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Hearing Voices
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Hearing Voices

200607BVB0

200607BVB0

In all of the discussions in print and in seminar rooms about advancing the watershaping trades, it seems to me there’s been a missing voice – that of the client.

We spend lots of time dissecting, praising, disputing, criticizing and encouraging one another, but somehow we seem to have bypassed the thought that we should pay much closer attention to the people who pay us. To my mind, this is something that should change.

As individuals, we really should know what it takes to improve and produce a better buying experience related to watershapes of all types and sizes, commercial and residential. Without this direct feedback from our clients, how on earth can we possibly know whether or not we’re truly giving people what they really want?

As an industry, unless we figure out some way to pool this feedback and codify it in some meaningful way, we will be forever doomed to a dialogue filled with partially educated guesswork. I believe sincerely that we need to fill these gaps with sound, reasonable observations, not speculation.

I recall, of course, that what was then the National Spa & Pool Institute investigated the purchasing process for pools and spas. The Oxtoby-Smith Report, as it was known, gave us insights into what made people want to buy pools and spas, what turned them off, how long the process took and much more. I am also aware of (but not familiar with) additional research NSPI (now the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals) has done since – but those research projects are different from the much more personal and specific information I’m after today.

JUST ASKING

Not long ago, I was chatting with my Genesis 3 partner Skip Phillips, who posed the following question: “If you woke up tomorrow and were in charge of a national trade association, what would be the first thing you’d do?” Without hesitation, my answer was that I would set up a national system for surveying clients: They are more important to us than anything else, yet we probably know less about them than we do about any other aspect of the business.

Why the gap? Perhaps we’ve been too successful and feel more comfortable talking among ourselves in fear of upsetting the positive flow by questioning what’s going on. Perhaps we’ve been made complacent by real strides in creativity and the quality of our output and have become satisfied with the progress we’re seeing. Or maybe it’s that some of us simply don’t want to know what’s going on because the feedback would be less than flattering.

Whatever the cause, it’s clear to me that the time has come to ask some questions of those who matter most. We’ve begun the process in a small way at Genesis 3, where the application for Platinum membership status asks for a list of the watershaper’s last 20 clients. We contact a random sampling of those names and have heard some decidedly interesting things.

In some cases, we’re checking up on applicants who are universally beloved by their clients to the point where the watershaper is a de facto member of the family. In others, however, we find chillier assessments that raise real objections to the watershaper’s performance. For the most part, of course, the feedback falls somewhere between those extremes.

Consistently, we’ve found that the firms with the most apparent success also have the most satisfied customers. That’s not surprising on its face, I suppose, but in considering the question on a deeper level, we’ve ended up wondering why it is so.

We all know (or should know, anyway) that a happy client is by far the best marketing tool any of us could ever have. The firms with happy clients often keep the fires burning purely on referrals and can basically step away from any form of marketing. Conversely, we know that dissatisfied clients often will go out of their way to make it known to family, friends and associates that their experience was negative – and there’s no telling how far those nasty ripples might reach.

For most of us, satisfying clients isn’t a matter of extremes, but is instead a process occurring somewhere between those lines. No matter where we are – leaning toward the positive side or struggling to avoid the negative – there’s no question that, without specific feedback, we’re only just guessing at what our clients want and leaving success very much to chance.

With feedback, however, we just might be able to get a bead on a formula that will enable us to build our registries of success stories.

ANY QUESTIONS?

For us as individual practitioners, these lines of inquiry would likely yield a genuine roadmap upon which we could rely. We might, for example, learn that returning calls, setting reasonable expectations, establishing valid time frames and keeping job sites clean go a long way in building client happiness.

I’d end up losing a huge number of column topics if everyone knew all these things as a matter of course and put them into practice, but I’d nonetheless be a very happy man. When you step back just a little and really give this notion a second’s clear thought, the logic is so inescapable it seems almost obscene that as an industry we haven’t moved firmly in this direction – and that we didn’t get started at it a generation ago.

Missing Links?

I’ve often wondered if those in our industry who work solely on a referral basis are not, by flying low to the ground and under the radar, doing the watershaping industry something of a disservice.

To some extent, these people may well be the most successful our industry has ever known, but huge numbers of them operate at the fringes, don’t associate with other watershapers and could be serving as inspirations and role models for the rest of us.

They may have good reasons for not associating themselves with the industry’s rank and file, but I wonder if they’re not hurting themselves by keeping their colleagues at arm’s length. After all, we’re all part of the same business, and if it’s best role models are hiding themselves, who benefits?

To be sure, many of these people have stepped up to be counted by participating in WaterShapes and visiting us at trade shows, but how many more of you are out there and what might you have to teach us?

Just another question to throw onto the pile, I guess.

— B.V.B.

But beyond individual watershapers polling their clients to get basic feedback, I also think it’s time that we, as an industry, find a mechanism for gathering this sort of information and sharing it generally. We need to move forward together, let go the fear of the truth and see once and for all if we’re actually doing our jobs – or at least how well we’re doing them relative to client expectations and desires.

And this is as much about the design and construction process as it is about the end product. For my part, I sincerely wonder exactly what we would find out and am completely tantalized by the possibility. I know this much for certain right now: We’ll never be sure what’s out there until someone, somewhere decides to invest the time, energy and resources in making it happen.

Allow me to grab the bull by the horns and make a proposition: All you watershapers out there, set up a simple survey of your last, say, two dozen clients and, anonymously or not, share what you learn with the rest of us. Just send the information along to me at the e-mail address listed in the note at the end of this column or mail it to the magazine.

Let’s assume that some of you see the sense of what I’m suggesting and decide to make the effort. If some of you send me the results, I’ll be more than happy to sift through the information and devote as much space as it takes in future columns to sharing the results.

This may be an imperfect, partial solution to the interest I have in addressing our general lack of client knowledge, but it would at least be a start. The results may be purely anecdotal, but my best guess says that even with a few people taking up the charge, we’ll all glean some useful information.

GETTING SPECIFIC

Assuming some of you are up for the exercise, let’s look at a list of questions and areas of inquiry. How you choose to ask them – verbally or in writing – is obviously up to you, but however you might proceed, if your interviews cover the following I think we’ll be on something approximating the right track:

[ ] How was the overall experience?

This may seem overly general, but frankly I’ve found that the most basic impressions that can be the most important. It’s a test of the fundamental idea that when people are acquiring a watershape, what they’re really looking for is a slice of the good life for themselves and their families – enjoyment, pleasure and luxury. If that’s the case, the overriding impression that clients have regarding the quality of the design and construction experience is absolutely crucial.

Captured within the answers here will likely be information about the duration of the project, if it unfolded as they were told, if what actually happened was appropriate for the scope of the job and whether or not it happened within the communicated time frame. On a deeper level, it’s about whether we over-promise and under-deliver – or vice versa – and if what we say to our clients aligns with what we do.

I would also think you’d hear about the management of your job sites: Did you keep them clean? Were your workers courteous and respectful of the property? Did the materials and/or vehicles create problems with neighbors or for the family? Was there excessive noise? All of these things go into creating either a satisfied client or one who has been left out in the cold by the experience. To my mind, these are basic things we all need to know.

[ ] Were you satisfied with the level of communication?

Communication is a huge issue and one I’ve discussed in my column on several occasions. Did you return phone calls? Did you effectively answer questions? How quickly and how thoroughly did you respond to problems or concerns? Did the client know whom to contact with any issues?

These days, I know of some firms that actually go to the effort of communicating ahead of time with the customer if the information is important, such as when certain aspects of the work will take place or when there will be lulls in the action on site. If, by way of your survey, you find that some or all of your clients have communication issues with you, what better cue could you get that your clients really do want and need to know what’s going on.

Consider how disruptive the construction process can be and what the effect being left in the dark has on your clients’ psyches. If you discover that communicating about schedules is appreciated because it helps your clients plan their lives, it’s time to make it happen – unless, of course, you think it’s a good idea to let them stew.

When you miss the mark on that this front and the customer gets to the point where they feel compelled to pick up the phone to find out for themselves the status of one phase of the work or another, odds are they’re already upset. It’s much better, I think, to get ahead of the curve and keep them informed.

Also, questions about communication might involve follow-up questions on whether or not the client was satisfied with the turnover or commissioning of the watershape: Did they receive the information they needed to operate and maintain the system? Was enough time devoted to helping them feel comfortable with the roles they needed to play? Again, this is basic stuff, but it’s also crucial: When someone pays tens of thousands of their hard-earned dollars to acquire a watershape, it’s reasonable for them to expect that someone in the process will tell them how to use and take care of the product!

[ ] Are you satisfied with the product?

That may seem an obvious question, but I think it leaves room for all sorts of unanticipated responses. You’ll start out by learning if the product is what they expected, met their objectives with respect to function and appearance and works as they’d hoped, but then it gets interesting.

What would they want that’s different? What’s their favorite aspect or facet of the finished product? Is it something they expected, or was it a surprise? Even with the most elaborate of designs, the favorite item can be the simplest: Perhaps it’s a fire effect, a bench in a quiet landscaped area or the sound of moving water somewhere in the environment. Maybe it’s a particular view from one spot or another or the way a certain bit of stone or tile looks at sunset.

In many situations, clients may have liked the idea of one thing or another from the start, but it wasn’t until they’d really lived with it for a while that they recognized just how much they were enjoying that certain something. Flipping things around, you may also hear about things they could’ve done without. You’ll also possibly hear about functionality, such as if the spa heats up fast enough, if they’re satisfied with the water quality, if they like the way the lighting works and looks and whether the remote controls are easy to use or not.

The way you view the quality or role of the product coming from your professional perspective may be one thing and their views of the same product as end users quite another. I’d like to think that finding out what works for them and what doesn’t will profoundly influence the items, features and products we suggest and advocate in the future.

[ ] Would you refer our firm to a friend or family member?

This is the big litmus test. As mentioned above, a satisfied client will be the very best promoter of your business that you’ll ever find, while one who is unhappy will be just the opposite and then some. (As an adjunct here, you may want to follow up by asking “why?”)

If you’ve missed the mark somewhere, hearing this answer may not be the most pleasant of experiences – but it’s exactly the feedback you need to do better next time. And as a side note, just asking this question may give the client a chance to vent and may relieve some of their anxiety or anger. At the very least, they’ll know you care enough to ask what they think.

On the positive side, they’ll key you into the facets of the experience that have worked for them and cue you into approaches that work. That, too, is good to know.

NO FEAR

When it comes to our clients’ feelings of satisfaction (or the lack thereof), we only stand to gain from learning the unvarnished truth.

Certainly, there are clients who are inherently difficult and essentially impossible to satisfy, and there’s nothing at all wrong with taking what you hear from them with grains of salt. But it’s not the individual voices that matter most: The key is assembling an amalgamation of feedback that will help you see what’s going on and be most helpful to you in setting future courses.

If this exercise yields consistent responses from across your client array, positive or negative, you can attach great relevance to those informational nuggets. Unless you’re in total denial, my suspicion is that the truth will set you free. And if you’re of a mind to share what you learn, please do let me know: We’ll all benefit and head down the road to freedom together.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected]

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