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Home Builder Digital Marketing Podcast Digital Marketing Podcast Hosted by Greg Bray and Kevin Weitzel

160 Putting Customers First Strengthens Business - Gina Nixon

Putting Customers First Strengthens Business - Gina Nixon

Show Notes


This week on The Home Builder Digital Marketing Podcast, Gina Nixon of Thomas James Homes joins Greg and Kevin to discuss how putting customers first strengthens every aspect of a home building business.  

Providing a great home buying experience requires home builders to focus on and understand individual customers. Gina says, “... what we are trying to do as a company right now is really identify how to put the customer first in the way we're selling homes, in the way we're selling our service, by listening to them and by delivering for them ... take some of the antiquated ways, things have happened in the past, out of play. We don't necessarily need to show everything we offer, but by spending time to listen to what's important to them, steering them to a library home and a design collection that starts them off in a place that's where they want to be.”

Everyone on the home building team is responsible for the home buyer journey. Gina says, “We have the attitude, whether you're the CEO or you've got your hands dirty building homes every day, every one of us owns that customer experience.”

When home builders foster relationships with customers and not just build homes for them, the home buyers offer valuable suggestions that could improve the overall business. Gina explains, “... start with the customers you have first. It's not expensive to find out what motivates them. You just have to be a little brave to put yourself out there to hear the answers to the questions. You have a pool of buyers who've already said yes and that love you, and they are full of insights. And so you've just got to be bold. Invite them to spend some time in a space that's comfortable and ask them questions. They will share. They will talk. You're going to hear some things you probably don't like, but maybe you need to hear so you could make some adjustments. At the same time, you're going to be overwhelmed by how happy most people really are.”

Listen to this week’s episode to learn more about how focusing on customers benefits home builders’ businesses.

About the Guest:

Gina Nixon brings 30+ years of demonstrated strategic planning, sales, and marketing success in the home building and land development markets. Crossing the lines from low-density, single-family, to major master planned communities, to high-density, mixed-use projects; she enhances any design team with a key understanding of consumer-driven research, innovative product design, and strategies to increase absorption and profitability. 

She has held senior-level positions with builders and land developers, providing a depth of market knowledge across the Nation. Through research, team building, and creative solutions, she pushes teams to move from vision to strategy, to results staying focused on the financial viability and profitability of each project.

She delivered a new brand for Thomas James Homes direct to consumers in 2019 and continues to push the boundaries of single lot, new home replacement building along the West Coast.  


Greg Bray: [00:00:00] Hello everybody and welcome to today's episode of The Home Builder Digital Marketing Podcast. I'm Greg Bray with Blue Tangerine.

Kevin Weitzel: And I'm Kevin Weitzel with OutHouse.

Greg Bray: And today our special guest that we'd like to welcome to the show is Gina Nixon. Gina is the Head of Customer and Brand Experience at Thomas James Homes. Welcome, Gina. Thanks for joining us.

Gina Nixon: Hi, guys. Thanks for having me.

Greg Bray: Well, Gina, let's just start off and get that quick introduction. Help people get to know who you are a little.

Gina Nixon: I'm Gina Nixon. I'm the Head of Customer and Brand Experience, as you mentioned, [00:01:00] for Thomas James Homes. I've been part of the Thomas James Homes family for about four years now. We previously didn't actually have a customer-facing brand before 2019 when I joined the company, and so it's been a fun ride over the four years to bring what we do to a consumer direct.

Kevin Weitzel: Well, that's the business side of you. Now we get to know something personal about you, non-home building related, that people can learn about you on our podcast today.

Gina Nixon: Love golf, love my fur child. Married 25 plus years. I've been known to throw a few good meals together and probably not one that passes up a nice glass of wine.

Kevin Weitzel: Wine and golf. You sound like the perfect human being to me, and you cook too. Yeah. I guarantee your spouse is very, very happy, um, speaking from experience. I only know this because golf, wine, food. It's all good. Any particular courses you like?

Gina Nixon: I guess my most infamous golf moment is I have birdied seven at [00:02:00] Pebble.

Kevin Weitzel: What? Wow. Okay. That's pretty fantastic.

Greg Bray: All right. Well, Gina, tell us a little bit more about kind of your growth into the home building industry and what made you attracted to this industry, and how you've developed there.

Gina Nixon: It's a fun story actually. I blame my mother completely for me falling in love with this industry. When I was about 10, she started selling homes for Standard Pacific, if you remember that old crew. So, I had the privilege of being around the office one day when she was handing keys to somebody who had just closed on their home. Even at 10 or 11 years old, realizing the impact and the energy, and just that passion and compassion that goes into helping somebody do something that significant. Buying a home, no matter where you are in the country, is such a significant achievement for people. And I fell in love with it. So, I got my real estate license as soon as I turned 18 and started hostessing, while I [00:03:00] was in college for home builders.

Kevin Weitzel: Wait a minute. Hostessing for home builders?

Gina Nixon: Yeah. I went to work for StanPac. I was selling houses on the Irvine Ranch through college.

Kevin Weitzel: That's pretty cool. So, Thomas James Homes is a little different than a typical production builder, correct?

Gina Nixon: Correct.

Kevin Weitzel: Yeah. Can you explain that?

Gina Nixon: We've got a pretty disruptive business model. We are lucky enough to unlock access to the coolest neighborhoods, one new home at a time. So, what that means is we look at neighborhoods where the housing stock is really old, but the desire to live there is incredibly high. And we go in and buy older homes and build brand new library homes in their place, offering new solutions for people that wouldn't have the opportunity that they do. It's fun.

Kevin Weitzel: But you know you can buy land a lot less. Like in Detroit where not only have people moved away, but nobody wants to live there. So, you can actually get the home sites that you're gonna tear down much, much, much more affordably.

Gina Nixon: Well, [00:04:00] we're in five different markets right now. We're thriving honestly, even in some of the craziness of what's going on with rates and the market and some of the consumer confidence challenges that are out there right now. We've analyzed markets all across the country that have the potential to deliver the same thing. It's interesting. We don't build in tracks. We build single lot new home construction. So, nothing is contiguous, but we're definitely a long-term neighbor in the neighborhoods in which we build.

Greg Bray: No, I do think that model is so unique and different. And while there may be some folks that are doing specific individual lots here and there, the way you guys have productionized that into such high volume is definitely something that's a little bit different for sure.

Gina Nixon: It allows somebody that wants a custom home experience to not pay a custom home price.

Kevin Weitzel: And it's not just the on-your-lot experience either. It's the on your lot with an existing home that is either torn down or reconstructed. Correct?

Gina Nixon: You're right. About two years after we rolled out [00:05:00] our business model to consumers, we started to realize that there was a lot of energy around us demoing homes to build something new by the neighbors. And we had people coming to us and saying, Look, I love my neighborhood, but I'm over my old house. Would you guys build for me? Because I don't wanna buy your house and move across the street. I wanna stay where I am, but I want you to build me one of yours. It opened doors to the service side of our business, and we love the build side. We call it buy or build. Those are our two solutions that we offer.

Greg Bray: So, Gina, I have to confess that I find your title rather unique and interesting. You know, Head of Customer and Brand Experience, and it's not a title that I see at every builder that we talk to. In fact, not many at all. So, let's dive into that a little bit more because there's obviously a desire to have a positive customer experience or you wouldn't have this type of focus. So, what does customer experience mean to [00:06:00] you, to Thomas James Homes? Why that emphasis and where does that kind of fit in your company culture?

Gina Nixon: So, it's recently new. I just stepped into the role this January. It came with a lot of thought. Originally I was the EVP of marketing. As we started to analyze the promises we're making as a company of reducing the stress of home building and revitalizing urban neighborhoods. I kind of call them in town neighborhoods. I don't know that we're that urban, honestly. It just seemed to not fit. I mean, like a CMO seems kind of stodgy and antiquated, right?

And what we are trying to do as a company right now is really identify how to put the customer first in the way we're selling homes, in the way we're selling our service by listening to them and by delivering for them. And take some of the antiquated ways, things have happened in the past, outta play, right? We don't necessarily need to show everything we offer, but by spending time to listen to what's important to [00:07:00] them, steering them to a library home and a design collection that starts them off in a place that's where they wanna be.

Kevin Weitzel: So, pardon my ignorance on this question, but given your unique scenario of how you guys build homes, are you marketing conventionally like a builder or are you marketing like a realtor post-sale? Are you pre-selling or are you posts selling?

Gina Nixon: We are marketing as Thomas James Homes. We've kind of busted that mold as well. On the buy side, we do have opportunities to come in early on. And obviously, as you know, any builder would love to get inventory off the books early, but it's a win-win in that scenario, right? We get to sell something early where the buyer may take down the land and then we'll sign a build contract to complete their home.

We do bring things to market in certain experiences where we have staged and we actually don't list anything ourselves. We work with the realtors, real estate agents in each of our markets to help us list and sell those homes. You know, you've gotta bring some to market, especially when you're in [00:08:00] new places, because nobody understands the quality level of what we build. So, without having models, we've gotta find ways to display that.

Greg Bray: And Gina, just before we go any further, I do need to, for any stodgy CMOs who are listening today, we just wanna express our love and let you know.

Gina Nixon: No, it wasn't that the people are stodgy. It's just some of the titles these days get a little antiquated and it was an opportunity to show our customers again that we are trying to do what we can to put them first in this process.

Greg Bray: So, from your perspective, coming from the marketing side of the business, is customer experience something that should be owned by marketing or by sales? Because at some point, marketing is generally considered the attraction piece, right? Getting the lead in, and once we have that lead, it kind of becomes a sales process, right? That then is interacting with that perspective customer. So, who owns for you, customer experience?

Gina Nixon: At Thomas James Homes, everybody owns it, right?

Kevin Weitzel: Ooh, thank you for [00:09:00] giving the right answer. I love that answer.

Gina Nixon: We have the attitude, whether you're the CEO or you've got your hands dirty building homes every day, every one of us owns that customer experience.

Kevin Weitzel: Love it.

Greg Bray: And as you look at that customer experience today how much of that is now digital interactions versus the in-person traditional interactions with your customers?

Gina Nixon: I think it's a fine balance, but you've gotta have both. We've always been a heavy digital company. We've used technology as much as we can. As you might imagine, yes, we go into markets with a library of homes we know plug and play on the size home sites that are there already, but to share that vision and even allow consumers to play a bit. We rely heavily on digital to bring that to life.

Greg Bray: When you guys are putting your messaging out there because you don't have necessarily lots of homes right next to each other, but yet you're still trying to sell a community in a location, tell us a little bit more about how you approach that kind of [00:10:00] messaging when it might only be one home or two homes in a particular area, but yet, you're still about location that you don't necessarily control all the details.

Gina Nixon: I think we look at it a little differently, right? I think that it's access to places people wanna live. So, we don't necessarily go at it like we're selling homes. We're selling access to get people in the neighborhoods that they want to be in, where they wouldn't normally have an option to be in a new home there.

So, like in West LA for example, Mar Vista, somebody wants to live in Mar Vista, they can be centrally located, maybe one of them travels. They need to be near the airport. They want the vibe that someplace like Mar Vista offers, or Venice offers, or Pacific Palisades offers, but they don't wanna live in something that's that traditional 60-year-old house. And we provide a solution to them.

Kevin Weitzel: To add to that, Greg we have an area in Phoenix/Scottsdale called Arcadia. It's a super, super hot area. And what they have is they have these built in the [00:11:00] sixties, built in the late fifties, early sixties, ranch homes. And their rules are, you can't just wipe 'em out. So, you literally leave like a wall, like a five by five section of wall, and then it's called a remodel. Companies like Thomas James Homes come in there and they turn a, an old lackluster plunkado, that's gonna just be maintenance-heavy, into a beautiful brand new home in the neighborhood that everybody wants to live in. And you guys are there.

Gina Nixon: We are there and we're actually investing to build all new. We're not doing any of our work as remodels so that we can deliver a first-class warranty to each of our homes.

Kevin Weitzel: That is a bigger permitting process in Arizona. So, you guys are ponying up.

Gina Nixon: It is. It is, and it's worth the investment, right? Because we wanna stand behind what we build.

Kevin Weitzel: It is, I think so.

Greg Bray: Gina, with that approach, do you ever run into issues of being restricted in what you can offer because you have to stay consistent with the existing homes as far as design or style with what's already there, or can you just go and [00:12:00] make it super modern, just the latest and greatest new styles and things, regardless of what's next door?

Gina Nixon: I think it's the twofold answer, right? First of all, we don't wanna show up as the odd thumb in a neighborhood, right? We wanna go in to complement and enhance the culture, the architecture, the vibe, and still deliver what a consumer wants, right? So, we do a lot of listening. We spend time before we enter markets, understanding some of the data-driven indicators. Like where there might be gaps in square footages or what types of elevations seem most popular? You know, and that's data stuff. And then we start to listen to the insights and try and get into the mind of consumers on what's really motivating them to choose to be in those neighborhoods and try and incorporate all of that into the homes we deliver.

Kevin Weitzel: And I know that you have relationships with various architects around the country. The joy and the beauty of having the various relationships is that you can utilize different architectural styles, but how often do you find it that you go into a neighborhood that is desirable to wanna build in, but the [00:13:00] covenants of that neighborhood restrict what you can or can't build? Does that create any kind of issues for you guys?

Gina Nixon: We have run into those challenges, and I will tell you, it's a team choice. Right? Are we gonna deal with the headaches or are we gonna just choose not to build there? I can tell you there are markets where we absolutely refuse to get involved because of design review boards or other challenges that just make it not cost-effective for us to deliver the homes we do at the prices we do. And maybe that's a great foreway into like kind of sharing the niche that we fit.

So, if you look at our competitors and markets that are doing design-build. Where you have the guys that maybe do 12 to 24 houses a year and they're literally designing and building custom homes for people. Most of those price points are probably somewhere around 1200 to 1800 bucks a foot by the time you get everything processed and built.

Because we're able to establish library plans like I said, that plug and play, we're able to deliver that custom [00:14:00] home experience in the $600 price point, six to seven depending. I know we've come under six a few times, but that's a safe number. So, we're really filling kind of a middle niche. Or that, I hate to call it the lower end of a custom home build, because people are still making selections. You know, we are designing the interiors of their homes for them, but they're picking from a library of choice before we start.

Greg Bray: It makes a lot of sense to me to try and standardize and optimize that process in order to be more attractive with that price point. I think that's fascinating. And that's on the construction side. Are you able to do that on your marketing as well as you move to different areas and locations where you guys have been because you've been growing fast, you've been expanding a lot? How much of that translates from one location to another, or is it starting over because it's a different demographic or different location?

Gina Nixon: I think there's an education process anytime we go into a new market because nobody really knows who we are. We [00:15:00] typically start spending time with the top agents in that market. While the service side of our business, you know, the build side is contracted directly with us, we use agents in markets as our acquisitions teams and as our ultimate sales teams when we list something in the MLS.

And the marketing is the same. We are who we are. So, the brand awareness and the core marketing principles, and how we deliver things visually and even our staging is a huge part of our brand. And so there's consistency, old markets to new.

Kevin Weitzel: Do you ever find you have any struggle or obviously has it ever been a struggle, or is it just a moot point, that the buying process could be more intimidating to somebody doing a tear-down rebuild versus when you go to a new home community, you know that when you see a slab, then next you're gonna see the framing and blah, blah, blah, and there's just kind of an overall timeframe? It's still that same construction process, but is it harder to convey that messaging that it's just as easy to buy to a home buyer?

Gina Nixon: [00:16:00] Signage is our friend. We invest not only in fence wrapping all of our job sites, which we have to fence anyway to keep everybody safe, right? Anytime you have a job site that's live, you've gotta have it fenced. So, we took advantage of using some signage on fence wraps. But we also throw up a sign that shows the rendering of what's coming and the details around the new home that's being built in the process and how to find out information about it.

I don't know. I've seen both, right? There's people that shy away that don't wanna invest money until they see a finished product, and there's others that are excited about the opportunity to get into something early where they're not dealing with bidding wars, they're not dealing with other offers that maybe aren't as real as they could be.

About a year ago we did a bunch of video work where we did not only some consumer research with people who we've built homes for but also testimonial opportunities for them to share their experience. We have such a broad range of customers. There's a married couple in West LA that [00:17:00] literally went on a hunt for the worst house in the best neighborhood. And when they found it, we were the first phone call because what they realized as they were analyzing the market, and he's a financial analyst and she's in real estate, so they were kind of this dynamic duo.

First-time buyers, their mission was to buy the worst house in the neighborhood that they wanted to live in, and then they hired us to build them a home. They realized if they were to go out and try and buy what our home delivered, they wouldn't be able to afford it. The economics behind it were fascinating. And to hear it from a first-time buyer was brilliant.

Kevin Weitzel: Their names weren't Tarek and Christine of HGTV?

Gina Nixon: No.

Kevin Weitzel: No?

Gina Nixon: No.

Kevin Weitzel: It's not them.

Gina Nixon: No.

Kevin Weitzel: Cause you just described literally what they do and at least the flipping world.

Gina Nixon: Yeah, I know. No, it was not them. No, these are real people and they still live there. And interestingly enough, they chose a smaller house than their home site could have held. They didn't max out the build. They picked something smaller because yard space [00:18:00] was important to them. To me, a light bulb went off. We don't always have to push the biggest. It's more about listening to what a customer wants and what's important to them. We've kind of used some of these testimonial opportunities to flip the way we're thinking about how we're selling homes and really trying to be customer first.

Kevin Weitzel: Can I ask you a non-marketing question?

Gina Nixon: Sure.

Kevin Weitzel: And it's more about the ownership. Because one advantage that you have if you own your plans, you know, and you're not beholden to having to pay for reuse to an architect, then you literally are growing your library and thus having more plans that can plug and play, expanding the options per lot. Is that a fair assessment or?

Gina Nixon: It's fair. Although I'll tell you the research we did probably last September, October, we were feeling a lot of pressure internally and even feeling like there was pressure being felt by the people we were building homes for. So, we pooled everybody together and did kind of a DOT program survey. Date night and design trends is what we called it and invited everybody to [00:19:00] come sip some of wine and have fun with some stickers.

What we found was, is that most of the people that we had truly built true custom homes for, they looked at us and said, That was a lot. It was a lot to deal with. It was a lot to go through. It was a long time to process all of it, and I really love what you guys build. If I would've had the choice to have you build one of your library plans for me, as long as I could pick my cabinet colors, pick my countertop colors, and pick my flooring colors, you guys do a brilliant job. I would've done that in a minute.

So, we spent the last, 10 or 12 weeks now, really identifying in each of our market what our strength is in architecture and narrowing the choice, and then building out curated design collections that offers choice without being overwhelming. Cuz as you guys know that whole decision fatigue is still more real than ever, and we've made it worse on ourselves. The internet gives you access to any kind of data, [00:20:00] any kind of products, any kind of information you want, and you overload yourself, right? You don't need to be overloaded by a home builder at the same. So, we've really worked hard to simplify our process.

Greg Bray: I think that's really insightful, Gina. Two things I'm hearing you say. Number one is you're actually listening to your customers and you're not just listening. You're actually going and asking them the questions and trying to find out. And I think that so often the insights don't take a lot of discussion to actually find some patterns and find some little nuggets of how do we improve that experience for them. How do we make it better? What you're saying you're finding is simpler is better. Reducing some of those choices.

Because again, it's known in the decision theory world that we get overwhelmed with too many options, right? What do I want for breakfast when I'm in the cereal aisle at the grocery store? It's like, I don't, I'm gonna starve to death before I can pick one, you know because there's 5,000 boxes of cereal to choose from. But in my pantry, there's two, right, and so I can actually, you know, make a [00:21:00] choice because I can process all those choices without fear of making a mistake or choosing the wrong thing or not understanding. And so then we just kind of shut down when there's too much going on.

Gina Nixon: Well, and simple doesn't mean cheap. The word standard in our company is kind of a dirty word. Apologies to home builders. I mean, we're all profit-driven, but there are different business models for home building. Like we don't offer builder standards. We curate design collections around each of the elevations and the library plans of our homes. And those included features are probably something all of us listening could be really happy living in.

Greg Bray: So, Gina, as you've been on this journey with Thomas James Homes for the last few years, you guys have accomplished something, again, having to bring to market a different way of looking at buying homes, right, and had to educate people there. For someone who is trying to get a new message out to their market, what kind of tips would you give to that marketer from some of the lessons you learned along the way?

Gina Nixon: I'm gonna [00:22:00] start with the customers you have first. It's not expensive to find out what motivates them. You just have to be a little brave to put yourself out there to hear the answers to the questions, right? You have a pool of buyers who've already said yes and that love you, and they are full of insights. And so you've just gotta be bold. Invite them to spend some time in a space that's comfortable and ask them questions. They will share. They will talk. You're gonna hear some things you probably don't like, but maybe you need to hear so you could make some adjustments. At the same time, you're gonna be overwhelmed by how happy most people really are. Spending a couple of hundred bucks on some charcuterie and wine gives you insights that could really even adjust your business model like it did for us.

Greg Bray: I think that's great. Well, as we kind of wrap up, we want to be sensitive to your time here today and really appreciate the things you've shared. Do you have any last marketing advice tips or thoughts that you wanna leave with our audience today? It's your chance to throw it out to the world.[00:23:00]

Gina Nixon: I would just say don't ever stop having fun. We don't always have to do things the same way every time, and the opportunity to test and retest and be bold. I will say that again. Be bold. Be brave. Go out there. You know, a test doesn't hurt anybody. Whether it's a digital ad and you're pushing the envelope a little bit with some messaging. You can always dial it back. See what you're missing. Use the opportunities and the tools you have to discover what you're missing.

Greg Bray: Awesome. Great insights. Thank you again, Gina, so much for sharing with us today. We really appreciate it.

Gina Nixon: My pleasure. It's been fun. Thank you.

Greg Bray: And thank you everybody for listening today to The Home Builder Digital Marketing podcast. I'm Greg Bray with Blue Tangerine.

Kevin Weitzel: And I'm Kevin Weitzel with OutHouse. Thank you. [00:24:00]

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