talk to them straight, they’ll tell you the truth, they’ll tell you exactly how (they) feel. People are really open to telling you about your customer service — good, bad and indifferent. You say, ‘Hey, how did my people do when they were out; did they do exactly what they said they were going to do?’ If they did, they’ll rave about you, and if they didn’t, they’ll rave about you.

Fix their problems. If it’s a job-related [problem] — something that we did or a work-related product or item — we go out to the job on the spot and fix it. No matter what. If it’s maybe just a misunderstanding about something, I’ll send people to dinner — a husband and wife if we’ve inconvenienced somebody. If we inconvenienced them, you have to take care of them because your reputation is second to nothing. Even with that, you’re not going to please everybody all the time, but we do strive to please everybody all the time.

Give them access. We have a general manager for each location, and their home number and cell number goes on the top of every contract so that they can go straight to the top. They don’t have to talk to the receptionist and they don’t have to talk to anybody else, and if the decision can’t be made on the branch level, then all my general managers have access to me 24-7, and they call me and I make the decision. I probably talk to each of my managers for something like that maybe once a week.

Get employees to buy-in. Stay in touch with them all the time. It doesn’t matter who has what title. The guy at the top has to be talking to everybody all the time. That’s pretty much a full-time job. My full-time job is calling my branches and talking to my production managers, talking to my scheduling managers, talking to my marketing managers. Talk. Communicate. Just because you’re a CEO, don’t make everybody afraid of you just because you have that title. You have to be able to roll your sleeves up and talk to people, and when they do, don’t overreact. Listen to what they have to say, keep your mouth shut and fix whatever problems they have. If you talk to someone at the branch level, sometimes they’re afraid to talk to you because they may have pressure from their boss. You have to make it always an open-door situation where nobody gets in trouble for talking to you about an issue with a customer. You’ve got to be able to talk and openly communicate.