Can buyers trust HBF builder Star Ratings?
The HBF National new home customer satisfaction survey is now in its eleventh year. The house builder star ratings (awarded by the HBF) “are allocated according to the proportion responding Yes..” to Question 1 of the survey: “Would you recommend your builder to a friend?…. Yes or No” The more that respond “Yes”, the better the builder’s star rating.
During research for a previous article concerning claims made by the HBF in the 2016 survey results, I considered the possibility that builders’ sales and site management may be influencing their buyers to respond more favourably in the NHBC 8-week survey. After enquiring on social media, buyers from Britain’s two largest house builders, Persimmon and Barratt, who together built over 31,000 new homes last year, publicly expressed their opinions and claims:
JP (16 October 2015) said: “I’ve bought a recent new build from Persimmon and o boy what a joke their after sales are. I would like to point out I love my flat it’s them that annoy me. We have all been bullied and harassed to tick the first box on the NHBC survey that we would recommend a friend. Obviously didn’t tick it and because I naively ticked share my opinions Persimmon are now treating me like dirt……They were ringing us Saturday and Sunday and I quote “If I do you a favour now, you can do me a favour and tick the first box” They didn’t give a **** about our problems just whether we had said yes or no.”
DI (7 Dec 2015) said: “ We bought with Persimmon. We wanted our downstairs toilet to be taken out. They offered to do it for free if we gave good feedback in the survey. I’m glad to say we ignored this and just filled it out honestly.”
GL (28 March 2016) said: “We were given a £250 John Lewis voucher for completely [sic] this survey and answering yes to the question “would you recommend persimmon to a friend”. We weren’t happy to answer that question positively which the sales team knew at the time so bribed us with that voucher”
I think this was by far, the most shocking response I received. I even queried the amount of the voucher! After further discussions with this Persimmon buyer, it was confirmed that the voucher was indeed for £250 and not £25.
GL confirmed: “Yes definitely £250 it was shocking to us too. The sales team had a list of people they knew wouldn’t say yes to ‘recommending a friend’ and so knocked on the doors of those people’s houses to incentivise them.”
A series of e mails I have seen, between GL and Persimmon Customer Services, would appear to confirm that vouchers were given and indicate this buyer needed to chase Persimmon for his £250 John Lewis Vouchers – two months after completing the survey last September! Apparently the vouchers were ordered by Persimmon’s sales department and were then being passed to the site sales offices.
So why would Persimmon do this?
Last year Persimmon were rated 3 stars by their customers. In the latest results, they are again rated just 3 stars. Hardly something to advertise considering Bovis are the only other large house builder to match their low 3 star rating! But might it have been worse?
For example, out of a total 6,034 survey responses, it would only need as few as 240 buyers who intended to respond “No” to be persuaded to respond “Yes” to provide a 4% swing. This might be sufficient to change a builder’s star rating from a possible 2 star (less than 69.9% “Yes”) to 3 star (above 70% “Yes”).
In addition, as the “Industry Results are weighted”, this could also have a marked effect on the industry’s overall “satisfaction – recommend a friend” score percentage, as the six largest house builders accounted for over 53% of the total surveys returned in the 2016 results.
It is unfortunate but fairly common, for house builders to offer cash incentives to encourage their homebuyers to use the builder’s favoured firm of Solicitors, more often than not to the buyer’s detriment. But cash, in the form of store vouchers, in return for positive customer survey responses is, in my opinion, a new low even for this industry.
Persimmon released their 2015 Annual report on 22 February 2016. In it CEO Jeff Fairburn, who is due to receive 934,992 share options worth £19.8million in December next year, stated:
“The Group’s priority is to serve our customers well by providing good quality new homes and great service. All of our team are responsible for delivering high levels of customer satisfaction….Our sales teams across the business are trained to provide excellent levels of service to our customers.”
“During 2015 we invested substantial resources in new customer focused initiatives to improve our customers’ buying experience and our NHBC/HBF 3 star rating. We have introduced dedicated customer liaison managers on our larger sites, improved communication processes with our customers, introduced new processes to strengthen our build programmes and provided additional resources in our customer care teams. These initiatives are showing some early signs of improvement in our customer satisfaction ratings and we will continue to pursue this agenda to secure further progress this year.”
It is not known if the “substantial resources” referred to includes incentives given to buyers in the form of £250 John Lewis vouchers. I think it is ironic that Persimmon would choose to give John Lewis vouchers (a company with unquestionably the best customer service reputation in Britain) in an attempt to improve their own customer satisfaction rating. All house builders would do well to replicate John Lewis’ customer service policy and ethos!
I contacted Persimmon to provide an opportunity for comment to either confirm or deny whether any Persimmon Group employees have ever offered any incentive to their customers, such as store vouchers or free extra works, in return for a positive response from the buyer completing the 8-week HBF Customer Satisfaction Survey; in particular a “Yes” to Question 1 – the star rating question?. I also asked if Persimmon kept a list of buyers on developments, those most likely to give unfavourable responses in the HBF 8-week survey.
In response their PR Company said: “I can confirm that Persimmon won’t be commenting within your article. If you have any future press enquiries, we have a group email – email@example.com.” Regarding the £250 vouchers I specifically asked the PA to Jeff Fairburn if any of the main board directors were aware of the vouchers and if not, what it the Company’s official response or comment? The reply I received stated: “I would refer to your previous e mails and would confirm Persimmon will not be commenting.”
I asked the HBF if they or the NHBC have any way of validating or verifying to rule out “incentivising,” especially as blatant as this? I also asked whether they are aware that some builders incentivise their customers to complete the survey with more favourable responses than they might otherwise have done and what action would be taken against any builder found to be breaking star rating/survey rules? In reply Steve Turner at the HBF told me: “clearly builders can offer incentives as part of their marketing, but it is against the rules to offer incentives that relate to the survey. If you send us details we will of course follow up.” Well the HBF have the details now!
The Star Rating results (until 2011) stated: “The star ratings are based on sample estimates, and are therefore subject to sampling error. For each estimate, there is a 95% chance the true figure lies within an error range either side of the sample estimate. An ‘α’ indicates that, taking account of the error margin, the true figure could lie within a lower star band.”
In 2007, Persimmon were rated 3 star but the results indicated an ‘α’, meaning after taking into account the error margin, the true figure could lie within the lower 2 star band. In 2008, Persimmon were rated 2 stars. In 2009, Persimmon were again rated 3 star with the ‘α’ indication that the true figure could lie in the lower 2 star band. No error identifiers have been given since the 2010 results. I asked the HBF if Persimmon could have had the ‘α’ in the 2016 results, indicating a possible 2 star rating?
How do house builders know when they need to “act” to get a higher Star Rating?
For NHBC registered builders (completing more than 300 units a year for private sale) the NHBC automatically operate a standard customer satisfaction survey service and provide a licence for house builders to view the results online. The results are updated with new responses everyday enabling house builders to track “how satisfied their customers are.”
In particular “the radar chart shows year-to-date scores for each question in the survey and compares with a benchmark group”. Clicking on the chart shows “all the results to all survey questions broken down by month for the current survey year.” The star rating indicator (shown above) summarises the year-to-date responses to the question “would you recommend your builder to a friend.” House builders can also click on the dial to display a league table showing their rank “against anonymised peers over the last 12 months on a question by question basis.”
The NHBC say that house builders can: “Compare divisions within your organisation. Compare sites within a division. View individual homeowners responses.” “Identify problems fast – We will send you email alerts if any poor performance scores are received so you can take immediate action. With Direct customer feedback – You can see attributed customer comments in your reports if customers opt to let you see their verbatim responses.” (see NHBC 2 minute video above)
An NHBC spokesperson told me “Sharing homeowners’ feedback with housebuilders can assist them in understanding where improvements may/could be made. It is a positive outcome if a housebuilder chooses to make changes as a result of reviewing homeowner feedback.”
Rule 2 of the HBF star rating scheme states: “HBF will inform Members in writing of their HBF Star Rating only when all Star Ratings to be awarded in the year in question have been decided by HBF.” Decided by the HBF? All house builders building 300 or more new homes already know, as shown above!
Rule 11 states: “Members may not use or refer to the statistical data underlying their Star Rating in the public domain.” Why? What could this reveal? How closely some house builders might scrape into the next star rating? Note: a Q1 70% score for Yes is 3 star but 69.9% is 2 star. A close call!
“Written in the stars” – Is this how Barratt get their five star rating?
Do Barratt site employees offer their buyers inducements (free extras and alterations etc) in return for good marks in the HBF 8-week survey? In 2013, a Barratt contracts manager told me that a proportion of their site manager’s £10,000 maximum annual (“best in the business”) bonus (unusually, paid in monthly instalments) is dependent on his buyers returning an average five-star (92% or more) survey satisfaction score each month. (Other bonus criteria included: customer care, NHBC inspections and Health & Safety.) He said most of his region’s site managers received “at least 70%” (around £583) of the maximum bonus available each month. Could this bonus be the incentive or is giving buyers free extras in return for good scores, simply a means to a desirable end?
In any customer survey, financial incentives offered to staff based on survey results will always have the potential to corrupt the results, no matter how strong the corporate culture is. It is more important to gather authentic feedback about customer satisfaction from the survey. Incentives poison the well. Survey results shouldn’t be used to measure employee performance. It will be more effective to share relevant, genuine, honest feedback with employees so that they in turn can serve customers better in the future.
Barratt state on their website that they are now: “recognised as the highest quality national housebuilder” “We are industry-leading in terms of our quality…” A fact that could perhaps be justifiable on the basis of their site managers winning more NHBC Quality Awards than any other house builder. It could also be because they are the only house builder to have been rated ‘five stars’ in the last seven surveys.
Barratt homeowners have given their opinions in posts on social media, which a reasonable person might take to indicate that they were offered incentives in return for giving “good marks” in the HBF survey. Here are some examples:
LS (19 March 2016) said: “Our site manager wanted to be present whilst I filled in the survey. He wanted me to call him in the minute it arrived. (Obviously didn’t) They couldn’t do enough for us pre survey. I waited some time to complete it, which I was chased on a regular basis. After a damming result it all turned very sour, 2 years of fighting and various NHBC claims. We’re still waiting for our final one to be resolved. …………………………… Our neighbours were told they’d provide them some more paving slabs on the basis that provide Barratt with a good survey. ………………. Glad it’s over, our house/garden is (nearly) finished. I’ve had to be the hardest person I can be throughout the process, it’s paid off.”
JG (19 March 2016) said: “Never offered anything, but did get a knock on the door with a request to give a 5 star review.”
Buyers on one particular Barratt development at Clovenfords near Galashiels in Scotland claim that:
KS (all 19 March 2016) said: “Another person on the same site, this person moved in before LW, notice she informed the regional office of this incidence but senior staff choose to ignore. The agent in these two cases is the fourth on this site, my dealings were with the first agent. Now IF it is not company policy it certainly seems to be the policy of the East of Scotland regional office.”
KS said: “Barratts are ……………………..which is the only reason there 5 star. Just out of interest was everyone promised the earth when they first moved in if they gave a really good marks on the HBF survey”
LW said: “Hahahahaha K!!!!! I wasn’t allowed my steps at the front down to my garage/driveway until I had given at least 9/10 on the survey!!”
KS asked LW “do you mind if i share this.”
LW replied: “Don’t mind K. I’m pretty sure S was promised stuff too….. we definitely weren’t the only ones…” “out of 74 homes on the development i know this has happened to at least 18 of us. Will hopefully find others in due course”
SS said: “KS, I was asked to give 9 out of 10! Then was told one day if I didn’t do the survey I would have to live with my kitchen like that! I phoned barrett and told them this! Guess what tho they de care! I got told I would get a door into my garage at one point! No put in but they would give me one! …………………………………………………..!” [SIC]
“We have very high standards regarding the accuracy of our NHBC customer surveys. We are currently reviewing the issues raised on the Facebook group in question.” Adding, “I just wanted to assure you we are actively looking into this issue and will definitely come back to you with a more detailed statement on it.”
The recent detailed statement from a Barratt Developments spokesperson said:
“Your article contains a number of significant inaccuracies in respect of which we reserve our position. We take any allegations of wrongdoing by any of our employees extremely seriously and have systems in place which allow our customers to report such matters in a number of ways. We also have policies and training regimes in place which meet best practice. We take a huge amount of pride in our approach to customer care and will address any issues raised with us by our customers.”
In an effort to be as fair and accurate as possible, I have asked Barratt to clarify which of the statements in this article (specific to Barratt) that they consider to be “significant inaccuracies” offering another opportunity to correct or clarify. (If there are any “inaccuracies” I am happy to re edit.)
The HBF have strict clear rules regarding their survey and especially the HBF Star Rating Scheme. It is clear that these rules are not being adhered to:
“Rule 7. Members may only use the Star Rating Logo and their Star Rating in a manner whereby the number of stars actually awarded and the year in which they were awarded is clearly stated. Members must ensure that it is very clear in any use of the Star Rating what their current rating is. Members can not refer to in any way a dated Star Rating awarded in previous years.”
Rule 8. Members may not make any alteration (as to size, shape, colour and any other characteristics) to the Star Rating Logo nor at any time use any other logo or device which is similar to or may be confused with the Star Rating Logo. The design guidelines for use of the Star Rating logo are defined in Section 3.
Rule 21. Members may encourage homeowners to respond to the Survey by informing them of its existence prior to the commencement of the invitation process which begins exactly 8 weeks after legal completion. However, once the invitation process has started Members should not discuss the survey with the respondent or pressurise them to complete it.
Rule 22. Members may not offer respondents any direct financial or other benefit or incentive that is any way linked to completing the Survey or answering any of the questions in the Survey in a particular way. Members may advise respondents that they will make a charitable donation for each returned Survey.
Rule 23. Members must not under any circumstances seek to intercept the survey whilst en-route to or from the respondent and NHBC.
Rule 24. In line with the Bribery Act 2010 Members must not incentivise or pressurise respondents into completing the Survey with dishonest responses, this applies to all questions in the Survey including the respondent’s right to keep their responses anonymous.
Rule 25. To avoid the perception and/or possibility of influence, Members must not be present when the respondent completes the Survey,
Rule 27. Once response are received they cannot be amended or retracted due to the potential for the respondent to have been incentivised or otherwise influenced to dishonestly amend or retract their response.”
It would appear that the HBF rules are being broken and knowingly!
What could the NHBC/HBF do to stop house builders corrupting buyers’ survey responses:
- Send the first 8-week survey randomly, at any time in the first 8-16 weeks. This will mean house builders won’t know when buyers receive it, making coercion more difficult.
- Make all survey responses 100% anonymous, rather than leave buyers to tick a box. This would ensure house builders are less likely to offer “incentives” as they would have to implicitly trust buyers to give positive responses. This would also make it less likely that house builders would victimise buyers for submitting unfavourable survey responses.
- Prevent house builders from seeing their scores until the survey is published. Having the ability to see their current star rating (and other scores) in real time, means builders are more likely to break the rules in attempts to achieve a higher rating.
- Only allow builder’s a star rating if the number of surveys returned equate to at least 50% of the private homes they build in the survey year.
- Properly enforce the star rating scheme rules, with sanctions for house builders found to be breaking them.
Normally, the purpose of a consumer survey is to enable customers to give an honest response regarding the product or service. It should highlight the best, praising those doing excellent work and highlighting those areas of a business in need of improvement. A customer-satisfaction survey that dissatisfies customers and produces false information is an embarrassment to the industry and those conducting it.
It is essential to have reliable, honest and true measures of customer satisfaction for new-build homes. The new home customer satisfaction survey must be made 100% independent of the house building industry and audited.
At the APPG Inquiry, I called for a fully-independent “New Home Customer Satisfaction Survey” for EVERY new home built, conducted by a totally independent and autonomous government-appointed body such as the Trading Standards Institute, with all results and a house builder league table being made public by the Office of National Statistics. The APPG Inquiry report is due out mid-May!
It is my opinion that the buyers’ quotations in this article, reproduced entirely as they were originally written on posts freely made publicly on Facebook, that would be considered by a reasonable person, to be true and the opinions or experiences of these private individuals. This article is my honest opinion of the buyers’ own claims that any reasonable person might also conclude. I believe this is a matter of public interest, as the house building industry so often refers to their 8-week survey results as confirmation and evidence of high levels of both customer satisfaction and quality. If HBF star rating rules have been broken, UK consumers can no longer rely on builders’ star rating as an accurate reflection of customer satisfaction for comparison purposes. I have contacted the house builders concerned and the HBF, on several occasions to obtain confirmation, denial, or any possible explanation, justification, or information and have included these response(s) such as they are.