Dealing with customers

What builders and tradespeople should know

Building and renovating are complex tasks. Most of your clients will be extremely unfamiliar with the technical requirements and dimensions of your work. They may ask you many questions during the time you work for them and the way you respond to these inquiries - and any concerns they may have - is crucial. Open and honest communication with your client is one of the keys to business success.

Good service, big dividends

Customer service is crucial to the success of any business, particularly those operating in a competitive environment like the building industry. Yet providing good customer service can be simple and establishing a workable customer service system can be inexpensive. With a little thought and commitment, customer service can pay handsome dividends for your business. But it’s essential to believe in the importance of customer service – and practice what you preach.

What are you offering

It pays to promote your business and advertising takes many forms. It can range from a one-page flyer distributed through letterboxes, advertisements placed in local newspapers and websites including online directory and referral services. Regardless of what ways you use to promote your business, the information you provide must be accurate and truthful. Accurate information helps consumers make informed choices.

When communicating with potential customers through advertising, the following details should be provided:

  • details about your business
  • a description of the range of services provided
  • price and technical specifications (if relevant)
  • qualifications and experience
  • possible examples of completed work.

By law, your licence number must be included in all advertising, stationery and signage. Only the person who holds a contractor licence can advertise for work (eg. you cannot put your individual licence number on an advertisement by your company).

First impressions

First impressions are lasting impressions. A positive initial contact is vital, whether it is face-to-face or over the telephone. It can be the deciding factor in winning or losing a client. Here are some helpful tips:

  • be on time, if you are running late, let your client know
  • be responsive, treat your client as an individual and listen carefully to what they say
  • use plain language and avoid jargon
  • allow your client time to make their decision as building or renovating may be new to them, so they are on a sharp learning curve. In other words, give your clients time and understanding to think things through.

Talk to your clients

Things don’t always go to plan, especially with something as complex as building work, where the unexpected can often happen. It therefore makes good customer service sense to hold regular meetings with your clients to update them on your progress.

For longer projects, set up weekly meetings to talk things over. For shorter jobs, have one or more telephone conversations with your client in the middle of the project to ensure things are running smoothly. Regular communication and interaction with your clients is more likely to have a positive outcome for your business than a negative one.

Encourage your clients to ask you questions and raise issues with you if they have any concerns. Two-way communication helps prevent disputes and takes the surprise out of problems.

Be understanding

Having a house built or renovated generally represents a huge financial and emotional investment for your client. As a builder, your worst enemy in this context is indifference. While it may be just another job to you, the new house or extension you are building usually means so much to your client, especially if the work is something they have been looking forward to for a long time. Try to understand their situation by putting yourself in their shoes.

Finishing the job

At the completion of the job, builders often forget to inform their clients of some important points. This oversight can result in unnecessary and unpleasant disputes. Inform your client that there may be a ‘settling in’ period for building materials. For example, door hinges may need adjustment.

Advise your client of their entitlements under a ‘defects and liability period’ (usually 13 weeks for new homes but can vary from builder to builder).

Provide your client with written information on termite management and pest control systems as well as general post-construction and standard maintenance routines.

You should also provide written information about the recommended protection and maintenance regimes for specific areas of the building. Refer your clients to the after you build or renovate page on the Fair Trading website for useful information about maintaining a newly built home.

When the building work is finished and your clients have moved in, consider going to visit them to hand over all other warranty documentation for the completed work. This strategy demonstrates your commitment to delivering good customer service.

Managing complaints

Regardless of how competent a builder you are, it is inevitable you will encounter complaints during your career, and the way you handle these can make or break your building business. Essentially, you have two options:

  1. Stick your head in the sand and hope the problem goes away. This will leave complaints unattended which means they can get out of hand. Before you know it, you have lost control. That can be bad news for your business.
  2. Be open to identifying problems early so that you can take intelligent steps to manage a potentially difficult situation. It’s the sensible option, and it’s better to be proactive than reactive.

Make an effort to keep one step ahead by:

  • being approachable and ready to discuss problems
  • keeping your clients informed of progress and delays
  • keeping in regular contact with your sub-contractors
  • informing your sub-contractors and clients of problems as they arise; small problems have a tendency to snowball if left unattended
  • making your client aware of any difficulties that may arise due to the nature of the work, for example practical and engineering problems associated with sloping sites.

Proportionate liability

When a homeowner takes action against their builder or developer for defective or incomplete work, the builder or developer are not able to limit their responsibility to the part of the work for which they were directly responsible, regardless of the provisions contained in the Civil Liability Act 2002.

While builders remain responsible to the owner for warranties on all the work, sub-contractors are responsible for the statutory warranties on their work. This means that you as the builder or developer can take subsequent, separate legal action against any responsible party, including subcontractors, for substandard work.

Licensees also have a legal defence in any proceedings for a breach of statutory warranty if you relied on the written advice of a specialist employed by the home owner, such as an engineer.

Formal complaint handling

You should have a formal, written system in place for recording and keeping track of complaints. Even if you are in business by yourself, you can record complaints in your diary or notebook. This allows you to keep on top of complaints and helps identify emerging problems. Always keep copies of any documents you give to your clients and record any steps you took to try and solve the dispute.

Make sure your employees (if any) know how your complaint handling system works.

Your system should include information/components such as:

  • the nature and details of the complaint
  • the date, or when you became aware of the complaint and the name of the person making the complaint
  • contact details of those involved in the job to help sort out the problem quickly
  • a process to keep everyone up to date about the situation
  • a diary containing details of all contacts made and commitments given
  • copies of all letters/texts/emails received and sent
  • regularly check your diary to follow up and finalise any issues and or complaints.

Ideally, make one person in your business responsible for handling all customer complaints. That way your clients won’t waste their time recounting their story over again. Centralising your complaints can save time and money.

Sharpen your skills

Successful builders need to keep up-to-date with a range of skills to guarantee the success of their business.

Continuing professional development requirements have been introduced to assist the industry to be more competitive, reduce the level of disputes and raise the standards of the industry in the interest of builders and consumers. There is a wide range of options available to enable you to fulfil your continuing professional development requirements. For more information, go to the Continuing Professional Development page on the Fair Trading website.

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