HOMEBUILDERS – “WHAT WE’VE GOT HERE IS A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE!” (reprise)

Recent events have convinced me that there is still a major opportunity for improvement in communication so I am reprising (with some current updates) an “oldie but goodie” blog.

Cool Hand Luke, the source of the headline for this blog,  is a truly great movie.  For those of my readers who are too young to have seen it when issued in 1967, I would recommend renting it one night or downloading it from “on demand”.  The film earned Paul Newman one of his ten Academy Award nominations and won George Kennedy the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.  It is included in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains” (number 30 greatest hero) and “100 Years…100 Cheers – America’s Most Inspiring Movies (number 71) and was placed in the Smithsonian’s United States National Film Registry in 2005.  It is classic Paul Newman at his best playing the role of an anti-hero with an indomitable spirit.  And the tag line captioned above is outstanding, applicable to almost every aspect of life these days but, perhaps, especially relevant to the homebuilding industry.

Lack of proper communication continues to be pandemic these days and, in my opinion, is at least equally, if not more, the fault of the speaker as that of the listener.  Saturday evening I stopped at the local Walgreens to purchase spirits of camphor. Not being able to locate the item and as the pharmacy was closed I asked a clerk for assistance.  As she was several decades younger than I and apparently not familiar with the product she asked me what it was and I replied “an astringent”.  Her reaction was an immediate blank look followed by a repeat of her question, “what is it?” and, I without thinking, responded, “spirits of camphor, it is an astringent”.

I admit it, the fault was mine.  I should have realized this person was unfamiliar with spirits of camphor and, as she no doubt was a product of the esteemed Florida public school system and apparently not having been provided with even elementary training in the basic products of a drug store, she was also unfamiliar with the word “astringent”.  When she once more asked “what is it?”, to prevent what I saw evolving into an Abbot and Costello routine of “Who’s on first…”, I did not repeat my answer but explained that it was a liquid in a small bottle typically applied to tighten the skin.  When I was then led to the cosmetics aisle I knew that I still had failed to properly communicate and asked where the rubbing alcohol was located.  I had no success there as the Walgreens in our area no longer stock spirits of camphor but thanks to the miracles of modern technology I ordered it from Amazon.com where it seems you can purchase almost anything.

Monday evening I attended a city council meeting in a town near where I live.  I am involved in the proposed redevelopment of a 30 year old community and this was a special council meeting called specifically to consider our request for rezoning, following two prior meetings of the Planning Board which had lasted four and three hours, respectively.   

We were proposing to develop 150 single family homes on 9 holes of a defunct golf course and to reinstall the other 9 holes creating a new 27 hole golf course with new clubhouse, swimming pool, fitness facilities, etc.  Prior to starting our planning for this development my team and I had met with the leaders of the various homeowner associations within the community to solicit their input and determine what needed to be done to garner community support for our plan as several previous attempts to receive approval for redevelopment had been unsuccessful.

Utilizing the information from this first meeting we met with our planners and created a plan for the development which, I believe, was as close to perfect as is possible.  Every existing home in the community that previously enjoyed a golf or water view but now overlooked a rat-infested unkempt field would again have a premium golf or water view as well as substantial buffering from any new development.  A 30 year old dilapidated clubhouse in need of major repairs would be replaced with a new and far more functional facility and all amenities would be new or refurbished.  Our new purchasers would automatically become club members virtually assuring the ongoing country club operation that now was teetering on dissolution.  And our new development, with home prices well above the median in the community, would revitalize the housing market and stimulate price growth for the existing residents.  I truly believe that this is a “win-win” for all concerned – the existing residents, the city and my client.

We had held seven public meetings to which the existing homeowners were invited and we had prepared detailed exhibits of the proposed development including plans and renderings of the new homes, a rendering showing the views from the rear of the existing residences to the new homes at the closest possible condition (175 feet across the new golf course), plans for the new clubhouse and amenities and site plans for each of our development parcels with the existing adjoining homes shown.  These meetings lasted from three to four hours each and, when issues were raised that could be addressed, we revised our plans accordingly.

We maintained ongoing contact with the residents who attended these meetings, advising them of our progress throughout the ensuing months.  As the vast majority of the residents expressed very positive reactions to the proposed development and over 150 later signed petitions supporting the development proposal, I thought that we had done a fairly good job of presenting our plans and communicating with the residents.

We also had held numerous meetings and conference calls with the city’s professional staff and met with the Mayor and Vice Mayor to discuss and address the city’s needs and concerns.  

The Planning Board meetings drew between 150 and 200 residents including approximately 20 individuals who vocally opposed the development but the Board recommended approval on a 3 to 1 vote.  The city council meeting drew over 300 attendees and ran from 7:00 PM to 1:00 AM.  Over 150 people signed up to speak but as the evening wore on many of these left (fortunately from my point of view) so that only 55 members of the public actually spoke and the speakers were about equally split between those in favor and those opposed.

Much of the opposition brought up either irrelevant objections or suppositions based on “what if” scenarios that had already been addressed and, I thought, answered satisfactorily in our public resident meetings.  Apparently, some of my communication was not heard, understood or accepted by these people.  The fault is mine and I was reminded yet once again that what is said is not necessarily what is heard.

One opposing speaker quoted from an anonymous mailing that had been sent to many of the community’s residents citing a web site that, among other fallacies, blamed the decline in real estate prices from 2007 through 2012 solely on over-development.  When I learned of this mailing I researched the web site, found that the author lacked any credentials other than an active membership in the Sierra Club, and had sent an email to my resident list as well as the city manager informing them of that fact as well as my feelings about individuals who send anonymous mailings (I believe that I referred to them as cowards who are afraid to stand behind their actions and who use tactics similar to those utilized by totalitarian regimes).

The best presentation from the public that evening came from the last speaker, a resident of the community who I had not known was going to speak and who I had not met previously although I had met and had an ongoing correspondence relationship with several of his neighbors. This gentleman, who had previously served on the County Planning Council, made a cogent, intelligent and factual presentation that strongly supported the development.  Apparently our resident communication efforts successfully filtered down into the community.  

I am pleased that the city council voted unanimously in favor of the development.  If all proceeds favorably hereafter we will be able to obtain all of the other necessary government approvals by this time next year and be able to begin the redevelopment.  Yes, that is a 2014 start of a residential development in which I have already been involved for 21 months.  But that is the process here in South Florida.  And the approvals obtained and even the possibility of this development could not have occurred without extensive open communication.

During my career I have had the opportunity to shop thousands of new home sales people and brokers around the country.  And the majority of time the sales person will inadvertently say something that could create a negative impression, either about the home, the community or the builder, and thereby destroy the sales “moment”.  In this case, failure to properly communicate will have serious repercussions both for the salesperson and the homebuilder.

I wrote an article a few ago for Sales and Marketing Ideas, reprinted In Nations Building News, titled “WORDS TO THE WISE”.  I suggested that “the power of words is truly amazing.  For nations, words can mean the difference between war and peace.  For a married couple, the wrong words can lead to divorce.  In the new home sales arena the choice of words can often mean the difference between life and death (of the sale).  Yet most of us seldom take the time to be certain in advance that the words we choose to use will have the desired effect.”  If you would like a copy of that article, please send me an email and I will be happy to forward it to you.

Communication is a bi-directional process and what is said is often not what is heard.  As we teach in the CSP course, there is tremendous “interference” in the communication process as each of the parties exists in his or her reality based on experiential factors and personality.   And it is not just communication that often is deficient but also perception and these deficiencies are not limited to the sales process but, instead, permeate throughout the entire homebuilding operation and process.

Recently I was shopping competitive communities in a mid-south market and visited one sales office for the area’s leading homebuilder.  As I was not local to this area, and as the salesperson offered no presentation on the community’s builder, I asked for information,  The response I received, apparently a “script” issued by the builder and used in all of their developments, went something like this.  “Oh, this is another subdivision by ‘fill in the blank’ builders.  They are the largest builder in the area and due to their size and the fact that they are production builders they are able to provide the lowest prices.”  The salesperson then proceeded to immediately return to her presentation of the houses without asking if that answered my question.

What specifically stuck in my mind was the use of the terms “subdivision” (instead of “community”), “production builder” and “lowest price”.  None of those terms answered my underlying query as I wanted to know what customization, if any, was available as my client believed that to be one of the major distinctive benefits that they offered.  Later I specifically asked the competition’s sales representative about the potential for customization and learned that the builder would certainly consider any and all customer requests.  And my client discovered that their USP was not unique and needed to rethink their marketing position and strategy.

Communication must always be a two way process, giving and receiving. In our industry, homebuilders have the ultimate final say in all decisions but builders must listen to the market and to the sales people and consultants that speak for the market, as the customers, the most important people in the process, are otherwise left out of the decision making process. 

In any business but especially in the highly competitive business of homebuilding, whether or not you like what is being said, you need t hear it and to achieve that there must be proper and open communication throughout the entire operation and process or ultimately your development will not be approved or sales will be lost, either way money will be left on the table.  But that’s just my opinion. 

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