Friday, May 28, 2010

Benchmarking Service Expectations

If you're not taking steps to uncover your clients' service expectations, you're missing a valuable opportunity to distinguish your firm and strengthen client relationships. In my last post, I tried to make the compelling case for doing what I call "service benchmarking" at the outset of every project. I also outlined the general content of that process and offered a relevant resource to use from my website.

This week I'd like to go further in describing how you can benchmark service expectations. Every client is different, so you'll need to tweak the process to fit both the client and your firm.

How to Do Service Benchmarking

Talk to every key client contact who will experience your service. Client perceptions of your performance are rarely limited to a single person. Yet it is not uncommon for us to talk about client preferences with only the primary point of contact (e.g., the client PM). Instead, attempt to meet with all key client contacts with whom you will have significant interaction.

Determine how many benchmarking meetings are appropriate. There are advantages to meeting with multiple client contacts in a single benchmarking session. Besides the efficiency of getting feedback from different individuals in one sitting, the combined session enables them to better understand each other's expectations and to reach a consensus where necessary. But some client contacts (e.g., senior management or accounting) might be better engaged in a separate meeting.

Take time to plan the meeting. Having a standard questionnaire provides a general outline for the benchmarking session. Yet you should review the questions in advance to determine which are appropriate to ask and what additional or modified questions should be added. Different client contacts will undoubtedly warrant different questions.

Expect to spend as much as two hours in the benchmarking session. This is a reasonable amount of time to do a thorough job. A meeting with multiple client contacts could take even longer, while you will probably take less time with a familiar client or where some information has already been disclosed (e.g., during the sales process).

Consider collecting the information in multiple conversations. Some clients will balk at spending two hours--or any amount of time--to formally benchmark expectations. But don't abandon the process too quickly! You can collect the information in multiple meetings and phone conversations--even without the client being aware that you are doing "benchmarking."

Be sure to allow the client to bring up issues you may not have anticipated. One disadvantage of a standard questionnaire is that it can lead you to be too focused on the questions listed, perhaps bypassing issues of importance to the client. Instead, keep the conversation loose enough to allow the client to venture into issues that might not be addressed in your questionnaire. Be sure to ask, "Is there anything else we haven't discussed that you'd like to talk about?"

When to Do Service Benchmarking

It's natural to think of applying this process only to new clients or new projects. But it can be entirely appropriate to employ it with current clients or later in the project. Since great service is primarily about meeting and exceeding expectations, understanding those expectations better is worth pursuing at any stage of the project or relationship.

Begin uncovering client expectations during the sales process. This enables you to better address client service issues in your proposal or presentation. Indeed, giving attention to the working relationship can be a substantial competitive advantage, since likely no one else will. Doing this in the sales process also shortens the benchmarking step after contract award.

Initiate the formal process shortly after contract award. The insights gained from service benchmarking should be integrated with other elements of project planning.

Revisit the process at key project transition points. Client expectations often change to some degree over the course of the project. You will be wise to check periodically to confirm that your initial understanding of client expectations is still valid. A convenient time to do this is at project transitions such as planning-to-design, preliminary-to-final, design-to-construction.

Fill in benchmarking gaps at any stage of the project. If the project is already underway, a full-blown benchmarking session is probably tough to sell to the client. But you should still attempt to fill in gaps in your understanding of client expectations. Be careful not to assume too much. Check to make sure that what you think you know is accurate.

Employ the process when there are service problems. If you didn't do benchmarking at the start, you should at least use elements of the process in response to any service issues that arise later in the project. Sometimes clients who were reluctant to participate early are eager to do so after problems appear.

Of course, service benchmarking is only the start of an effective client service process. But even your best service efforts will fall short if you don't understand what the client expects. So don't fail to ask.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Clarifying Client Expectations

Expectations define the experience. That's one of the fundamentals of delivering exceptional client service. The client is the sole arbiter of what constitutes great service (i.e., a great experience), and that opinion depends as much on what was expected as what was delivered.

So what steps does your firm take to ensure that you understand the client's service expectations? In my experience, few firms follow any formal process for clarifying expectations. Worse still, most do a poor job of soliciting this input even on an informal basis. The focus instead is on determining the usual scope, schedule, and budget.

Yet the traditional project parameters usually fail to outline service expectations adequately. To illustrate this, consider your own experience procuring a technical service--in this case, hiring a mechanic to fix your car. What explicit instructions do you give the mechanic? Diagnose the problem. Fix it. Perhaps you ask when the work will be done, or for an estimate of the cost.

Where in that conversation do you discuss your service expectations? Usually this matter is largely ignored. Do you want the mechanic to inform you of other problems with the car? If you trust him, probably yes. But if you don't, such information could be perceived as a ploy to try to take more of your money. Do you want new parts or refurbished? If you have an older car, you might prefer the latter.

Indeed, there are several expectations you have about the transaction that likely won't be discussed. But what factors will determine whether you continue to do business with that mechanic? Fixing your car is a given. Are not the service you receive and trust you build the primary determinants of a continued relationship? Yet how can the mechanic know how best to serve you and gain your trust if you don't discuss your expectations?

This is the situation you face with your clients, especially the ones you have limited experience with. And by the way, don't merely assume that you know your long-term clients' expectations if you've never asked. Through the many client surveys and interviews I've conducted, I've learned that many A/E firms don't know their clients as well as they think. When I've gotten involved in troubleshooting service breakdowns, once again I've found that expectations weren't clearly understood.

So what can you do? I recommend a process I call "service benchmarking" to clarify the service expectations at the outset of the project (to be revisited periodically over the course of the project). This activity can be conducted formally in a meeting with the client (the preferred method) or informally over several routine conversations. Following are the kinds of issues you want to explore as part of service benchmarking:

Communication. How often does the client want to communicate on a routine basis? By what means? Who are the key points of contact within both organizations? What kinds of communications is each responsible for? How many meetings are expected? Who is responsible for facilitating those meetings?

Decisions and involvement. What kinds of decisions does the client want to be involved in? Who will make what decisions? At what specific points in the project is client approval needed? Does the client want to participate in any internal project team meetings or joint strategy sessions? At what stages does the client want to review draft work products?

Information and data. What information does the client want you to routinely report to them? What information will the client provide? What specific records should your firm maintain for the client's purposes and in what form? What are the best electronic means for sharing information and data?

Deliverable standards. Does the client have specific deliverable standards? Are there any special document control requirements? How many copies are needed and to whom should they be sent?

Invoicing and payment. When should invoices be delivered to the client to ensure timely payment? What attachments or backup information does the client require? Are there any special payment methods that might be beneficial to both parties?

Changes. Does the client prefer a specific change management process? What is the basis for estimating extra costs? What approval is needed and how long should this take? How does the client want you to respond should a mistake occur?

Performance feedback. Is the client willing to provide honest feedback on your firm's performance? What is the best timing and process for soliciting this feedback?

These are just a few of the questions you might ask the client in defining service expectations. Be sure to write down the client's responses and share them with the client to confirm mutual understanding. You might develop a questionnaire for this purpose (or download my "Client Service Planner"). After filling it in, forward it to the client to confirm that you accurately captured his or her comments. This establishes the "benchmark" by which service performance during the project can be managed and measured.

In my next post, I'll outline a suggested process for conducting service benchmarking. Any insights you'd like to share on this topic are welcome. Stay tuned!

Monday, May 10, 2010

On-Time Delivery Not Optional

Meeting schedule is about as fundamental as it gets in delivering great client service. Apparently some firms need to brush up on the fundamentals. According to a study by consulting firm Morrissey Goodale, only 12% of A/E firms received an "A" grade from clients for on-time delivery. Architects fared worse in this assessment, with almost half getting a "C" or "D" grade.

Most clients view their projects as time-sensitive. For those with revenue-generating facilities, time truly is money. Wasting the client's time and money is hardly a good way to distinguish your firm (in a good way, at least). On the other hand, don't expect glowing reviews just for meeting schedule. What else should the client expect? In this regard, delivering on time is much like doing quality work--think of it as meeting a minimum requirement.

When I'm talking with firms about schedule issues, I often hear complaints about problems beyond their control. True, clients and regulators commonly cause schedule delays, among other contributors. But don't make the mistake of excusing your firm's failure to meet deadlines by blaming others. Focus instead on the things you can control, which include the following:

Actively engage the client in the scheduling process. The client obviously can substantially impact the schedule, particularly where design changes, reviews, and sign-offs are involved. Make sure the client understands his or her role in keeping the project on track, and schedule appropriate time for client turnarounds.

Involve regulators and other key stakeholders early. Given their impact on schedule and budget, I've never quite understood the reluctance to engage regulators before it's absolutely necessary. Why not seek clarification on their expectations before the work begins? Granted, you sometimes have to persuade clients to allow this approach, but it's worth trying. Same for other stakeholders who can significantly shape the direction of the project.

Allow adequate time for reviews, corrections, and changes. Failing to do so is one of the more common scheduling problems. Build time into your schedule for reviews and revisions, and plan how you will respond if these activities extend beyond your estimate.

Don't overlook nontechnical project tasks. Phone calls, meetings, and responding to client requests all involve time that should be accounted for in the project schedule. Failing to budget time for these tasks is one reason why client service often gets shortchanged. On the other hand, if you take the time to be attentive to the client, failing to plan for those activities can negatively impact the schedule.

Avoid agreeing to unreasonable deadlines. Remember, great service isn't about saying "yes" to whatever the client asks, but delivering what you promised. The old adage "under-promise and over-deliver" is good schedule management advice.

Keep the client informed of schedule progress. Proactive communication is a hallmark of superior service. This certainly applies to keeping schedules. If you anticipate trouble meeting any deadlines, advise the client early. Work together to determine how to mitigate the potential impacts of any late deliverables.

Be sure the project team understands the impacts of missed deadlines. It would appear that many in our profession don't give appropriate weight to meeting schedules. They see quality work as worth waiting for. But clients expect both quality and on-time performance. Help the team understand the critical importance of meeting schedule, which includes holding to internal, intermediate deadlines.

Can you sell your firm's on-time performance? RFPs often ask you to provide evidence of your ability to meet schedules. Most firms I've worked with are weak on proof. They don't do a good job tracking their schedule performance, and may not have positive results to show if they did.

Take this as an opportunity to set your firm apart. First you have to build a track record for on-time delivery, if you haven't already. Then you need to be able to show evidence during the sales and proposal process that you're capable of meeting the client's schedule. It's an under-valued marketing asset.