The Importance of Customer Experience Management (CXM)
22 Dec

The Importance of Customer Experience Management (CXM)

[This article recently appeared in Working RE magazine]

You own a home inspection business. Congratulations! You are a rare individual representing less than 10% of the U.S. working population who is taking the risk to own their own business. It is not easy being a business owner, but it can be an extremely rewarding experience for you and those you help with your business on a day-to-day basis.

You also chose a very competitive industry tied to the real estate market. Depending on where you live, it might only require a simple business license to start a home inspection business. Even in licensing states, the barriers to entry are relatively low when compared to other businesses. According to IBIS World, there are over 32,000 inspection businesses employing almost 50,000 inspectors. This includes sole proprietors, multi-inspector firms, and franchises. The good news is that most home inspection transactions are at a local level. The not-so-good news is that, at a local level, you might be competing against both well-established inspection businesses as well as the newcomers hoping to score big by lowballing prices (which is not good for anyone in the industry).

Real Estate: Not Following Typical Cycles
In addition to a competitive home inspection industry, we have a non-traditional real estate market, where inventory has been at record lows for a considerable amount of time. Add a pandemic on top of the seasonal market cycle and many regions are seeing an even lower inventory—new housing starts are well above median home prices and a shortage of low-income and affordable housing. This can make it very difficult to predict what is next for the housing market! Despite all of that, 2021 was a record year for many businesses while others had to shut down. While there is still expected to be a lot of volatility in the market, 2021 is projected to see existing home sales up seven percent and single-family home housing starts up nine percent (https://www.realtor.com/research/2021-national-housing-forecast/). IBIS World is forecasting that 2021 will end with an over eight percent increase in home inspections over 2020.

What’s going to happen in 2022? Nobody has a crystal ball, but Freddie Mac is predicting that while home price increases will moderate or slow in 2022, home purchase mortgage originations will increase from $1.8 trillion (2021) to $1.9 trillion, with the number of home sales transactions remaining relatively flat at 6.9 million. If that prediction holds true, it means 2022 should see a similar number of home inspection transactions as 2021.

Competitive Landscape
2022 will see a potentially flat market, coupled with new inspection businesses starting in most regions along with some churn with your agent/customer base. These factors could have a significant impact on your bottom line if not anticipated. If you have an established business plan and are hitting all your business goals, great! If not, there are ways to improve.

There are several aspects of your business you should evaluate to see if they are at the level you would expect:

  • Branding – Do you have a personal brand or a business brand? Is it clear, concise messaging? Do people know your company and what it stands for?
  • Business Development and Marketing – Are you doing regular agent and customer outreach? Are you engaged online?
  • Lead and Sales Management – Are you educating clients, booking and upselling your services at the highest possible level?
  • Inspections – Are there opportunities to increase efficiencies with your existing systems?
  • Customer Experience Management – What are the experiences for the agents and clients who engage your company? Are you considering the experience from before they reach out to you to well past the inspection report and summary?

The rest of this article is going to focus on one aspect of your business that can have a tremendous impact: Customer Experience Management.

Importance of Customer Experience Management (CXM)
You may have seen some of the following:

  • 80% of customers say the experience a company provides is just as important as its products or services – McKinsey & Company
  • 70% of buying experiences are based on how the customer FEELS they are being treated – McKinsey & Company
  • 67% of customers say they would definitely be willing to PAY MORE for a great customer experience – McKinsey & Company
  • 51% of customers will never do business again with a company after just one negative experience – Forrester Research
  • 33% of Americans say they will consider switching companies after just a SINGLE INSTANCE of poor service – American Express 2018 Customer Service Study

How you treat your customer, from the moment they first contact you and throughout the entire experience, is paramount in not only retaining your agents and clients but is critical to growing your business. In today’s world, it is what separates you from the other inspectors around you. Assuming you already have a solid marketing plan in place, it can be argued that CXM is now one of the most important business growth tools a business owner can deploy. Controlling and managing the customer experience from the very first call (when they are making the decision to use your services) and beyond will make for a happy client, which will translate into a happy agent, which will turn into more referrals, increased positive reviews and more!

What is Customer Experience Management (CXM)?
CXM has been defined as: The discipline of understanding customers and deploying strategic plans that enable cross-functional efforts and customer-centric culture to improve satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy. (Gartner.com)

Stated more simply…

  • Customer Experience (CX) – The perception of your customer on their interactions with your company.
  • Management (M) – The process of identifying how well (or not) your company is meeting the customer expectations with each interaction between the customer and your company and putting plans in place to maintain areas that are currently positive and improve areas that are not.

Perception is a key word here. You’ve heard the adage “Perception is Reality” and that is very true in this industry. You may believe your customers have the best customer experience, but you really don’t know unless you ask and get honest feedback. And that perception is across all aspects of your business. The customer is building a perception of your business and your brand from the moment they hear about you—whether from an agent, a website search, or that first call. Does that first impression set the stage for the rest of their experience?

For example:

  • Do your agents say “You need to give XYZ Inspections a call, they will take great care of you!”?
  • Does your website give the impression you will provide them with a great experience, or does it overwhelm them with details?
  • When their call is answered after a few rings, does a friendly voice greet them, giving the time to answer all their questions about one of the biggest purchase decisions they may be making in their lives?

And it goes on from there. Are you focused on delighting the customer at every step of the process? Are your marketing materials friendly and engaging? Are you handling leads, offering your services, and booking inspections in a helpful, easy manner? Is handling special requests a non-issue? After the inspection, how would you describe the reaction of your customer? How are you addressing questions or concerns they may have? What are you doing post-inspection to make sure the agent and client received the best possible experience?

How to Develop a CXM Strategy
Here is a four-step process to help you develop a CXM strategy.   

1. Understand Your Customer
2. Create a Customer Journey Map
3. Develop an Emotional Connection
4. Capture Customer Feedback

Understand Your Customer
There are several ways to better understand your customers. One of the best is to consider the different types of customers you have experienced, so you know how to market to them. Typical profiles include the first-time homebuyer, the down-sizer, the up-sizer, the investor, etc. Write them down, then create “personas” for them. A persona is a fictional representation of the customer based on what you know about them. A first-time homebuyer might be “Melinda Millennial, who saved up enough money for a down payment, has a steady job and two dogs, and is nervous about homeownership.” Once you capture some of the key characteristics you can tailor your marketing accordingly.

Create a Customer Journey Map
Here is where you want to capture:

  • The Buying Process
  • User Actions
  • Emotions
  • Pain Points
  • Solutions

There are multiple templates on the web that you can select and tailor to your needs, the important thing is to capture all the different areas where the customer interacts with your “brand,” how they move from one experience to another (initial contact, booking, delivered inspection, post-inspection follow-up, etc.) and what they experience at each step. This may feel like a lot of work that you inherently “know,” but the exercise is well worth the effort. You’ll probably be surprised at the new insights it will bring to your business and brand.

Develop an Emotional Connection
This can be challenging, especially during a pandemic. Still, at the most basic level, when a client or agent is interacting with you, your business and your brand, you want them to feel:

This person/brand/company is honest, has integrity, and I can trust that they will do their best for me throughout the entire process.

If they are not feeling a connection, develop an approach that will get you there. Brands that gain that reputation will be the ones experiencing the growth.

Capture Customer Feedback
Research from Bain & Company shows that 80% of companies believe they are providing great customer service. Only eight percent of their customers agree with them! That’s a big gap. How do you capture customer feedback?

  • Send a follow-up email
  • Initiate surveys via text/SMS
  • Create physical survey forms
  • Conduct customer interviews
  • Monitor social media channels
  • Offer incentives for feedback
  • Host social media contests
  • Use feedback monitoring sites
  • Use a reputation management service
  • Reach out to agents who have stopped using you

Bottom line, if you are not asking for customer feedback on a regular basis you probably don’t have a good idea as to what they are really thinking.

Conclusion
Customer Experience Management will require both thought and effort, but once you have a system in place the benefits will far outweigh any costs. And you are not alone—everyone associated with your brand, including your inspectors, office staff, and partners, has a role to play and can help with the ongoing efforts. In the end, if you have a brand that is perceived to be delighting its customers, you will see more business, more revenue, and more satisfied agents and clients.

How to Keep Growing During Busy Season
07 Jul

How to Keep Growing During Busy Season

[ This article, authored by ACC President Paul Zak, originally appeared in Working RE Magazine ]

Your inspection business is booming, and you are finding yourself stuck between a rock and hard place – you want to grow, but there is not enough time in the day to do anything but work your business and maybe get some sleep.

What is consuming all of your time? Typically, all aspects of the inspection lifecycle, as you are focused on delighting your customers during every step of the process.

  • It is critical to answer the phone, might be a future client!
  • It is critical to book the inspection, spending the time to make sure you get everything you need while educating and upselling your services.
  • It is critical to travel to and perform the inspection.
  • It is critical so spend the time to review the findings with the client.
  • It is critical to produce a high-quality inspection report.
  • Again, all the while trying to keep the agent and client happy.

[For a refresher on a customer-centric focus, check out our blog here (How Customer-Centric is Your Home Inspection Business? – America’s Call Center (americascallcenter.com)]

So how do you find time to do something different when you are already spending 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week working your business? The first thing you need to do is make a conscious decision to do something different. Invest your time and money in the short term to get the benefits long term.

You have decided to make an investment to grow. Great! So, where do you find the time?

You could try working even more hours, but that is difficult to sustain, especially if you are doing 2-3 inspections a day. Instead, block off time on your schedule (typically an existing inspection slot) to specifically work “on” your business instead of “in” your business. Yes, you will be losing that inspection revenue, but the return on investment will make it worth it in the long run!

You blocked off some time, now what? Start by thinking about how you are going to repeatedly find the time to do something different. To oversimplify, the options generally come down to:

  1. Work harder
  2. Work more efficiently (saving time)
  3. Offload / delegate some of your current responsibilities (buying back your time)

All while keeping in mind your priorities…

  1. You must keep the business running,
  2. While always providing your agents and clients the best possible service,
  3. As you are trying to grow your business.

If you are doing things in your business that do not fall within those priorities, stop doing them!

Work Harder

This might be an option for some, and this can take on a couple of different forms. The simplest is to add some extra hours to your workday not slotted for inspections. Just keep in mind that family and sleep are general viewed as important 🙂 Or spend some time on your day off to spend some of that time working “on” your business, identifying ways to eventually buy that time back.

Work Smarter

This encompasses looking at ways to become more efficient and effective in running your business, which is essentially saving or buying time.

Have you optimized your inspection process and maximized the capabilities of your report writing software? There are many extraordinarily successful inspection businesses that provide high-quality, on-site or next day reports. Even if on-site is not a part of your business model, if you can have most of your report done on-site you could save hours or more a day. Have you optimized your comment libraries or are you writing custom novels for each report? (And sorry to say, very few people are willing to sit through a 120-page report – it is hard enough to get agents to read the summary!) Are you using the native capabilities of your device for photos, etc. so you are not having to waste time simply moving data around? If you do not know how to optimize your report writing software, you should take advantage of the software’s support team and the various community forums that are available.

Are you taking advantage of your business management software? Have you automated all your agent and customer notifications? Have you automated your invoicing and integrated with a payment processor? Do you have secure, automated report delivery? Are you taking advantage of online scheduling? Are you using your business management software to help drive your marketing activities? There can be a good amount of effort required to initially set up your business management software, but once up and running that can save you even more time during the day, as you are not having to spend your precious time on details that can be automatically handled. Taking the time to learn and utilize the tools you have available now will reap many benefits down the road.

One subtle time killer, that many inspectors do not consider, is an overcomplicated pricing structure. How does this impact your time? If you have 5 different water quality options, 4 different air quality options, different prices for add-on services based on base inspection types, etc. that builds in unnecessary complications in having to understand or explain the differences. In most cases the client or agent does not care, they just want what they need. While there are some areas that are highly price sensitive, most consumers are willing to pay a little more for simplicity. Offer packages, keep your non-mainstream services off your online scheduler and have commonality across add-on service pricing. These are all ways to simplify, saving you time and possibly even increasing your average inspection fee.

Now look at where you are spending your time. If you are making $100-$150+ per hour per inspection, doesn’t it make sense to hire out some of the job functions that are important but probably would not cost you $100 per hour?

But “nobody can do it as good as me!” Ah, yes. That argument. Prepare for your balloon to be deflated because, guess what – that just is not true. While another person might not do it exactly the same way you do, there’s plenty of proof out there that others can do just as good a job as you and sometimes better. There are countless inspection companies in our industry that are extraordinarily successful who do NOT do it all themselves. If you are an “only I can do it” person, you will always be your biggest limiting factor. And unless you get past that, you will be greatly limiting your growth.

Hiring People and Partnering

You recognize that there are resources out there to grow your business. So where do you start? The easiest “go-to” is to hire another inspector to increase your capacity. You will have to make sure you have enough volume to keep them busy, have a plan for a training and a compensation program, and a good general rule of thumb is that if you are repeatedly at 80% capacity or more, you should start hiring now. And as the new inspector ramps up and starts working on their own, you should have more time to further work on your business. Though recognize this also comes with some overhead – as you must find the right person, train them and actively manage them. While in principle it sounds easy and is very necessary, be aware it can consume quite a bit of your time at the start. Talk to your peers who have been successful at this and borrow as many of their processes as you can that make sense for you.

The biggest return you will get is trading your time to find and engage the right partners. For example: Do you have somebody helping you with your taxes? Do you have somebody helping you with your insurance? If you are running your own business, the answers should be “Yes!” which means you already have a couple of business partners.

You have already made the decision to not spend your precious ($100+/hour) time on those activities, now think of where you are spending time in your business that does not absolutely require you to do the work. What might be helpful is to put it into context.

  • Would you pay someone $100 per hour to handle your marketing on a regular basis?
  • Would you pay someone $100 per hour to handle your website, social media, etc.?
  • Would you pay someone $100 per hour to answer your phones, handle your emails?
  • Would you pay someone $100 per hour to book your inspections, handle access, etc.?
  • Where else are you spending your valuable time on activities not generating $100+ per hour?

There might be some items that you are not willing to give up (like marketing), which in some cases could be okay, but be cautious. Remember, it is about the ROI. Far too many people fancy themselves marketing “experts;” when in reality, someone can do just as much harm as good by engaging in the wrong marketing activities and spending limited advertising dollars on tactics that simply don’t pay off. The best-case result from this is simply wasted time and money. While the worst-case result could be damage to the brand and your bottom line.

As the president of ACC, I can say without hesitation, that in my 20-plus years of experience in the home inspection industry, one of the other most difficult things for inspectors to give up is answering their own phones and managing incoming leads. Again, the most common argument is “nobody can do it as good as me!” And that very well may be the case; but how can an inspection business grow if the owner never relinquishes that part of the home inspection process lifecycle? Bottom line – they can’t.

However, after two decades of refining our process at ACC for home inspectors, I’ll comfortably put any of our talented customer service agents on the front lines for our inspector clients and their businesses. Because our customer service agents know this industry and they utilize our proven customer-centric growth approach. In fact, our customers see an increase of 15% – 30% in revenue after starting services with us while only paying an average of $2 – $5 an hour for those services. Sure, I’m clearly biased, but that’s a huge value for the dollar.

ACC isn’t the only solid ROI partner out there for which inspectors should seek to engage if they want to grow. There are plenty. Just make sure you spend the time to find the “right” partner. Start by asking yourself a few key questions:

  • Do I have reasonable expectations of my partners?
  • Am I willing to invest in making the partnership successful?
  • Am I looking at a “quick fix” or a long-term partnership that can grow as I grow?
  • Am I willing to adjust my business to get the benefits of bringing in a partner?

Too often new business owners (and even some experienced owners) bring a “only my way is the right way” mentality when developing a new partnership – which is unfortunate. They do not look at it from a perspective of “this potential partner has been doing their specialty for 5, 10 or even 20+ years; I might be able to learn something from them.” Not viewing the potential arrangement as a partnership puts the partnership in a death spiral from the start, as more than likely the partnership will be deemed a failure with the first potential mistake, probably based on an unreasonable expectation.

If you approach it from a perspective of “I want to find a strong, experienced partner who will work with me to grow” and “I need to figure out how I can take the best advantage of the partnership, even if it means change” you will find an abundant return on your investment. It does not mean that there will not be hiccups along the way, but when they are encountered, how you and your partner work through them will set the foundation for a solid, long-term partnership that will more than pay for itself over time.

Lastly, once you have developed a partnership, make sure to give it enough time to draw the right conclusions. It probably took longer than a month or two to dial in your business processes and to get your phone ringing off the hook. So, make sure you give any partners you decide to work with the same grace you gave yourself. If there are obvious signs that this new partnership simply is not a fit, then by all means call it quits quickly; but otherwise, realize the partnership is an investment on both sides. Consider reviewing your partnerships on a six-month basis, evaluating if you are saving time, saving money, and/or even making money with them. If so, great! If not, are there things that you or your partner can be doing differently to turn that around?

So, what’s next?

Your time is your most precious commodity, so you need to use it wisely. Make sure you are focusing on the bigger picture (remember, return on investment) and are intentional about your business goals. Then make the decision to find the time to work more “on”, and less “in”, your business. Once you have made that decision, are you going to work harder or smarter? Going down the smarter path means you will be bringing on people or partners or both. While they have different sets of challenges, the partnering path (outside of actual inspections) can help bring you positive returns more quickly than hiring, as you are gaining the advantage of having an experienced team you do not have to directly manage. As a business owner, asking for help is a sign of strength, as it shows you want to see your business be successful. If you are content with your state of your business, you probably would not have made it this far in the blog, which is also an indication you are ready to invest in your growth. And with opportunity abounding in the world of home inspections, now is the time to do it!

Top 5 Things You Cannot Afford to Ignore When Busy
04 Jun

Top 5 Things You Cannot Afford to Ignore When Busy

Your business is booming, with you and your inspectors doing two to three inspections a day, and little time for anything else. That’s okay, right? A full schedule is the best schedule to have for any inspection business. When things slow down you can simply pick up all those things that you stopped doing when things were slower, and all will be well.

For those business owners that want to maintain a healthy, stable business during the periods when the total volume of real estate home inspections slows down, there are five things you want to make sure you are always doing – yes, even when things are busy – to ensure your business stays top-of-mind when the market begins to slow.

#1 Don’t ignore educating new customers.

With changing home buyer demographics, there are a significant number of first-time home buyers who do not understand the value of a home inspection and the services that are typically associated with them. And depending on their agent, they may not realize they need a Radon test, a sewer scope or some of the other additional services you provide. When you are busy, it is easy to think “I do not have the time to deal with this shopper and I am busy enough; so, I won’t really miss the business”. While in the moment that may be true, you run the risk of losing a potential long-term customer. Further, there’s a strong chance you won’t be referred by their agent as a company that focuses on giving the best customer experience.

So how do you spend the time when you don’t really have any to spare? Bring on additional resources to help you.

There are several options available, from hiring an office staff that will cost $15+ per hour per person (who typically work 40 hours a week, and you have to train and manage) to partnering with industry experts to handle your front office (like ACC) that typically costs significantly less, with more hours of coverage and fewer management headaches.

#2 Don’t ignore your website and social media.

Unfortunately, this area is often the first to get ignored when times get busy. Why are these important?

  • Relevancy – In most regions of the country web searches to find inspectors are increasing; so, keeping your website updated with new content and active SEO (Search Engine Optimization) will help you push to the top of any searches. Google Ads can help as well to expand visibility and relevancy.
  • Brand – Your website and social media posts reflect you and your brand, and potential customers will often go to your website to determine if they want to use your company. Is your website clean, simple to navigate and easy to understand? Or is it cluttered, with way too much information and challenging for a new home buyer to figure out what you do, what makes you different, and ultimately, why they should use you? Do your social media posts reflect your concern for your client? Are the posts informative, helpful, and valuable? Start by considering how you want to help them with one of the biggest purchases they will ever make and most social media posts will take good form.
  • Security – If you are managing your own website this can be a challenge. While typically the home inspection industry is not a target of hackers, it’s important to stay diligent – as too many companies have been compromised through vulnerabilities on their website.

Partnering with a company that specializes in website and social media management can relieve the business owner of most day-to-day management of this important aspect of the business, boosting business while removing headaches. Industry forums (InterNACHI, ASHI) are great places to look for recommendations, as you will want a partner that is focused on the home inspection or real estate industry and not a generic “we’ll manage your website for $19.99” company (you get what you pay for!)

#3 Don’t ignore your pricing.

This can be a sensitive area for some inspectors, and it really shouldn’t be. You are providing a valuable service and it is worth every penny to give the potential homeowner a thorough understanding of the home. There are right ways and wrong ways to raise your prices; so it is important to plan ahead before you do it. In general, if you are booked two+ weeks out or are having to turn away business, you should increase your prices (and hire more inspectors if you want to grow).

Consider this: Home values increased 11.6% in 2020 and are projected to increase another 11.8% in 2021 (per Zillow). If you are averaging $400 per inspection and do a small 5% increase ($20), you could bring another $10k a year to your bottom line. And do not limit yourself to only doing it once a year. There are many successful inspection businesses that use a variation of the two+ weeks out rule who have raised their prices more than 3-4 times each year! It’s simple supply and demand, and it often ends up being a non-issue with agents and clients as they are getting a great value for the money spent.

#4 Don’t ignore your customer follow ups.

Always relevant, but even more so in hot markets. There are many reasons why customer follow ups should be a part of creating an exceptional customer experience, and if they are not, you should consider adding them. In hot markets, while you hear “agents are waiving inspections,” it’s typically the good agents, working in the best interest of their clients, who are not. And these clients may be making offers on multiple houses during their home buying journey. So, if you follow up with them at the start, asking if they have any questions, checking in on how things are going, and simply showing that you care, you’ll create a customer who will want to use your services again. There have been reports of some inspection companies doing 6-8 inspections for a single customer in a single month! With the customer continually coming back despite the all-too-common frustration these days of not being able to buy a home. Those companies are clearly focused on delighting their customers and agents. If you ignore the follow ups, it is too easy for that client to think “Just another home inspection company. Maybe I should shop around since I’m going to be doing more of these things” and move to a competitor.

#5 Don’t ignore your agents.

It is too easy to take your top-performing agents for granted, as you have their business today. But as many successful inspectors know, agents can be a bit fickle. And despite years of working with your company, just one mistake, one little whoops, can result in that agent not using you anymore. And you do not realize it until months go by, when you have time to sit and look at your numbers and realize they are no longer a top agent. Are you staying in touch with your agents? Are you including them in your approach to providing an exceptional customer experience at every touchpoint? Are they aware at how well you are taking care of their customers? Are you thanking them for their business?

Obviously, you do not want to overwhelm them with overcommunication, but you don’t want to think they are forgotten either. There’s an obvious balance to be struck here, but make sure you are doing some of the basics right. Are you dropping them a handwritten “Thank you” note once a month? Are you consulting with them on potentially challenging clients? Are you serving them at the level they need?

And do not forget about your other agents and new agents. While they may not feel critical now, as the markets start to slow you will benefit by having a larger pool of agents who want to use your services. And they can be instrumental in helping you sustain your inspection volumes even during the slower periods. By paying attention to the different areas above, you are setting yourself up for success in the long-term. Ultimately, the home inspection industry is all about relationships, which take time to create, nurture and grow. If you don’t have time to do it yourself (and in many cases, you probably shouldn’t!) be sure to find the right partners with the right experience who will work to help you grow your business. Again, the solution may be to hire part-time or full-time office staff, tap marketing experts, or outsource the management of the bulk of the inspection process lifecycle to an industry specialist like ACC (America’s Call Center) – but whichever partners you choose to bring on, ensure they fit with your vision for sustained success and the strategic path on which to attain it.