Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Branded Experience Delivery Process

Want to get something done in the A/E business? Manage it like a project. That's my standard advice when confronted with almost any kind of corporate initiative. Need more sales? Make it a project. Need to increase profitability? Make it a project. Need to improve client service? Same answer. Projects are what we do best, so the more we can fit other corporate activities into a similar framework, the better.

In my last post, I mentioned a study by Accenture of companies that are among the leaders in providing the "branded experience" to their customers. The study found that these companies share two key traits: (1) they have a deliberate process for delivering a consistently great customer experience and (2) they regularly solicit customer feedback to determine how they're doing and what they can do better. The vast majority of A/E firms do neither.

So in this post, let me focus on the first strategy—managing the service delivery process. When it comes to providing great client service, the vast majority of firms simply rely on their good people doing the right thing for the client. There's no planning, little process, few standards, no metrics. We would never entrust our technical work products to such an unstructured approach. Why? Because the results would be wildly inconsistent.

And that's what most firms get with their service delivery. Some individuals have strong client skills and consistently delight their clients. Others fail to provide clients the personal attention and responsiveness they expect, focusing instead on the technical aspects of the work. The only way to provide consistently good service is to manage it. Like a project.

Granted, not all aspects of client service are manageable. You have to have decent interpersonal skills and a genuine concern for the client (no process can overcome the lack of these!). But we can still plan, design, implement, and measure important dimensions of the client experience, just like the technical components of our projects:
  • Plan. The starting point is to uncover what the client expects in terms of the working relationship. Such expectations are rarely explicit in the contract or scope of work, yet they strongly influence the client's experience.
  • Design. Understanding the client's expectations, you then determine what actions are needed to meet or exceed them.
  • Implement. Knowing is one thing, doing is another. Most firms need healthy doses of support and encouragement to raise service levels. Support can involve training, resources, and holding people accountable.
  • Measure. The most important measurement is getting periodic feedback from clients. The basic questions: How are we doing? What can we do better?
Let's break that process out in some more detail. Below is a basic service delivery process that I've used with many clients. Not every client is receptive (nor deserving) of such a structured approach, but for those who are (usually your best clients), this can be a definitive competitive advantage.



1. Benchmark Expectations
Uncovering your client's hidden expectations is the foundation of managing the service delivery process. Service benchmarking involves meeting with the client at the outset of the project to establish mutual expectations for the working relationship. The discussion should address issues such as communication, decisions and client involvement, information and data, deliverable standards, invoicing and payment, management of changes, and performance feedback. You might find the Client Service Planner useful for this purpose.

2. Identify Gaps
The focus of this process is meeting the unique expectations of your client. So having completed the benchmarking step, the next activity is to identify where what the client wants varies significantly from what you normally do. This assessment should take into account both the standard practices of the firm and the respective project manager or office.

3. Create Service Deliverables
The next step is to create "service deliverables" to close the gaps identified. This means treating the delivery of service like the delivery of any other work product, as mentioned above. Producing service deliverables involves defining a discrete set of tasks that can be assigned, scheduled, budgeted, tracked, and closed like any other project task. This moves service delivery from the realm of the ethereal to the realm of the manageable. Some additional guidelines:
  • Give special attention to those requiring significant resources or coordination. Focus on those involving multiple responsible persons or significant costs, or those with potential to impact the project schedule.
  • Alert the client of the costs of special deliverables. Don't automatically acquiesce to every request the client may make if there are substantial costs or difficulties associated with satisfying the request. Explain the added costs (in terms of budget, time, etc.) and let the client decide if he or she is willing to assume them. Look for other satisfactory alternatives where appropriate.
  • Don't commit to what you cannot deliver. While this seems obvious, there are many PMs, who in their zeal to please the client, make promises that they are unlikely able to keep. The old adage "under-promise and over-deliver" is still good advice.
4. Prepare a Service Plan
The client service plan provides direction for the project team on how service deliverables will be handled in the context of the project. Preparing such a plan recognizes that client service involves time and resources like other project tasks, and should be managed accordingly. This plan is typically brief and is integrated into the overall project management plan (in most cases, the completed Client Service Planner will suffice).

Since the quality of service deliverables is much more subjective than technical work products, it's especially important to secure the client's endorsement of the client service plan. Confirm that the planned service deliverables fully meet the client's expectations. Delivering great service is largely dependent on the client doing his or her part in making the relationship work. The plan provides a blueprint for key aspects of that relationship, and involves both parties meeting the obligations established in it.

5. Implement the Service Plan
The preceding steps of the service delivery process alone will set your firm apart from all but a few. But these activities ultimately accomplish nothing if there is inadequate follow-through. Your commitment to the branded experience obviously must extend beyond the planning stages to the point of delivery. This involves not just implementing the service plan, but being responsive to the client's evolving needs and expectations through the course of the project. 

The over-arching goal: Make every client encounter (every touchpoint) a positive experience.

6. Solicit Client Feedback
Getting regular feedback from your clients is critical to ensuring that you are meeting expectations. Two primary means are recommended: (1) ongoing dialogue with the client and (2) periodic formal survey. I outlined a general approach to this in a previous post.

By the way, service sells. Not unsubstantiated claims that "we listen" or "we give personal attention." But if you describe the above process in a sales call, proposal, or shortlist presentation, you will immediately set your firm apart.

I've seen it be a major factor in winning large contracts. One such client, a major airline, responded in the interview: "Why is no one else talking about this? The reason we're replacing five of our six current consultants is we're not happy with their service. Yet you are the only ones to tell us how you will serve us better."

Finally, let me close by summarizing the three basic advantages of a service delivery process:
  • Managing service delivery like other project tasks puts it more in the realm of the familiar

  • It enables you to provide a more consistent level of service across the organization

  • It converts client service into a more tangible (you can draw it) value proposition
Could this be your best unexploited opportunity to differentiate your firm? Test drive it with a few of your clients and see for yourself. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Delivering the Branded Client Experience

At the core of your firm's brand is what the client experiences working with your firm. So how much time and money do you spend on enhancing the quality of the client experiences you deliver? If you're like the overwhelming majority of A/E firms, it pales in comparison to the investment made in your technical capabilities. So here's a golden opportunity to differentiate your firm: Deliver what is known as the branded experience

What is the branded experience? The most helpful definition I've found comes from the Forum Corporation. They describe the branded experience as one characterized by four basic qualities: (1) it's consistent, (2) it's intentional, (3) it's differentiated, and (4) it's valued. Notice that the first two characteristics are dependent on the service provider; the second two are discerned by the customer. The branded experience involves a sort of informal partnership between the two parties. 

Accenture conducted a study to determine what separates the companies that deliver the branded experience from the rest. The study found that the best companies did two important things:
  • They had a formal process for consistently delivering the branded experience
  • They rigorously solicited customer feedback to determine what customers want
Notice the alignment between Accenture's and Forum's research? Companies that have a delivery process are intentional and able to provide consistent customer experiences. Those that regularly solicit feedback can determine what customers think is different and what they value.

So how are we doing in our industry? Over the years, I've polled hundreds of firms on this topic at events where I've spoken. I've yet to find a firm that has a true client experience delivery process (other than firms I've worked with). I'm sure there are a few out there, but they are rare. Only about one in four firms I've polled have a formal process for client feedback. The company behind the Client Feedback Tool claims that only 5% of A/E firms collect client feedback regularly. 

In my research of differentiation strategies for professional service firms, delivering the branded client experience is at or near the top of the list. This reflects a general trend in business, popularized by the book The Experience Economy. The most distinctive and successful brands across multiple industries generally provide great customer experiences. There's certainly evidence within our own industry that clients place a higher value on the experience that we have typically acknowledged. 

So how is your firm doing in delivering the branded experience? The graphic below, adopted from the Forum Corporation, is a handy way to assess where you stand in the service-level progression leading to the branded experience:
Random experience. At this level, the customer experience is neither consistent or intentional. It varies from one time to another depending on which individual service provider you work with, which office or department, or what service or product you received. In other words, it's like working with many A/E firms. One project manager is very attentive, the next seemingly indifferent. One office provides great quality work products, another not so good.

Predictable experience. At this level, the experience is pretty consistent because the provider has taken steps to make it so. But it is either not significantly different from what you could get elsewhere or the difference isn't that valued by most customers, or both. I call this the Golden Arches Experience. The one thing McDonald's has going for it is that the food, service, and atmosphere are pretty consistent whichever of their 14,350 restaurants in the U.S. you visit. But that's also what's working against them!

Branded experience. When you reach this level, you're consistently delivering an experience that customers value. You don't get here simply because you've got good people working for you. It requires intentional effort. It requires a reliable experience delivery process. And it requires regularly asking clients what they really want, and how you can do better. There are many good A/E firms out there, and clients are generally satisfied. But the opportunity remains for your firm to distinguish itself because it commits to the high standard of the branded experience.

Can you really package the delivery of professional services into some kind of consistent process? That's the question I plan to answer in my next post.
 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

5 Steps to Building Stronger Client Relationships

What's necessary to build sustainable business success? Lasting client relationships. Imagine if you never had any repeat business. Could you survive? Highly unlikely. So keeping existing clients deserves every bit the focus that finding new ones does.

It's interesting, then, that most firms pay substantially more attention to winning new clients than taking care of their current ones. If you doubt that conclusion, consider these questions: How much of your strategic plan is devoted to improving business development compared to improving client care? Do you have a sales process, but not a relationship building process? Which receives more of your training budget? Or more discussion in staff meetings?

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with giving emphasis to business development. In fact, most firms could stand to give it more. But let's not overlook the fact that the best way to grow your business is usually through existing client relationships. Are you taking steps to make those relationships stronger? Here are five suggestions to do just that:

1. Create a client relationship building process. You probably have a few individuals in your firm who are skilled at nurturing strong client relationships. And some who aren't. Therein lies the problem—a crucial function that's left to individual competency and initiative. You don't manage projects that way; there are standard procedures to ensure some measure of consistency. In fact there are many less critical activities in your firm that have been defined as a repeatable process.

So why not an approach for building client relationships? Of course, there are interpersonal dynamics in relationships that are not easily programed. But if marriages can be strengthened by applying generic tips from a book or conference, such improvements can certainly be realized with clients. The key is to define certain elements of relationship building that lend themselves to being replicated across the organization. Here's how to get started:
  • Identify common traits among your best client relationships
  • Determine the steps that were taken to build those relationships
  • Develop a relationship building process based on your assessment
  • Pilot this process with a few clients with growth potential
2. Clarify mutual expectations. For every project, you develop a scope of work, schedule, and budget that the client reviews and approves. But many aspects of the working relationship—such as communication, decision making, client involvement, managing changes, and monitoring satisfaction—are not discussed and explicitly agreed upon with the client. In my experience, most service breakdowns are caused by unknown or misunderstood expectations.

To delight clients and win their loyalty, you need to know how they like to be served. Over time this becomes clearer, but you may not make it that far. How much better to simply ask what the client's expectations are up front, as well as to share what you'd like from the client in return to make the relationship stronger? This is a practice I call "service benchmarking," and you may find my Client Service Planner helpful in this regard.

3. Increase client touches. These are simply the direct and indirect interactions you have with clients. Too often these touches are limited to times of necessity. This is the project manager who only calls when there's a problem. Or the principal who is out of sight until the next RFP approaches. Clients notice. Perhaps the biggest complaint I've heard in the many client interviews I've conducted is the failure of A/E firms to communicate proactively.

What are some ways to increase client touches? Consider the following:
  • Invite the client to your project kickoff meeting
  • Send monthly project status reports
  • Share internal project meeting minutes and action items
  • Call to discuss issues before they become problems
  • Send articles, papers, reports,and tools of interest to the client
4. Periodically seek performance feedback. Having clarified expectations in advance, it's important to check in on occasion to ask how well you're doing. The frequency and timing of these discussions is hopefully one of the expectations you established during the benchmarking step. This is another valuable way to increase client touches.

About 1 in 4 firms in this business formally solicit client feedback, and reportedly only about 5 percent do it regularly. So there's a tremendous opportunity for you to distinguish your firm with your clients. Here are some tips for getting effective feedback:
  • Have someone not directly involved in the project do this
  • Mix both discussions and a standard questionnaire
  • Talk to multiple parties in the client organization if possible
  • Be sure to follow up promptly to any concerns identified
5. Don't disappear between projects. This relates back to my advice about client touches; don't limit them only to when it's in your self interest. Keep in touch with the client after the project is completed—for the client's sake. For one thing, the real value of your work isn't realized until the facility you designed is put into operation or the recommendations in your report are acted upon. You want to be talking with the client when these moments of truth happen, whether it's part of your contract or not.

Offer whatever support you can to further ensure the project's success. But you also want to demonstrate your interest in the client's success outside the project. Provide helpful information and advice, in person, over the phone, and digitally (as part of your content marketing effort). The time between projects (assuming you've won the client's trust to do another project together) can be a productive relationship building time, because it's often unexpected. Having met the client's expectations during the project, this is another chance to exceed them.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How to Help PMs Succeed at Selling

In my last post I argued that all project managers should be contributing to their firm's sales efforts. Only half do, according to the Zweig Group. A prominent reason for the low participation is that most PMs don't feel competent or comfortable in this role (and this is also true of many who are involved in sales!). As I wrote previously, I'm confident that capable PMs can successfully transfer their project management skills to selling—it's much the same skill set. Here are some suggestions for helping them make that transition:

Train them in a service-centered approach to selling. The problem most PMs have with selling is that they have an overwhelmingly negative impression of salespeople. They have their own experiences as a buyer, and that taints their view of selling. But rather than avoid selling, they should be striving to change the experience for those who buy the firm's services. Serve prospective clients rather than sell to them.

"High-end selling and consulting are not different and separate skills," observes sales researcher Neil Rackham, "When we are watching the very best [seller-doers] in their interactions with clients, we cannot tell whether they are consulting, selling, or delivering." For the A/E professional, this means uncovering needs, offering advice, recommending solutions—giving a meaningful sample of what it will be like working together under contract. This kind of approach takes the sting out of selling for both the PM and the client.

Budget time specifically for sales. The other big excuse for why PMs don't sell is that there isn't enough time. Or more specifically, that spending time developing new business subtracts from time on billable project work. Given the obsession with utilization that exists in many firms, it's hardly surprising that this perception is so prevalent. But the claim is seldom supported by the facts.

Nearly all PMs work a substantial number of nonbillable hours, a portion of which could be devoted to sales activities. The problem is that these hours are rarely budgeted or managed, so that in effect selling is done with leftover time. And who has surplus time left over? You can minimize the concern that selling displaces billable hours by managing your business development efforts like project work, including budgeting a portion existing nonbillable hours for this purpose.

Fit sales responsibilities to PMs' individual strengths. Selling is not as monolithic an activity as many presume, nor does it favor a specific personality type. There is a potential sales role for virtually anyone in your firm, including your PMs. Some are comfortable at networking functions, others better at one-on-one conversations. Some are big-picture strategists, others more analytical problem solvers. Some are competent writers, others better in communicating verbally. Some may be capable in making sales calls, others are better assigned to doing research, writing proposals, or developing solutions. The key is fitting the right people to the right roles.

PMs often claim that they don't have the personality to sell. But the research finds no real correlation between personality type and sales success. Fit, again, is the critical strategy. Help PMs shape their sales responsibilities around both their capabilities and their personality.

Bolster your marketing efforts. Technical professionals typically struggle more in starting the sales process than in closing the sale. They often dislike prospecting for new leads, especially making cold calls, attending networking events, and initiating client relationships. Effective marketing can shorten the sales cycle by bringing interested prospects to your door. Most PMs are much more comfortable picking up the sales effort at this point.

Where to start? Consider the marketing tactics that have proven most effective for professional service firms. These activities typically require significant support from the firm's content experts, which likely will include at least some of your PMs. They don't want to make cold calls or work the room? How about giving a presentation, helping write an article, or contributing to a seminar? Involvement in marketing not only builds the firm's brand, but the personal brands of your PMs—making it easier for them to sell

Increase collaboration. Selling is often a lonely activity, which further magnifies the discomfort most PMs have with it. That's why I favor building your sales team, where those involved in sales regularly meet together, share information, encourage one another, plan sales pursuits, and hold each other accountable. Have members of the team work together on sales calls when that makes sense. The investment you make in promoting collaboration, in my experience, will more than pay off in increased sales productivity. 

Provide ongoing coaching. Sales coaching can dramatically improve results for your PMs engaged in selling. If you do training, as suggested above, you'll need to reinforce it to make it successful—meaning real-time feedback and instruction. Organizing your sales team can provide opportunities for peer-to-peer coaching. Pairing up PMs with your best sellers is another option. Or you may decide to seek outside support from a consultant. A good coach helps build both the PM's capabilities and motivation in the most effective manner—on the job.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Why Project Managers Should Be Selling

Being a project manager is a tough job. I get that. PMs are charged with keeping the client happy, delivering a technically sound solution, meeting the budget and schedule, coordinating the project team, interacting with multiple project stakeholders, ensuring the quality of deliverables, and often a myriad of other management, supervisory, and administrative duties outside of their project work.

Did I mention business development? Is it fair to add that responsibility to an already long to-do list? According to a Zweig Group survey, only 4% of PMs claimed no involvement in BD activities. Over 80% indicated they contribute to proposals, 60% make presentations, and 55% participate in sales activities. That last number surprises me. I think it should be closer to 100%.

I can hear the howls of disapproval. Numerous PMs have told me they don't have the time or the personality or the desire to get involved in selling. Many firms seem to concur, putting little if any pressure on PMs to actively support sales activities. But there are several reasons why I believe PMs are needed to have a truly successful sales process:

PMs are the primary contacts with clients. Or at least they should be. PMs are typically the ones who work closest with clients on projects. I've seen situations where principals or department heads assumed this role, but it's less than ideal. In interviewing hundreds of clients over the years, it's clear that the overwhelming majority favor strong PMs who take charge of ensuring project success and serve as the primary liaison with the client and other stakeholders. This role alone makes PMs the logical choice to support the firm's sales efforts.

PMs are one of the critical assets you are selling. You can try to sell the firm's qualifications, but most clients want to know about the individuals who specifically will be working on their project. Chief among these project team members is the PM. Who can best sell the PM's strengths to the client? The PM, ideally. Not by telling, but by demonstrating. The nature of professional services is that we sell the people who perform the services. And the person who most needs to gain the client's confidence, in most cases, is the PM.

Selling should be about serving. I've encountered many PMs who were reluctant to sell to existing clients because they feared it might taint the project relationship. I understand their concern, if you look at it through the lens of traditional selling. But the most effective way to develop new business with clients in the A/E business is not by pushing your services. It's about serving—about meeting needs, providing advice, identifying solutions. If PMs really care about their relationship with clients, they should be looking for other ways to help.

PMs have the right skill set for selling. If you accept my previous point that serving clients is the best way to "sell," then it follows that PMs (good ones, at least) are particularly suited for this task. Who better to help clients? Strong PMs generally are more effective at bringing a broader, multidisciplinary perspective to the project than the technical practitioners who will make up the rest of the project team. PMs should have client skills that readily transfer to a service-centered approach to sales.

Despite claims to the contrary, the skill set for project management is much the same as for selling in this manner: Interpersonal skills, communication, problem solving, planning, collaboration, follow-through, etc. Any PM who cannot sell is probably not very good at project management either. And the claim that they don't have the personality? Research shows no correlation between personality and sales success.

Participation in sales increases a sense of ownership. There's something about building a relationship from scratch with a client that engenders a deeper sense of ownership of that relationship. My observation is that PMs who are actively involved in selling are generally more committed to keeping clients happy. Perhaps that's because they engaged the client before the relationship could be mistaken as simply completing a scope of work.

At a minimum, I think it's critically important to involve the PM in defining the proposal strategy, winning the shortlist interview, and negotiating the contract. PMs should always be involved in determining the scope, schedule, and budget of the project—they shouldn't be asked to deliver something they had no part in defining.

Agree or disagree? I'd love to hear what you think about the PM's role in sales. Next post I'll offer some suggestions for helping PMs succeed in selling.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Why Leaders Are Way Better Than Bosses

Those appointed boss usually feel empowered. I felt intimidated—and that ultimately made me a better leader. When I was asked to step into the branch manager role for a 35-person office, I was leaping over several people on the organization chart that I considered my senior. One was a principal in the firm (and the former branch manager).

I couldn't envision myself telling these people what to do. Instead, I would need to persuade and inspire them. In other words, I would need to be more leader than boss. It worked. The office performed very well and was an incubator for several operational innovations (thanks to my dual role as leader of our corporate quality and service improvement initiative).

That experience reinforced my convictions about leadership, that the real power is held by those you lead. Sure, you can force them into compliance. You're the boss! But you cannot make them give you their best efforts. That comes only voluntarily. Your role as leader is to evoke their want-to rather than enforce their have-to.

Much has been written in recent years about employee engagement. Studies show that an engaged workforce produces greater profit, growth, shareholder value, quality, innovation, customer service, and loyalty to the company. These results flow in large part from discretionary effort, employees willingly going beyond what is required to deliver more of what is possible.

Leaders induce discretionary effort; bosses extract compliant effort. Leaders motivate; bosses mandate. All else being equal, employees who want to follow you will always outperform those who have to. That's why converting bosses into leaders is so important for any firm. Here are some steps you can take to further make that transition:

Prefer asking over telling. We teach our young children the value of asking nicely then sometimes forget the lesson when stepping into a position of authority. The principle still applies in the workplace. But there's another reason to master asking good questions...

Seek advice as much as you give it. The most successful leaders never stop learning, so they don't hesitate to ask others for insight. That includes their employees. The strength of working in an organization is the variety of perspectives, experiences, and talents available. But these assets need to be effectively tapped, which strong leaders do by empowering others and seeking their input.

Exert your authority judiciously. Pulling rank over employees is necessary sometimes, but doing so routinely dilutes the contributions they could make if able to exercise some discretion. This a step of faith that many bosses are hesitant to take. They think they strengthen their impact by asserting their authority more. But the opposite is actually true. Willing followers are far more productive than those compelled to follow.

But set standards and firmly uphold them. This is where many collaborative leaders get in trouble, by letting employee discretion spiral into dysfunction. When values and standards are on the line, it's time to assume your role as boss. You cannot tolerate willful violation of these core principles or they will lose their power to guide organizational behavior.

Teach others to follow by your example. Bosses exert tremendous influence on the workplace environment. Gallup research found that the number one reason employees leave is dissatisfaction with their boss. One of your foremost duties as a leader is to help other bosses grow into effective leaders. And the best way to do that is by your example.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Branding Isn't Just Marketing

So when was the last time your firm rebranded itself? Most of my clients have at least tweaked their brand in the last decade—or so they thought. More accurately, they redesigned their logo, modified their color scheme, rewrote their positioning statement, overhauled their website, etc. In other words, they changed how they marketed themselves.

But that's not branding. Not really. It's disappointing that most marketers don't understand this, but who can blame them? There's a lot of confusion about this subject in the literature. Marketing people naturally view branding as something within their domain. But the consensus of brand experts points to something much more complex than a marketing function.

In simple terms, brand is how your firm is perceived in the marketplace. It is primarily shaped through the direct and indirect interactions customers and others have with your firm. Marketing can influence those perceptions (through its indirect interactions), but eventually direct interactions form the bedrock of your brand. Your real brand is substance, not image.

So what does this mean? True rebranding is about changing the substance of the interactions you have with clients and others. It's about creating better experiences, which lead to positive expectations about future experiences with your firm. (I like Sean Adam's definition of brand: "It's a promise of an experience.") 

It's about backing up your marketing claims through action. Focused on clients? Show it! Design excellence? Let's see what you got! Superior quality? Prove it! Great at collaboration and team building? Demonstrate the benefits! This is why marketing can't create your brand, because ultimately you have to deliver it. Clients have to experience it.

This is not to diminish the contributions of marketing. On the contrary, I'm a strong advocate for effective marketing. I think as an industry that we generally underappreciate the value of marketing. Marketers are too often marginalized as tactical specialists rather than strategic partners. The best marketing comes when there's real substance to sell. Invite marketers into the discussion about how to create a genuine, deliverable brand.

For a step-by-step approach to building your brand, check out this previous post.