With clients becoming more demanding, contractors are turning to customer satisfaction measurement tools to learn how to keep them sweet. But can you really quantify a feeling? We spoke to some firms that think you can – and that they've got it sussed …
"Losing a customer is tantamount to murder in our business," warns Len Salter, chief executive of Waring Contractors. Strong stuff perhaps, but Salter's livelihood depends on satisfied clients coming back for more. And standing still, in today's fast-paced industry, is not an option. "We are in a changing market," points out Tony Leach, who is health, safety, quality and environment manager at contractor Makers. "Clients are becoming more demanding and are moving away from cheapest-price tendering to partnering. It's important to get your clients on board, give them what they want and, crucially, keep them as a long-term client."

Measuring customer satisfaction is one way to ensure clients will return – but we're not talking your bog-standard handover questionnaire. Contractors are starting to realise that ticking boxes on a form is not good enough if they want to find out what the customer really thinks, and are appointing people who are independent of the project team to interview the client on a one-to-one basis at various stages of the building process. But it is how contractors use this information to improve their service that will determine whether customers are satisfied.

An industry leader in the use of key performance indicators, construction manager Mace's approach is to employ a full-time best-practice manager, Haroona Irshad. She carries out three one-hour-long interviews with the client for each project. "It gives customers a chance to have their say," she explains. "If something has gone wrong we can find out why, or they can say it's just going fine." The first interview takes place at the start of the project to establish customer expectations, the second is held halfway through to find out how Mace is performing, and the final interview is carried out on handover to determine overall customer satisfaction. Mace is now conducting a further interview at the end of the defects liability period to ensure quality is maintained.

In each interview, Irshad takes the client through 47 questions covering five headline topics. These include the following points: how Mace personnel have performed on delivery, relationships, and health and safety; how effectively the programme was planned and managed; how the budget and suppliers were managed; and quality control. Irshad will ask the client for specific examples, and why the client has given a particular rating for each question. She then prepares a report that is seen only by the project team, plus Mace directors. This information then feeds back into site practice.

Mace was construction manager on GlaxoSmithKline's headquarters at Brentford, (pictured), which was created in 39 months and completed last year. GSK project director David Warburton says: "The customer survey process was very helpful. This was a good project, and it improved things that were going well already."

The survey identified GSK's concerns that Mace was too close to their supply chain. "This might have been just a perception, but there was a concern that if there was a financial claim, Mace may not have taken it as seriously as they could." Warburton says once this issue was identified, Mace "stepped back behind the dotted line".

The survey also revealed a problem with a member of the Mace team. Halfway through the project, GSK changed procurement route. "This left us with a very challenging timeframe to complete the project," says Warburton. The construction manager was not prepared to take risks, in effect adding time to the programme. Mace responded by replacing the construction manager with someone who had a more can-do approach. As a result, the project was completed successfully and GSK gave Mace an overall customer satisfaction rating of 95% (see graph), which compares very well with the industry average of 74% for customer satisfaction (for service), and Mace's in-house target of 83%.

The surveys are also useful if a client's priorities change in a long-term partnering arrangement. Mace has been building Cannons health and fitness clubs (pictured overleaf) since 1997 and had been doing well with ratings of 84% ("The benchmark", 10 August 2001). But after Cannons went through a management buyout at the end of 2001, the score suddenly dropped to 77%.

Unknown to Mace, Cannons' priorities had changed. Quality was now a top priority for improvement because of the disruption to the club that fixing defects could cause. "If we have defects in the first 12 months, it can have a significant effect on our business," says Ken Redman, Cannons' technical director. But once the issue of post-contract defects management had been raised, meetings were set up to work out the best way to tackle the problem.

The result was a 10-point action plan to improve quality. Mace now builds in a two-week intensive snagging period into the 14-week construction programme. Cannons' operations manager, who is responsible for running the completed building, also uses these two weeks to get to know how the buildings systems work. "Customer satisfaction surveys certainly help, as sometimes you lose sight of the little things," says Redman. "The construction aspects are also important to our customer operations teams, what's important to them is often different than what's important to the property teams." The Wimbledon club was finished in July 2002 and E E Cannons gave Mace a 94% rating (see graph).

Waring Contractors is another firm that has seen results through benchmarking customer satisfaction. It does this by carrying out a monthly written survey and has also recently started to conduct face-to-face interviews with the client at the end of the project. Like Mace, it uses someone outside the project team.

Although the interview takes place at the end of the project, the information feeds back into the business as a whole and informs the next project with framework partners. The company has set itself an overall target of 70% for customer satisfaction, but is thinking about raising this, as it has achieved an average of 77% for the last four months.

The value of this process came to light when surveys revealed framework client BAA was not entirely happy with Waring's performance. Project delivery was fine, but BAA was unhappy with Waring's product development – it wanted prefabricated solutions to speed-build programmes and minimise disruption to airport users.

Waring responded by talking to its suppliers, including steelworks supplier Lee Warren. One simple solution was to prefabricate standard corners used for trolley guides – the rails that protect walls from being bashed by luggage trolleys. Previously, these were specially made for each corner on site. Waring also prefabricated a lift shaft for Heathrow and craned it in overnight instead of spending five weeks making it on site.

But demanding clients are not always big corporations. Contractor Makers does a lot of social housing refurbishment work, employing health, safety, quality and environment advisors who, like Mace and Waring, are independent of the project team and visit sites monthly. In one instance, advisors found that the tenants were not happy with Makers because they wanted to be more involved choosing finishes, and they didn't like being in their flat while work was carried out. The contractor responded by providing a showroom so the tenants could choose their kitchen style and colour, and creating a "refuge" with a TV and coffee-making facilities to which tenants could escape.

The downside of customer benchmarking is that it is perhaps most relevant to contractors who are least likely to bother benchmarking. "The survey just records what takes place through the project – but it may work better on projects where things aren't going so well," says GSK's Warburton. And Cannons' Redman points out: "Whether it makes a huge difference is questionable, as we always make sure we start with people who have the right attitude."

Indeed, he wonders whether Mace has gone too far with its surveys, adding: "Mace were a lot harsher on themselves than we were in our own performance review."

What the experts say

Professor Rodney Howes chair of the Construction Industry Council’s innovation and research committee

It is good to see that construction managers and contractors are taking to heart the need to focus on client satisfaction. This is entirely in line with the recommendations of Accelerating Change and the work of the strategic forum. The idea of independently monitoring the views of clients at periodic intervals during the construction process, along with the recognition that all projects are different, provides a sound basis upon which to judge performance and the effectiveness of current best practice. The next logical step is to create a database capable of being interrogated effectively to provide important corporate knowledge upon which future commercial decisions can be taken. Taking a long-term view, the next stage will be to monitor client satisfaction beyond the defects liability period, say initially at five and 10 years from practical completion. This will test the performance of the design as well as the construction quality of the completed building. Many defects are latent when the building is new and only manifest themselves several years later, often involving expensive repairs. The ultimate aim is complete life-cycle monitoring, perhaps covering a number of building owners who undertake to pass on the performance log of the building. In this manner, the effectiveness of the design and construction could be evaluated to provide lessons for future designers, constructors and suppliers.

What the experts say

Martyn Jones lecturer in construction management at the University of the West of England

This benchmark study demonstrates that regularly measuring customer satisfaction is an effective way of constantly keeping track of what clients really value and ensuring that the supply side remains highly focused on responding to their often rapidly changing needs. It also demonstrates how the industry can tackle one of the major weaknesses of the national KPIs: measuring performance at the end of projects when it is becoming increasingly apparent in today’s fast-moving business world that a client’s requirements can quickly change, and that feedback provided at the end of the project is normally already too late. Mace’s three measurements throughout the project, Waring’s monthly surveys, Maker’s monthly site visits, and the new web-based tool allowing monthly or indeed weekly measures all show the way forward for construction, in moving closer to the shorter duration plan-do-check-study-act cycles of continuous improvement achieved by leading-edge manufacturing. GlaxoSmithKline’s concerns that Mace was too close to their supply chain also demonstrates the vitally important role of robust and transparent performance measures. Clients should be constantly reassured that they are deriving the best possible value from their closer relationships with the network of suppliers and that their suppliers are, of course, receiving appropriate rewards for their increased efforts.

SoSKPIs: Benchmarking on the web

A newly launched web-based tool called Satisfaction of Service Key Performance Indicators (www.soskpis.com) aims to help contractors with customer satisfaction benchmarking. Developed by clients including BAA, the MoD and BT, it is designed to be easy to use, and has the added advantage of enabling clients to compare contractors with each other. Currently many contractors draw up their own in-house questionnaires, so satisfaction ratings are not directly comparable. This website, however, monitors 10 standard KPIs, including cost and programme management, safety and innovation. The contractor starts off by registering its project with the website, which emails the client and asks them to state their expectations. This allows the contractor to tailor its service to that client. The contractor then specifies how often the benchmark questionnaire is to be filled in by the client, and the system will send an email at this frequency, asking the client to rate the contractor’s performance. This way, the contractor can keep an eye on the client’s perception of its service and address any shortcomings. Vassos Chrysostomou, who heads up SoSKPIs, says that clients evaluating the system include retailers John Lewis, Boots and J Sainsbury. The MoD and contractor Mowlem are jointly reviewing the system, and contractor Wates is also said to be interested.