HOMEBUILDERS PLEASE LISTEN – IT’S JUST NOT FUN BUYING A NEW HOME

I think that everyone enjoys having fun. Next week I am flying to California to again judge the National Sales and Marketing Awards (http://thenationals.com/) and I made it a point to take an early flight so that I can spend the day with my older son at Disneyland, the second most magical place on earth.

hospital ward
I do not mind visits to doctors and can usually fall asleep in the dentist’s chair while my teeth are being cleaned. But one experience that is not fun for me in any way is hospitals, whether as a patient or merely visiting one. My wife and I spent 7½ hours Friday night in our local hospital with my mother-in-law, first in the emergency room and then waiting while she was admitted for observation. We finally got home at 3:30 AM totally stressed and exhausted even though our patient seemed to have fully recovered from her TIA by 10:30 PM.

The stress was not necessarily from her episode but rather from the entire hospital experience where it seems to be the rule that information exchange is non-existent, unreasonable and lengthy delays are required and treatment is delayed, if provided at all, until everyone is confident that they will not be sued. It is my wife’s opinion, and she quite possibly is right, that hospitals should be avoided at all costs as they will kill you if you give them the opportunity. Fortunately my mother-in-law seems to be fine now and once they balanced her Coumadin levels they sent her home. So it appears that we have concluded another hospital experience without catastrophic results. But I am of the belief that not even doctors and nurses enjoy hospitals.

It is time for me to buy a new car as the lease on my wife’s car will shortly expire. This is another experience that until recently I found to be both unpleasant and stressful. I am not really “in to” cars and never have been. Perhaps that is due to age but mostly I consider a car to be transportation, not an ego statement, not a replacement for lost youth nor the fulfillment of some unachieved dream. I have owned many cars over the years. Some were fun when they were running including both the used TR3 and XK140 I bought in my youth, both of which I thankfully had for only a short time.

I enjoy having a new car and I enjoy driving one. The “new car” smell is great; the cleanliness is a pleasure; the new “toys” are fun. I almost even enjoy (in a somewhat masochistic way) the frustration in becoming familiar with the relocated controls. What I did not enjoy in any way is the process of acquiring the new car, from the difficulty in actually obtaining the final price to the demeaning process where I have to receive the “blessing” from the sales manager seated “on high” to approve the deal. And I really do not think that the process should take three hours or more, especially if you have previously purchased several cars from the same dealer, when there is no vehicle being traded-in and the purchase is paid in cash.

So last year I adopted the practice of buying a car from the dealer that gave me the least grief and aggravation. It took visits to seven different dealers before I finally found one which treated me as I wished to be treated. My last car acquisition was almost a pleasure and this dealership will probably be our first (and possibly only) stop when we begin the search for my wife’s new car. For a stress-free experience and the bonus of a nice car, I personally recommend Lexus.

And now we come to the process of buying a new home.

I shop communities across the country on a regular basis and even in 2009 I have walked into sales offices and been greeted with “May I help you?” Another one that I hear frequently is “Hello, what brought you out today?” My immediate mental response to that one, which I usually stifle, is “first my car, then my feet”. Perhaps I am overly picky (and I will gladly allow the many excellent sales trainers in our industry to improve on my answer), but it seems to me that a proper greeting would be something like this:

“Good morning and welcome to Graceland. I’m Dan Levitan and it is my pleasure to be representing what I believe is one of the finest new home communities in Memphis. Please take a moment to tell me a little about yourselves so that I can assist you in your search for your new home.”

To my way of thinking that would provide a simple, warm and friendly introduction that begins the qualification process, provides a positive image for the builder and the homes, allows us to begin to obtain the additional information we need and opens the door to building the personal relationship that must be created before we can assist that visitor in purchasing a new home.

But it is not only the welcome (or lack thereof) and quite probably the rest of the sales presentation that could be improved but also the entire homebuying process so that, hopefully, it is not only stress-free but also an enjoyable experience for everyone.

• What happened to the children’s play area that we used to build into the sales offices for “family” housing product?
• Why did we stop personalizing our ongoing contact with our prospects and customers throughout the homebuying process in favor of automatically-generated generic letters, emails and tweets?
• In the mortgage application process, is the mortgage processor as vested in the home sale as the builder and the new home salesperson? We have selected a mortgage company with good rates and probably the lowest cost to us, but have we also selected based on customer friendliness and quality service to the applicant and, perhaps, most important, their ability to continually confirm the decision to purchase from us?
• The selection process is another step where we may have lost our way. Centralized design centers are profitable and cost-effective but have we created a situation where we place pressure on the customer to upgrade beyond affordability? Are the “base” selections not only adequate but acceptable, with multiple choices available and termed the “sapphire level” (with the upgrades being the “emerald” and “diamond” levels) or something similar to provide a positive connotation instead of the buyers believing they have to settle for less? Have we properly trained the personnel handling the selections in new home sales skills so that the home purchase decision is constantly reinforced?
• In the construction review process, if proper procedures exist at all, the potential for customer stress and dissatisfaction is endless. This year I witnessed a major homebuilder prohibit the customer (in writing) from viewing the home during construction and also barring any customer input until the home is ready to close. What could we hope to accomplish and what message do we send by telling the buyers that they cannot look at their home during construction (which we all know they are going to do anyway) and if they see something amiss we do not care?
• In the closing process we typically turn the buyer over to another department or outside contractor who I guarantee was not selected based on customer friendliness or their ability to continually confirm the decision to purchase from us.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not opposed to standardization and operational efficiencies which are essential for production builders. But I think perhaps we have gone too far in concentrating our operations toward the production side of the business and have forgotten that it is the marketing side that makes the cash register ring. We have taken the salesperson, on whom we have relied to create a personal relationship with the purchaser, out of much of the ongoing process, substituting people untrained in new home sales and potentially lost control of our customer.

Back in the days when the homebuilding business was booming, Larry Webb, then CEO of John Laing Homes, implemented a homebuying process that was the most professional, comprehensive and consumer-friendly program that I have seen. Included among many features were a brochure explaining the entire homebuying and homebuilding process and an accompanying coloring book for children so that they could not only be a part of the process but also to make it enjoyable and relieve some of the fears of moving. (By the way, NAHB has a children’s coloring book on-line – http://www.nahb.org/coloringbook/)

What makes Larry different from most homebuilding executives is that he came from the marketing side of the business. In fact he is one the very few homebuilding executives to have taken the time to earn the MIRM designation. He understood that housing is a retail business selling the most expensive consumer item and that his company should be operated accordingly, not as a manufacturing business. Larry was deservedly recognized in 1997 as a “Legend of Residential Marketing®”.

Fun #2Volkswagen demonstrated that “fun” can change the way people act – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lXh2n0aPyw. Can we not do the same with homebuilding? In this era of commoditization of housing, with all the builders competing head-to head with virtually identical product, there is an absolute need to create a USP (unique selling proposition). Would a better and friendlier homebuying “process” not be the perfect vehicle to be more fun for everyone and allow a builder who truly cares to differentiate itself from all of the other builders in a positive and memorable way?

Please visit our company’s website to learn more about our services – http://levitanassociates.net.

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