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  • Writer's pictureNíall Hedderman

It is a Service, not a Product!

2013 has been a busy year, at one point or another I had five separate buildings under construction. One is still being built and is due to complete just before Christmas. These projects were all extensions and alterations to existing houses, ranging in cost from £30k to £150k. While the clients and their projects were all different, most encountered the same issue during construction;

The clients and the builders had very different expectations of their roles.

Builders imagine they are providing a product, a physical building. Clients expect builders to provide a service, to give them advice and guidance before, during and after construction.

Let me give you a small example. Recently I was contacted by two separate clients on the same day, both of their projects had finished this year and both were built by the same contractor. The weather had turned cold that day and both clients had exactly the same problem, they couldn't work their heating controls. Both of these guys are capable, intelligent and university educated. Both had read the user’s manual and yet both were still unable to control their heating systems.

What is wrong with this picture?

First, the contractor was responsible for the design and installation of the heating system, the boiler, the radiators and the control units. The same kit was installed in both properties and neither the client nor I were given any choice on the control unit specification, it just appeared one day.

Second, the contractor never demonstrated the controls to the client. The unit was installed, the plumber and electrician checked that it worked and then left. They never trained the client.

What Do Homeowners Expect From Builders?

When I challenged the contractor he was genuinely baffled, asking rhetorically "what do they expect?" It turns out they don't expect a lot, they just expect something different. Over the past two decades the economy has undergone a profound shift, from providing products to providing services. The service sector is now the single largest part of the UK economy. To those old enough to remember, even parts of the economy that once provided solid, physical products now focus on service. Take the car industry, the time was when customers looking for a vehicle took a test drive, some haggling might happen and then money changed hands. Now car dealerships will check the cars history, arrange finance, car tax and an MoT if necessary. They will call you in advance to arrange the annual service and give you a courtesy car while yours is unavailable. When I bought a Land Rover earlier this year I was given a free off road driving course – I hadn't asked for it and the training might never be necessary, but it was appreciated.

Society Has Changed.

The same transformation has happened in the tourism, insurance and financial sectors. Who now books a holiday, arranges insurance or applies for a credit card without comparing their options online? This quantum leap in the speed, convenience and depth of information available to consumers has created high expectations for all other parts of the economy.

Even groceries, the most basic of commodities, have not been immune. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, ASDA and other supermarkets make the whole process of buying food as easy and convenient as possible. You can now order online and they will even deliver it to your door at a time to suit you!

Consumers have come to expect businesses to be proactive, anticipating what people want before they need it. Business types talk endlessly about being 'customer focused' but most builders I meet seem instead to be product focused and it is leading to more and more disgruntled clients and baffled builders.

So what can be done?

First off builders need to look at a project from Z to A, not the other way around. Most builders are practical people, they see a set of drawings and think, "right, we dig some foundations, lay some drains, build some walls, put up a roof and bobs your uncle". They tend to visualise the process in the same linear sequence required to build it. I would argue they should do the reverse. Why? because no one is going to phone a builder late on a rainy Saturday evening to say "my foundations have stopped working" but they will phone to say their are trapped in the new bathroom because the lock has jammed (this actually happened to one of my clients) If the builder focuses first on the parts of the building the user will encounter every day, problem areas can be identified before they emerge. They would see that boiler controls, lighting, ventilation, door handles, kitchen units and bathroom accessories have far more opportunities to disappoint a client than a brick wall or slate roof ever will. Builders need to accept that a £5,000 bathroom is more important than a £50,000 foundation, from a client's point of view.

To Succeed, Builders Must Take More Responsibility. 

The downside of this is that builders will probably have to take moral responsibility for items that are not their legal responsibility, the kitchen units are a classic example. These will usually be supplied, pre-built, by a specialist and if they fail in any way, it is the responsibility of the specialist to fix it. But that can be a very unsatisfactory experience for the client.

Imagine instead of building a new house, the client buys a new car and it breaks down a few weeks later. The client is miles from home and has a recovery truck take him and the car back to the dealership, where the salesman looks under the hood and tells him, "the alternator is blown".

The client says, "great, how soon can you fix it?".

"Oh, it’s not our responsibility", says the salesman, "we didn't supply the alternator..."

I wouldn't be very happy with that kind of service, would you?

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