Talk Is Cheap, but the Gains Are Many

There's no substitute for happy clients spreading the word about your outfit. Just ask David Skudin, who has built a $7 million business on the approach

Whether the goal is letting a Manhattanite get some shut-eye in the city that never sleeps or enabling Supreme Court Justices to craft their learned opinions peace, the principle is the same for CitiQuiet, a New York business that specializes in soundproof windows. "It's about service, service, and service," says David Skudin, vice-president of sales and marketing. Actually, it's about more than that -- the wonders that word-of-mouth reviews can do to bring in fresh clients, and what entrepreneurs in other, service-related fields can learn from CitiQuiet's approach.

The strategy is paying off: According to Skudin, his outfit has witnessed annual growth of 30% since 1996, with annual sales of just south of $7 million. Skudin recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online's Edward Popper about maintaining his word-of-mouth marketing strategy. Edited excerpts from their conversation follows.

Q: How does a New York City-based specializing in soundproofing apartments wind up with the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. as a client?


We had done work for a contractor in New York City, and his company was doing a renovation around the U.S. Supreme Court. The minute they started putting the first hole in the ground outside the Supreme Court, there was serious noise, and the Justices immediately halted the project and demanded an environmental-impact and noise-impact study. We were called in immediately. Within two weeks, we installed 250 CitiQuiet soundproof windows.

Q: What do all your jobs and clients have in common?


We got the Supreme Court job because we had given another customer good service. One of the main keys to our success has always been service, service, service. We are completely a service-oriented company. If you give people what you promised them and you guarantee their satisfaction…then you're going to make people happy -- and your growth is going to be inevitable just because of word of mouth. And word of mouth has been the growth of CitiQuiet.

Q: What strategies do you employ to promote customer satisfaction?


The first thing, and really the most important thing, is that, although everyone is greeted by a very pleasant secretary or assistant, every client that calls CitiQuiet speaks to an officer of the company -- either myself or Michael Lutin, our founder and president, or his father, Sheldon, the CFO. The people who run the company, who design the products, and who know what it takes to make the client satisfied really have to be the people who initially speak to prospective clients.

Q: How do you handle the leads? How does the focus on service come into play?


A company officer gives everyone who calls CitiQuiet as much information as possible in that first phone call, including pricing. It's important to the client, and it's important for us. It makes the sales lead a very hot lead. When they do go ahead and make an appointment, more than 90% of the time, we're going to close that sale on that lead. So having one of the principals -- myself, Michael, or Sheldon -- speak to the client on the phone is time well spent, whether it takes five minutes or an hour. More than likely, we're going to be able to sell to that person on the phone.

Q: And after the initial phone contact?


We then make an appointment and we visit the job site -- visit the client's private residence, office, or hotel. And we confirm the details of the project and give them a more detailed proposal. Again, it's always an officer who does this. So I block certain days exclusively for appointments, and I make certain days exclusively for me to be in my office. We've hired two new secretaries in the past year to support the back-office staff.

Q: How much contact do you have with the people actually installing the windows?


We meet [with the crews] daily. One of the main aspects of any contracting company is the installation. We could have the greatest product in the world -- and we believe we do -- but it's only ever as good as the installation.... The manner in which we enter a site and how our installers treat clients -- that's what people are going to [remember] and refer to when they speak to friends and associates about their experience.

People commit to CitiQuiet and make a purchase because of their interaction with me. Three or four weeks later, after they've paid, I'd like to think they'll remember me, but what they're really going to remember is the manner in which we visited their residence or office, how we treated them, and if we performed exactly the way we promised we would.

Q: Have you ever found it difficult to maintain the quality of your instillation staffs service as your company has grown?


Yes, about eight years ago, when sales really started to take off and we were having a significant growth spurt. Once we got bigger, in terms of the number of installation crews, we lost a little bit of quality control. There was a little downturn in service to the client.

We realized it was the direct result of spreading ourselves too thin. So we stayed with three crews of three men, which has been very successful for us. I always felt that if you have three crews that are very efficient and give very good service, it's better than if you have five crews and [some] don't meet your standards. It doesn't do you any favors in terms of the end result to the customers.

Q: How will you make sure that service and quality-control problems don't resurface?


There's a whole training program that every installer goes through. Part of it has nothing to do with the mechanics of installing a window. Instead, it's about presentation, approach, and client interaction.

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