Bad workmanship taught me how to run a building company

Meet the property developer who wants to hear your complaints - and resolve them
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The Independent Online

It may be of some comfort to customers of Berkeley Homes to know that if they complain of mucky workmen and missed appointments, the managing director knows exactly how frustrating that is. During Tony Pidgley's first year at the helm of the successful upmarket housebuilder he was also overseeing the construction of his own home by another firm, and that more than anything hardened his conviction that the customer deserved better.

Niggles, faults and delays are an almost inevitable part of new construction, but a dismissive and unhelpful response from the builder is not. All too often a small problem becomes a crisis simply because it is not dealt with efficiently - and Tony Pidgley set about correcting that, setting up Berkeley customer-care teams in each region. "I don't believe you can have a bolt-on service to clear up problems," he says. "It is too late by then. What buyers want is good communication and an expectation that, whatever the job, it will be done."

He and his wife Lesley, now living in their new home in Wentworth, Surrey, were often exasperated by that most common of all complaints - a casual attitude to time. "Lesley waited for a plumber for four hours, and when he did turn up he had the wrong instructions. That shouldn't have happened - it showed scant respect for Lesley's time. On another occasion, she walked in to find the decorator working without a dust-sheet and the new curtains spattered with paint. For me, a key issue is the need for one point of contact. I found myself saying the same thing to four or five people, and yet at the end of the week it still wouldn't have been done."

Few can know the business better than Mr Pidgley. He cut his teeth in Berkeley Homes, founded by his father, and ran his own niche property development company before joining Berkeley as group managing director. So, if he hit problems, what must it be like for the untutored purchaser?

Mr Pidgley is frank. "Our service levels were poor; we needed to change. The teams we have set up field all calls, whether to do with paint colours, siting a power point or mending a leaky pipe, and, even more important, they check that the work is done. Most people understand about teething problems, but they want to be kept informed. That's certainly all I wanted."

It is also what two-thirds of new-home buyers in the UK want but have failed to find, according to a recent survey for Zurich Insurance, Britain's second largest provider of warranties for new homes. Of the 3,000 buyers asked about their experiences with a number of major housebuilders, the majority complained that the builders' attitude changed once the sale was made and said they were not made to feel special on moving-in day. Problems which affected almost half of all new homes related to hot-water systems, heating and leaks, and fewer than one in 10 were "very satisfied" with the information given about how things worked in the house. Two thirds complained that "snags" had not been fixed by completion day.

A not unfamiliar tale for Mary Wiessner, who bought her student daughter a newly converted flatin south-west London thinking it would be easier to manage than an older property. Instead, she acquired a millstone round her neck. "There were serious flaws in the soundproofing which we only discovered later, but what really depressed my daughter was moving into a home that was not finished properly. I had a snagging list that I went over with a different site manager almost every few weeks. There was no hot water for ages, the lights kept blowing and the entryphone system never worked. My daughter has now decided to sell."

Customer care is the area in need of greatest improvement, says Malcolm Pitcher, marketing consultant of PCL which conducted the survey for Zurich. "Much more attention must be given to the handover of a property. If buyers move in to find that the faults they spotted have not been fixed, they will start looking for payback. Even rational people will try to catch the builder doing something else wrong."

The UK industry could learn from the top American companies in terms of customer satisfaction, says Mr Pitcher. "Right from the start they tell the customer they will do everything in their power to get the building work done on time, but if they do encounter problems, the purchaser will be first to know. Keeping constantly in touch inspires enormous confidence. It also pays dividends because among these companies 42 per cent of their new business comes from delighted customer referrals. In the UK that figure is between 10 and 12 per cent, representing a huge untapped market."

So how can builders start to win over their customers? Being more honest, communicating with purchasers and taking them through the property in advance of legal completion day and then correcting the faults are crucial, says Mr Pitcher. He is already seeing more builders giving formal demonstrations of a property so that the new owner feels comfortable. "I think we will start to see a new élite among housebuilders in this country, and buyers will look for their sites because of the service they offer." As a start, this year will see the beginning of a national league-table of builders.

Linda Beaney of the London estate agents Beaney Pearce would like to see all owners of new-build properties employ a surveyor. "Potential problems with leaks and guttering, or badly fitting windows would be picked up, as well as smaller faults. It can saves months of acrimony." Some developers welcome the inspection: Taylor Woodrow sends out a letter, before completion, reminding clients to instruct a surveyor.

At Berkeley Homes they have seen a marked improvement in levels of customer satisfaction during the buying process, and in standards of finish of properties. This is helped largely by the authority given to a customer-care manager to delay completion if the property is not up to scratch. Pending-service calls have been reduced by more than 40 per cent, and the speed of resolution of calls by more than 50 per cent. However, there has been less satisfaction in meeting customers moving-in wishes - that "wanting to be made to feel special" feeling.

Mr Pidgley's determination to change his company's attitude to customer relations is clearly the start of wider changes in the industry. Good communication is at the core. Some ceilings in Mr Pidgley's own new home are going to have to come down because the air conditioning is faulty. "How much easier if they had investigated it three months ago, instead of making excuses. That's how it shouldn't be done."