Brick by brick Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

There are two ways to attract and retain customers, says George Davis: You can manipulate them, or you can inspire them.

Davis, founder, owner and president of ProBuilt Homes Inc., says that if you are in the business of building customer relationships, manipulation is fool’s gold. You might get customers in the door with slick marketing tricks, discounts and the like, but you won’t develop the long-standing relationships that form the foundation of many businesses.

“You can discount and advertise and run promotions, but my feeling is that manipulation never builds loyalty, and it’s what so many business leaders focus on,” Davis says. “They think you can manipulate customer loyalty, and I would argue that you can’t. I would argue that the only way you can build customer loyalty is through inspiration.”

To Davis, inspiring customers means not just selling them a service or a product but getting them involved in the process of how you do business. He says you don’t just want your customers’ business, you want their ideas, as well.

“I think the biggest thing customers value in a business relationship is a one-word answer: listening,” he says. “A lot of times as business owners, we think we know everything, and we get blinders on, but what we really need to do is step back and listen.”

Listening is something that takes diligence and discipline. Davis says that you have to make up your mind that you are going to value customer input, and then seek out that input through multiple avenues.

“I’m not the greatest listener, so I have to continually remind myself to listen,” he says. “Here, we do it through surveys and feedback. We might have a customer who has a Realtor, and the Realtor or buyer’s agent probably knows them a lot better than we do. So a lot of times, after we get finished building a home, I’ll sit down with their Realtor, and we’ll get more honest feedback than we would have otherwise.”

Davis views his investment of time and effort in building customer relationships as a point of differentiation for his business. At a time when many business relationships have become purely transactional, he views his method of inspiring customers as a way his business — or any smaller, growing business — can stand apart from bigger companies.

“We built a home for an executive, and because we worked with him, he loved the experience,” he says. “Six months later, he waved me down in the subdivision and said, ‘I have an idea for you. There are 500 condominiums here, and every time I go to one of the social events, everyone is talking about how they don’t like the condos and want to go back to single-family houses.’”

That interaction spawned a marketing campaign aimed at drawing condo owners toward purchasing houses.

“We sent out a four-color postcard, and sure enough, we sold two houses off that campaign in 30 days,” he says. “We had inspired that customer to give us an idea we could use.”

Building customer loyalty is how small businesses become big businesses, Davis says. The business world is full of examples to follow.

“You look at companies like Harley-Davidson,” he says. “People love their Harleys. They’ll get tattoos of them. The same thing with Apple. If you’re a Mac user, you’ll go to the ends of the Earth to sell your friends on Mac.

“That’s how you inspire people. I know we’re doing things right when people do what that guy did, going out of his way to tell me an idea he had.”

HOW TO REACH: ProBuilt Homes Inc., (440) 255-6535 or www.probuilt-homes.com

Building a customer-centered work force

Building a company that seeks and values customer input starts with you, but you can’t do it all yourself, especially if your company is growing rapidly.

George Davis says you need to find people who can help spread a customer-focused mindset throughout your company, something that is less of an exact science and more of an art.

“You can’t coach (a person to value customers), you just find people who feel that way,” says the founder, owner and president of ProBuilt Homes Inc. “I look for people who truly love and care about what they do. But you can’t coach that. You have to hire for that.”

Recruiting methods vary from business to business, but regardless of the talent pool from which you are drawing, Davis says you can’t underestimate the power of networking and building a presence within your industry. After you get to know managers and employees in other companies, you’ll begin to see the types of employees you’ll need to advance your own culture and values.

“One guy I’ve had who has worked for me for three years, previously, he’d worked for another builder for 16 years,” Davis says. “I don’t want to say I tried to steal him away, but in that case, I told him that I wanted him to work for me, and if things changed where he worked, to let me know. Things did change, and I was the first one he called.”

Over time, if you put enough effort into networking and human resources, Davis says you’ll develop your own approach to finding the right people.

“You just get a feeling when you meet with people,” he says. “You learn by meeting different kinds of people, and then you go out and try to find the right types of people to work for you.”