Tuesday, October 28, 2008
That's simple, but often ignored, advice. Most A/E firms don't regularly solicit feedback from their clients. I presume they believe they either (1) don't need to or (2) don't care to know. Of course, no one would ever admit to not caring what the client thinks. Yet surveys indicate that clients often feel like their A/E providers don't really care. In fact, PSMJ reports that two-thirds of clients who defect do so because of perceived indifference.
Client surveys also debunk the notion that we can safely assume we understand what our clients want without specifically asking. In conducting such surveys myself, as well as facilitating several "partnering" sessions, I can testify that there are commonly problems about which the A/E firm is unaware. In my mind, no firm will succeed in providing consistently great service (experiences) without a regular program of seeking client feedback.
A critical first step in understanding client expectations comes at project outset, in a process I call "service benchmarking." This involves asking the client specific questions about how you can optimize the working relationship and deliver a great experience. From this information, you define what actions are needed to meet client expectations. Then you need to periodically ask, "How are we doing? What can we do better?"
There are two primary means of collecting feedback from your clients that I suggest:
Ongoing dialogue with the client. This should be your primary method for getting feedback. It involves regular conversations with the client at intervals mutually determined during the benchmarking step, plus a final debriefing at the end of the project or major project phase. This activity is best handled by someone other than the project manager, typically the principal in charge or other senior manager. This person assumes the role of Client Advocate (see below).
Formal client survey. A standardized questionnaire is used primarily for tracking service performance trends across the company. While this is highly recommended, you should not use the formal survey as the primary means of gathering client-specific feedback. It's too impersonal for that purpose (although the Client Advocate can personally administer the survey, which makes it more personal and responsive).
The Client Advocate's Role
Many firms assume that their PMs can adequately monitor client satisfaction. But even the most diligent PMs can be sorely mistaken about their client's perception of their performance. Clients are often reluctant to voice their unhappiness to the PM, especially if the PM is perceived to be part of the problem.
That's why I advocate assigning to every key client relationship a Client Advocate. Preferably this is someone who is not directly involved in the project work (except potentially in an advisory or oversight role). Otherwise they lose some of the objectivity and independence needed to function effectively as Client Advocate. This person's responsibilities include:
Monitors client satisfaction. Keeps in touch with the client from time to time (as mutually agreed upon), checking to see that the client remains fully satisfied with the firm's performance.
Ensures responsiveness. Acts as an in-house advocate for the client, seeing that the firm is fully responsive to client needs and expectations.
Acts as third-party liaison. Serves as he point of contact when the client has a problem or concern that he or she prefers not to discuss with the PM, isn't getting an adequate response from the PM.
Conducts the periodic formal survey. Administers the formal survey and follows up to see that the firm responds to client concerns or suggestions that are uncovered in the survey.
The Formal Survey
Following are some suggestions for maximizing the success of the formal survey as part of your process for gathering client feedback:
Define appropriate interval. Either annually or biannually is recommended. The proper frequency will be guided in part by the nature of both the project and your relationship with the client.
Solicit the client's involvement in advance. Explain the purpose of the survey, its value to both parties, and the minimal time involved on the client's part. For long-term clients, request their ongoing participation.
Distribute the questionnaire electronically. Doing the survey in person or over the phone obviously has advantages. But I'm assuming your Client Advocate has already been talking to the client. The formal survey serves a different purpose and is more easily distributed by email—either as an attachment or with a link to a secure web site (SurveyMonkey.com is an excellent resource). Filling out the survey should be hassle free, requiring no more than about 10 minutes of the client's time.
Contact non-responders. Request responses within a week, then have the Client Advocate call or email to ask if the client received the survey (a not-so-subtle but friendly reminder). This will significantly improve your response rate. Remember, you've already had the client agree to participate.
Address problems promptly. When client concerns or complaints are uncovered (and undoubtedly this will happen from time to time), you need to respond promptly and appropriately. In fact, you should define the process for addressing client concerns before sending out the survey.
Share the results with your clients. A great way to demonstrate your commitment to great client service is to send a summary of the survey results to those clients who participated. Include in that summary the actions your firm plans to take to improve service.
For a questionnaire to use for this purpose, check out this one on my website. I developed it jointly with PSMJ and have used it with good results for several years.
How to Get Started
This best feedback will come from clients who are: (1) convinced that your firm is indeed committed to client service improvement and (2) are willing to actively help your firm improve. These are clients who recognize the value of a strong working relationship and are willing to invest a little of their time in making it happen. Don't expect all your clients to participate. But take steps to engage those who will.
Start with your best clients. The best way to generate momentum for this process is to start with those clients who have a mutual interest in strengthening the working relationship. Pick an easily manageable number of clients to start, where you're confident you can be fully responsive to whatever feedback you receive. Then expand to other clients when you're ready.
Build accountability into the process. Make sure your Client Advocates are fulfilling their roles, keeping in touch with the client, promptly responding to any client concerns, and seeing that the project team is meeting expectations. Anything less and the process will quickly lose credibility with both your clients and your employees.
Communicate client feedback to your staff. Everyone in your firm should be engaged in continually improving service and striving to deliver the branded experience. Feedback from clients is the fuel that keeps the fires of continuous improvement burning. Give all employees a stake in helping your firm become a service leader. Share feedback, lessons learned, and success stories.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
As reported in their book Clientship, authors Kennedy and Greenberg asked over 500 clients this question: "If you consider that we provide you value in two ways and that together they equal 100%, how would you divide up the value between our technical skills (what we do) and our client-service skills (how we do it)?" The prevailing response was 50/50. Another way to put it is that the experience is every bit as valuable to the client as the expertise. Research within our industry by BTI Consulting and Roger Pickar came to similar conclusions.
Could these data be understating the value of the experience? I think so. Consider when your firm has lost clients. Was it because of technical shortcomings or inadequate service? When I've asked that question of principals and managers in our business, they overwhelmingly agree that it's service-related problems (70 to 90% of the time). So we get it. Right?
Not so fast, my friend. BTI asked firms to identify their primary competitive advantage. Eighty percent said it was their technical capability. Only 20% said it was their client service. We clearly place more emphasis on technical excellence than on service excellence (i.e., the client experience). That bias is evident in our business development strategies, our proposals, and our marketing materials. It's evident in the disproportionate amount of time and money we invest in technical improvement versus service improvement.
Our priorities are out of step with those of our clients. There is a substantial gap between what our clients value and what we think they value. And that gap represents an exciting opportunity to distinguish our firms. Indeed, I believe that closing that gap is the best differentiation strategy available to most A/E firms.
So where do you begin? That's the subject of upcoming posts. Next up: The prized product of the Experience Economy is what is commonly referred to as the branded experience. What is it and how do you create it? Stay tuned.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
- Stay close to your clients. Keep informed about how the crisis is affecting them. Look for opportunities to help, even if it involves meeting needs outside your normal scope of services. Subcontract additional expertise if you need it, or make referrals. The point is to make yourself as indispensable as possible. Become the trusted advisor. And, of course, make sure you keep service levels high.
- Reactivate your network. Relationships are critical in uncertain times. If you're like most who have neglected their network, this is a good time to renew your commitment to keeping in touch. Make serving others the primary objective in reconnecting. Offer information, advice, referrals--simple encouragement may suffice! Networking has always been a key growth strategy. Now it may serve as your safety net.
- Keep communication flowing with employees. Undoubtedly recent events have increased anxiety in your organization, especially if your business isn't doing particularly well. It's important to keep employees informed, or better still, engage them in helping address the emerging challenges. Organize brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas to increase service, improve efficiency, explore new opportunities. Transparency is always recommended, but don't overwhelm with bad news. Spend more time talking about the positive changes the company is undertaking.
- Step up business development efforts. If you're cutting costs, don't start here, as many firms are prone to do. Most companies have much room for improvement in how they develop new business. The current economic climate can provide the needed incentive to finally make some real headway. This is a good time to better organize your sales effort. For advice on how to do this, check out this previous post.
- Be diligent in managing cash flow. Poor collections have been a persistent problem in our industry, with receivables averaging over 70 days. Add to that the failure to get invoices out in a timely fashion. Consequently, many firms are forced to borrow to make payroll at times. Such loans may become more difficult to obtain. So now is the time to improve your firm's cash flow management. Obviously, many clients are also facing financial challenges, so collections will be more problematic for some. That's all the more reason to get serious about it.
None of these suggestions are novel. You've heard them before. The point is that uncertain times call for getting back to those things you can count on. Has your firm been neglecting any of the above? This would be a good time build on the good business practice foundations that will help your firm weather the storm that appears to be brewing on the horizon (or may have already arrived for your business).