PHOTO: The Charter Homes & Neighborhoods team at its Veranda mixed-use neighborhood in Lancaster, Pa. From left: Mike Morrow, HomeCare Manager; Suzanne Daily, Neighborhood Sales Manager; Robert Bowman, President; Pete Sydorko, Personal Builder.
Robert Bowman laughs when he thinks about his biggest concerns during the heyday of the housing boom. Coming off his company’s best year ever in terms of profitability and sales (275 closings), Bowman and his team at Charter Homes & Neighborhoods  entered 2006 focused solely on keeping up with the rampant demand for new homes in its Lancaster (Pa.) County communities, while trying to stay a few steps head of the competition.
“I remember driving through our marketplace and thinking that if we don’t hurry up and contract for some land we’re going to be the ones sitting out of the game, because we’re going to run out of developable ground in our market,” says Bowman, who has served as president of the 57-employee company since 1980. “What were we thinking?”
Looking back, Bowman readily admits that Charter’s leadership team, which for 20-plus years took great pride in delivering an “exceptional” home-buying experience, took its eye off the prize. “We simply weren’t delivering on our promise of offering a great buyer experience, and our ‘willingness to refer’ numbers started to fall off,” he says. “I really don’t have a great answer for why that happened other than we stopped thinking it was important.”
In spring 2006, when the central Pennsylvania housing market started to show signs of turning for the worse, Bowman knew what he had to do. In the midst of developing a strategic plan for his company’s survival through the impending downturn — which included “right-sizing” the product lines and making tough staffing decisions in an effort to scale down the organization — Bowman put a stake in the ground and declared a company-wide recommitment to homeowener service and satisfaction.
“I told our team members that, regardless of what happens to the market, what our buyers go through when they purchase a Charter Home will be incredibly consistent and worthy of them referring a friend or relative,” says Bowman. He adds that referrals are the key metric by which the company measures satisfaction, but they’re not the ultimate goal. “We actually go further and measure a new metric: ‘highly enthusiastic.’ These are people who know they’re going through a special experience, even while in the middle of the process.”
Special experience? In home building? Isn’t buying a new home one of the most difficult and stressful experiences that a consumer will go through in his or her lifetime? Bowman thinks it doesn’t have to be this way — and it’s not at Charter.
The company’s formula for delivering an exceptional home-buyer experience sounds quite simple yet is admittedly difficult to execute on a day-in, day-out basis, says Bowman. “We have a simple phrase that sums up our approach: teamwork equals home-buyer satisfaction. Our philosophy is that it’s not the windows we offer, the size of the trim, or the design of the home that really affects whether people had a good experience with us, it’s whether everyone on our team worked together in such a way that at the end of the day the buyer says everyone in our organization worked on their behalf.”
Bowman’s plan for creating a team-based, customer-centric organization started with a “long conversation” with Charter’s leadership team and key staff to rethink their definition of customer service.
“The first time I stood up and said we’re going to focus on how people evaluate their experience with us, everyone said, ‘Oh yeah, customer service and warranty,’” says Bowman. “I said, no, it’s much bigger than that. It’s about the home buyer’s experience from the time they walk in and first learn about Charter Homes all the way through design, construction, closing, and post-closing.”
The result of this kickoff meeting was “The Charter Way,” a process map that sets the bar for delivering an exceptional home-buyer experience — every time. Bowman describes it as the “structural rebar” of the entire organization.
Based on this newly formed declaration, the leadership team reworked all company manuals, training programs, and organizational processes to bring their employees closer to the customers. Key initiatives include:
All in all, Bowman says it’s been a four-year process to get all staff and partners on the same page, “and even then, we’re constantly training and always improving.” The biggest challenge: “Getting all our people to buy into the notion that customer satisfaction is not about saying yes to each and every buyer demand. It’s okay to say no, as long as everyone that customer deals with says no, and delivers the same message.”
But the payoffs have certainly been worth the effort. Four out of 10 Charter home buyers are referrals, and its “willingness to refer” rate has jumped from 80 percent in 2006 to 92 percent today. As a result, Charter has been able to maintain pricing and grow gross margin in an extremely competitive, price-driven market.
“The last four years have taught us that sticking with what is truly important is a winning strategy,” says Bowman.
To deliver a high level of teamwork, Charter Homes & Neighborhoods focuses on seven best practices: