Is “customer-focused” just a buzzword? And what exactly does that term mean when it comes to re-roofing a house or installing new windows? If the windows look great, or the new roof doesn't leak, the customer got what he paid for, right?

How homeowners feel about the job your company did usually has more to do with the way they were treated than with the quality of the installation (see “Product & Process,” on page 34). Which is why some business owners feel that home improvement companies “can't afford not to be customer-focused,” says Carlo Pinto, owner of Pinnacle Energy, a roofing, siding, and window company with offices in Delaware and Maryland. “If they're not, they're going to be out of business.”

Pinto, whose company started as a window replacement operation generating most of its leads by canvassing, still gets the majority of its business that way. But, he says, “the old days of pounding on doors and making the numbers” are past. Homeowners today want someone to pay attention to them after that contract has been signed. They expect, he says, clear communication, polite interaction, follow-up, and follow-through. All are components in what homeowners consider a job done well enough to recommend the contractor to others.

Home improvement companies aren't the only ones with a new awareness of customer service. Call it “loyalty,” “excellence,” “exceeding expectations,” or something else, “the economic downturn has made many business owners realize that they can't grow just by acquisition,” says Jeanne Bliss, author of I Love You More Than My Dog, who has managed customer service for, at different times, five large corporations.

What has also made the difference, Bliss says, is social media. “[In the past, contractors] could act like monopolies: Do what I say, on my time line, and see you later. But you can't behave that way and expect to be talked about and recommended,” Bliss says. And being recommended — referred — is now more important. “Yesterday was about satisfying your customer,” says Canadian business guru Sam Geist, author of Execute ... or Be Executed. “Today is about the Client Referral Index,” he says. “What is a client? Someone who buys multiple products, multiple times. A customer,” Geist points out, “is someone who buys one product.”

WHY IT MATTERS Scott Barr is someone whose Client Referral Index has seen a significant upswing. Ten years ago, Barr, whose company sells windows, doors, and siding, set out to expand the percentage of his business generated by previous customers, mostly through referrals. At that point, referrals accounted for about 20% of the revenue for his company, Southwest Exteriors, in San Antonio. At the end of 2011 that number was hovering between 42% and 44%.

But getting to that point comes with considerable effort. Barr and his team thought through and reworked every point of interaction between customers and Southwest Exteriors. “It starts with the way we handle the call, receive the call, transfer the call,” Barr says. “The first person [to take the call] is very good at greeting.” After the appointment is set, prospects can expect to receive, via email, a profile of their job designer (which includes a photo), and a welcome letter from the project manager outlining Southwest's installation process.

From there, it takes two different paths, Barr says, depending on whether it's a siding or a window sale. Customers are notified of the ship date and the installation date for their windows. A siding sale, longer and often more complex, includes a pre-construction meeting, with the customer present.

THINKING LIKE A CUSTOMER Design/build remodeling companies — with average project sizes in the five- or six-figure range — know all about customer service. They often depend on their current customer for their next one. Building a relationship with the customer — “client” is the preferred term — begins with the first phone call and continues to a walk-through and a thank-you note. Because they're usually selling that particular customer that product only one time, specialty contractors have been inclined to view the relationship a different way: The homeowner buys the product; the product is installed, and provided it doesn't fail, the customer is presumed to be satisfied. “Service” is defined as repairing or replacing the product on warranty.

When Matt Colligan was general manager of the Champion Windows branch in Colorado Springs, Colo., from 2004 through 2011, the operation's sales went from $3.5 million to $8 million. Much of that increase happened during the recession. Colligan says that attitude made the difference. Window companies, he says, often figure “Hey, let's slam in these windows and we'll worry about it 20 years from now when they replace them.” Instead, he decided to focus on “word-of-mouth, community, and grass roots.”