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the new business normal

When New Brunswick home builder Pierre Martell went into business eight years ago, he was aware of the industry’s poor reputation for customer service, so he aimed to change it.Brian Atkinson for the GLOBE AND MAIL

When Pierre Martell personally encounters shoddy customer service, he first gives the business owner a chance to make good. As a business owner himself, "I would want to know."

But if his concern is met with indifference, his response is typical of most tough customers today: "I'll never use the product or service again, I will probably tell other people and I might even post it," says Mr. Martell, a New Brunswick-based home builder. "When you go online, you are telling a ton of people, especially when you have a strong social reach."

Recent research indicates that many businesses are struggling to satisfy an increasingly demanding clientele and have not adapted to the tendency of people to share their service experiences – good and bad – online.

Mr. Martell's own company, Martell Home Builders Inc., has differentiated itself – recognizing that the technology and social media tools that can bring a company down can also be used to powerful advantage.

His firm stays on top of shifting consumer sentiment with focus groups recruited through Facebook and Twitter. Each Martell home buyer can track every step of the project from start to finish, through a personalized interactive website. "The collaborative platform ensures that everyone involved – client, lawyers, vendors and skilled trades – has 24/7 access to the same information," the Business Development Bank of Canada said in naming Mr. Martell a young entrepreneur of the year in 2011.

"It's so transparent these days with social media that businesses have to be focused on the customer service experience. … You absolutely have to, it's do or die," Mr. Martell said in an interview from Moncton.

American Express found in its 2012 global customer service barometer that, while customers are demanding better service, the majority feel companies have not changed their attitudes or, worse, are paying even less attention to customer service.

And they are quick to praise or pan, spreading their customer service stories fast and far, Amex found in its 2013 update. "Of those Canadians who use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, over half (58 per cent) agreed that they could tell more than 100 people (based on the size of their networks) about receiving or witnessing an act of bad service," Amex reported.

In a report last fall on game-changing consumer trends, the Business Development Bank said the Internet now shapes nearly every aspect of a consumer's purchasing decision.

One of the lingering effects of the last recession is that consumers want more value for their money. They are prepared to conduct extensive research on the Internet before committing to a purchase and are heavily influenced by the opinions and experiences of other consumers – to the extent that negative online reviews posted by other users "have become deal-breakers for seven out of 10 consumers," the Business Development Bank said. On the flip side, those same consumers also place enormous store in others' positive reviews.

The only way for businesses to make the most of this new reality is to meet it head-on – by using online platforms to engage customers and make it easy to share ideas, by encouraging and monitoring online consumer reviews, the Business Development Bank said. "They are trusted by … Internet users, so monitoring and responding to this feedback is vital."

When Mr. Martell started his home-building business eight years ago, he was aware of his industry's reputation for poor customer service. "There were three main pain statements that always came back – it was extremely stressful, it was always over budget and almost always didn't close on time," he said.

"So a large part of what we do, going back to customer service, is leverage technology – not only to keep us organized, but to keep the clients organized.

"So, for example, if they are due by next Friday to go and pick out the trim, and they haven't made that appointment yet, our system will automatically remind them 48 hours before and the day of. If they still haven't made the appointment, it will send us an e-mail so we can follow up with a call and ask, 'Is everything okay? Do you want us to go with you?' It just keeps everybody on track."

The system also kicks out an alert if, for example, the cost of the trim is coming out higher than the client had expected. "It allows the client to either go in [to his or her personalized website] and either approve it, or say, 'No, actually, let's get rid of those fancy doorknobs and we will be $200 under budget.' It's all tracked in real time."

Mr. Martell said that, ultimately, it's the quality of the managers and sub-trades that defines the quality of the Martell customer experience – and he recruits those people carefully.

But in construction, challenges always arise. The technology allows Mr. Martell to stay on top of developments and head off any emerging problems. His company has built almost 400 homes, on budget and on schedule, in and around Moncton, Miramichi, Fredericton, Saint John and Sussex.

"I have excellent managers in each location, so I don't actually have to spend a whole lot of time on the road. With our online system, I can have true visibility on every job site 24/7. So, for instance, at 11 o'clock at night, I can just log in, I can see all the communication, I can feel the tone of the build, I can see what's going on."

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