Why would a concrete contractor care about customer service? In order to answer that question, you first must decide whether we're talking about the service you get from your suppliers or the service your customers get from your company. Is it valuable to your business if your spare parts suppliers can respond to emergency requests with the right part shipped to the right address when promised? What do your customers say about your service to them?

Contractors are learning that customer satisfaction and customer service can make a significant difference to a company trying to build a solid reputation, maintain a healthy backlog, and retain the best customers. Nonetheless, many of my clients still ask why it is important to spend time or effort (that is, money) to satisfy a client if that doesn't give them an advantage when the next project goes out to bid. Sometimes it's true, that money and effort are wasted, but rarely these days.

Businesses around the world have become more customer-focused. Good service is expected more than it used to be. Consider the owner who calls your project manager with a billing question. If your project manager takes a week to get back to the customer, is that poor customer service? You might say, no, everyone's project managers take a week to return calls. Response times are not only related to the other companies in your industry, but rather, response times are judged by how your company rates relative to all the other companies with whom your customers interact. Most likely your customers consciously or unconsciously compare the service they get from your company to the service they receive from Federal Express, L.L. Bean, Nordstrom's, and other leading-edge companies. With reputations for top-notch customer service, these companies have raised the bar in every industry. It has become more difficult to deliver service that customers recognize as good.

To know where the customer service bar is, you should keep up with the trends in other industries. Understand what the customers of those companies require in order to be satisfied. Research what those companies are doing to increase the level of satisfaction they deliver to their customers. Understand the role of continuous improvement in these other companies and discover how you can apply best-of-class customer service concepts to your business.

If you agree that customer satisfaction deserves more attention within your company, you will want to understand what is important to your customers and how they rate your performance in those areas. The best way to get a true picture of what your customers think of your customer service is through an image study.

An image study is a survey of current and former customers, typically conducted by a third party. Often, even companies in your target market that have never purchased your services will be surveyed, as well. The interview structure for the image study stimulates honest feedback on the customer-service factors most important to buyers along with a rating that will help to determine how your company stacks up relative to your competitors. The result is an objective, unbiased assessment of those factors that are most important to decision-makers, along with a comparison showing how your company is perceived for each of the factors.

The information and analysis from an image study are very useful for business development planning to create specific strategies that ensure you are working to satisfy clients in meaningful ways. It is also a good baseline from which future performance can be measured.

Once your customer-service baseline is established, begin a regular process to solicit customer feedback. This can be as simple as a post-project questionnaire that you ask your clients to complete, or more formal ongoing surveys performed by outside researchers. Each method has its benefits. The post-project questionnaire is quick and easy for your clients to complete, and the larger surveys give more thorough information that is useful for management in business planning. Either way, you should communicate the results of your research to those responsible for delivering customer service to you in order to drive performance toward what your customers find most important.

The need to deliver high customer satisfaction to those who buy construction services will continue to increase. As your competitors improve, your customers will expect more from your company. The keys to winning customer satisfaction is to have better information about what is important to the market and a clear plan to use that information to deliver what your customers demand—excellent service.

—Brian Moore is a consultant with FMI, management consultants to the construction industry. Brian works with contractors and construction materials producers on various strategic, financial, and operational issues. Specifically, his work at FMI involves in-depth market analysis, strategic and business planning, and market planning for clients throughout the nation. He can be reached at 919-785-9269 or by e-mail at bmoore@fminet.com.