Monday, August 30, 2010

Building the Relationship After the Sale

You won the job! Time now to negotiate the contract; finalize the scope, schedule, and budget; organize the project team. But what about the working relationship with the client? What steps will you take to ensure your firm can deliver a great experience?

Unfortunately, most A/E firms don't give nearly as much attention to the relationship as they do to the technical elements of the project. Thus when problems arise, they typically relate to poor service rather than technical failures. Does this not suggest the need to have a more structured approach to building the relationship after the sale? Here are a few suggestions for doing so:

Benchmark expectations.
It's helpful to recognize the difference between the client's requirements and their expectations. Requirements are usually explicitly stated, often documented (in the work order or contract), and include aspects such as scope, schedule, budget, design standards, etc. Many technical professionals are comfortable proceeding with this information alone.

Expectations, by contrast, often go unstated unless you ask. They are usually personal, subjective, harder to quantify. Expectations define the terms of the working relationship. A/E firms often fail to clarify those terms and it comes back to bite them. Most service failures are caused in large part by not understanding what the client expected.

That's why I strongly advocate starting every project by "benchmarking expectations." This involves discussing and documenting what the client--and, in fact, what both parties--expect relative to the working relationship. For more on how to conduct this process, see this earlier post.

Agree on the terms of delivering the "branded client experience."
Benchmarking expectations outlines what both parties want. The next step is to define how to deliver that. I describe the approach in some detail in my previous post entitled "The Branded Experience Delivery Process."

The branded experience is a level of service that distinguishes your firm (in a positive way) from the others. It becomes the essence of your brand (remember, brand is largely defined by customer experiences). Most A/E firms will settle for less than delivering the branded experience. But keep in mind that just as the strength of your brand is shaped by customer experiences, so is the strength of your relationships.

You cannot rightly claim to be committed to relationships without being committed to providing exceptional service. Great service expresses how much you care about the relationship.

Give special attention to communication. Nothing reinforces relationships quite like communication. You can weather a fair number of service failures and relationship slights if you keep the lines of communication open. Unfortunately regular communication doesn't come naturally for many technical professionals, who are more prone to becoming absorbed in the work than in the relationship.

That makes it crucial to plan for good communication. Define specifically who should talk to whom, how often, by what means, and about what issues. Set routine communication events and channels. And be sure to establish some formal means for getting feedback on how you're doing.

For suggestions on how you can improve communication after the sale, check out my post entitled "Better Project Communication."

Make mutual commitments. A relationship must be built by both parties. So get the client involved not only in outlining the terms of the relationship, but making a commitment to doing their part. This is the third primary step of building the relationship after the sale: (1) benchmark expectations, (2) agree on how to meet those expectations, and (3) commit to each other to fulfill your respective responsibilities.

Some firms use a process called "endorsement," which goes beyond just getting client approval of the project plan to getting them to commit in writing to carry out their part of the plan. This amounts to something like a relationship contract: Each commits to doing their part to make it a great project experience--for both parties.

What if the client resists making a formal commitment? Well, it could simply be a matter of being reluctant to sign another "contract" or even committing verbally to something that might be construed as a legal obligation in the event of a claim. Or it could signal an unwillingness to commit to the relationship itself. It's important to uncover the real reason if you can.

You won the job. But even better, you gained the opportunity to perhaps build a long-term relationship (or continue one, which is the topic of my next post). Don't squander it. Take the added measures to mutually define what a great relationship looks like and how you'll get there.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Initiating the Client Relationship

Last week I suggested some criteria for screening prospective clients in regard to their relationship potential. Most firms don't do this. They qualify leads primarily based on the project opportunity. That's certainly a valid approach, but it can also be shortsighted. Projects build your backlog, but relationships build your business.

Assuming you've identified the potential for starting a relationship w
ith a client, how should you proceed? It's always helpful to have your ultimate goal in mind. So what does a strong client relationship look like? Typically the best relationships are characterized by the following attributes:

Trust. The foundation of any good relationship is trust. Building trust is also critically important in selling professional services. Our work, by its nature, is largely relational. We collaborate with clients, consult and advise them. And even our tangible work products (e.g., reports, site plans, construction documents) are, when delivered, mere representations of something still intangible. Trust is the connection between concept and comp
leted reality.

Researchers have identified three primary elements of trust:
concern, competence, and candor. Of the three, competence comes most easily for us. But overselling competence during the sales process can actually undermine trust. Candor, for most technical professionals, is also a strength. We are generally known to be honest and trustworthy.

But showing concern is a habitual shortcoming. Earlier in this series I mentioned the survey of clients that found that only 35% of professional service sellers demonstrated concern during the sales process. How can you show you care? It starts by actually caring; most of us aren't very good at faking it. But genuine feelings still must be evident in your actions. For more discussion on this, see my earlier post: "The Golden Rule of Sales."

Mutual concern. Clearly, it's important that you show you care. But a strong relationship can never develop with one-way caring. The client must eventually have equal concern your firm's well being. That's not likely to happen during the sales process, of course. Still, you can take steps to encourage mutuality, with what I call "climbing the commitment ladder."

In every meeting with the client, ask for some kind of reciprocal action. This will be small at first (e.g., asking for an introduction to another decision maker). Over time, you should ask for increasingly greater commitments on the part of the client. This will enable you to gauge how the relationship is developing. If the client is reluctant to respond in kind to your show of commitment, then that would suggest little interest in forming a relationship.

Keeping commitments. Trustworthiness and reliability go hand in hand. The importance of keeping your commitments would seem self evident, but I'm amazed how often professionals will neglect following through on their promises (e.g., keeping the schedule).

In the sales phase, there are fewer opportunities to demonstrate your reliability. But certainly you want to keep track of any actual or implied promises to the client. Be sure you deliver. If you're not sure what the client expects, ask. For example, one client survey I saw indicated that some clients interpreted infrequent, irregular sales calls as a lack of commitment. The best way to avoid this perception is to schedule the next meeting every time you visit the client.

Open communication.
Every relationship is bound together by communication. Conversely, weak relationships are almost always characterized by the lack of adequate communication. So where does this come into play during the initial stage of relationship development? Nothing will more quickly clue the current state of the relationship than the openness of your communication.

But at this stage many technical professionals stifle communication by doing too much of the talking. That's the curse of traditional selling. By focusing on the client's needs and asking great questions, you encourage open communication. Keep in mind though, that some people warm slowly to being open, no matter what you do. Initial reticence may not necessarily preclude the potential for a good relationship eventually forming.

For tips on inviting more open communication in the sales process, see these earlier posts: "Asking the Right Questions," Part 1 and Part 2.

Active collaboration. If the client is collaborating with you in defining the problem and identifying solutions during the sales phase, your chances of winning the work are excellent. That's because collaboration typically only happens when there is trust, mutual interest, and openness. Therefore it's a great objective to have during this stage of the relationship.

You lay the groundwork for collaboration by the way you conduct the sales conversation. If you're asking great questions, uncovering needs and expectations, and offering helpful advice and information, it's a natural transition to active collaboration. How will you know when you get there? When the meeting has more the feel and structure of a project planning session than a sales call.

Collaboration is win-win. Make it a goal of your sales process. Demonstrate early that you're a valuable resource in helping the client plan the project, and formally ask for that opportunity when the time seems right. Collaboration is "sample selling" at its best; give the client a taste of what it's like to work with you. Assuming you're good at what you do, that will strongly position you as the firm of choice.

Long-term perspective.
Relational selling is in sharp contrast to the usual transactional sale. In the latter, there is a short-term focus on simply getting the contract. In a relational approach, the contract is merely the first step toward what you hope will evolve into a long-term relationship.

Of course, every firm hopes the first contract will lead to more work. Does the difference between the two approaches really matter? I think so. Going back to my earlier post, it certainly makes a difference whether you have a one-off date with someone or whether you're looking for a spouse when you have that first date. In the first case, having a good time is the objective; in the second, there's the realization that a critical dimension of that "good time" is the shared relationship.

So it is in our business. Clients don't really just purchase design or consulting services. They buy a relationship with a provider of design or consulting services. The product is interactive, so the working relationship largely defines the perceived quality of the product. Consider the research that has found that clients value the experience as much as the expertise you provide (see "The Experience Trumps Expertise").

None of us like being thought of as a commodity. But unless the relationship is part of the offering, that's likely what you have become. Few firms have truly distinctive expertise. The real differentiator is the experience the client has working with you--the relationship. So build into your sales process a long-term perspective, not just chasing projects, but starting relationships.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Choosing the Right Clients

Clients go to considerable lengths to select the right A/E firms for their needs. Should we not do the same in choosing which clients to work for?

Unfortunately, many A/E firms give little attention to client selection, focusing instead on which projects to pursue (and many firms exercise little discernment in choosing project pursuits as well). One might argue that you can't be too choosy in a highly competitive marketplace. But if you agree that great client relationships are highly valued, why leave finding them to chance?

Years ago consultant David Maister conducted an informal poll among professional service providers around the world. He asked them what proportion of their clients they liked and enjoyed working with. Only 30-35% of clients fell into this category. Similarly, the professionals he talked to said that only about a quarter of their work would qualify as something they loved doing.

What would the numbers be for your firm? And if they're similar, how might that affect your firm's performance? Maister observed that spending most time on "tolerable stuff for acceptable clients" sucks a lot of energy out of a firm. Imagine if those proportions were significantly increased. Among the many business benefits of having great client relationships, don't discount the impact of your people enjoying their work more.

So where to start? In my last post, I suggested four stages of relationship development: (1) screening for relationships, (2) initiating relationships in the sales process, (3) building relationships after contract award, and (4) maintaining ongoing relationships. Today I turn our attention to the first stage, the one that gets the least attention but sets the pace for the subsequent stages.

All firms do a certain amount of prospecting or lead finding. A lead is typically "qualified" (i.e., determined to be worth pursuing) when you confirm that a proposed project is for real and it's something your firm is interested in and capable of doing. The qualities of the client usually aren't given much attention at this point, other than perhaps assessing the size of their budget.

But why not include the desirability of the client in your qualification of the lead? Or the relationship potential of that client? If you do sales right, there is a substantial investment involved in building a relationship before contract award. Screening for compatibility at lead qualification is prudent in deciding how to allocate limited time and money across your active sales opportunities.

What relationship screening criteria should you use? A few suggestions:

Availability. Is there an incumbent? What are the chances of displacing that firm? Or is there room for another firm like yours?

How many firms like yours has the client used in recent years? Is there a high turnover rate? Is the client committed to spreading the work around?

How easy is it to meet with the client? To identify and gain access to the various decision makers? Are they reasonably open in sharing information with you? Are they known as a hands-on or hands-off client (there are advantages to both)?

How much money does the client spend on the kind of work you do? What is the funding picture for the foreseeable future? Growing or declining? What are the prospects for their own business?

Trust. (This is what anchors a good client relationship.) Does the client have a reputation for being trustworthy? Do they treat their service providers with respect? Are they good payers? Do they have reasonable expectations?

Values. Does the client conduct their business in a manner consistent with your firm's values?

Chemistry. Do these seem like good people to work with? What are your initial impressions? What have you heard from other providers and suppliers?

Of course, in the prospecting stage you likely won't be able to answer all of these questions. But answer what you can, hopefully to the extent that you can make an informed decision of whether to proceed to the relationship initiation stage. A conversation or two with the client is usually needed to qualify a lead properly. You should also rely on your network to learn all you can about a prospective client.

If you want more great client relationships, you need to work at it. That starts with looking for clients that have promising relationship potential. That's not to suggest that you avoid all project leads where prospects for a good relationship are in doubt. But don't underestimate the value of relationships in selecting which opportunities to pursue. There's only so much time available; spend it well.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bungled Business Relationships

Strong relationships are critical to sustained success in professional services. I doubt there's any disagreement on that point. Yet the business of relationship building receives little formal attention in the average A/E firm. Could this present an opportunity for your firm to stake out a key competitive advantage? I think so.

Last week I shared a few
tips for building better business relationships. This week I'd like to outline some reasons why firms often struggle with this. Let me suggest that you discuss these with your colleagues. Ask: Which of these beset us the most in our relationships? What do we need to do to overcome these problems? I think you'll find this a productive dialogue.

So what keeps firms from having better relationships with their clients and other crucial stakeholders?

Emphasis on projects rather than people.
Technical professionals are prone to giving the bulk of their attention to technical matters. Many of them are less comfortable with the more unpredictable, subjective, and emotional realm of human affairs. It shows. In one survey, only 13% of clients gave their A/E service providers an "A" grade for the "people side" of a project (e.g., project management, communication, responsiveness). By contrast, 31% of clients assigned the top grade for technical ability.

This project focus is also evident in how we pursue new business. Most firms concentrate their efforts on reining in individual projects rather than building relationships. In another study, prospective clients said that only 35% of professional service sellers showed concern for them as people, but 66% managed to demonstrate their competency in their respective fields. Relationships, of course, are rooted in a feeling of mutual concern and interest.

Misplaced focus on friendship.
When clients become friends, that can be a wonderful thing. But don't make the mistake of thinking that the goal of every client relationship is to develop a friendship. Not every client wants to be your friend. Plus focusing on friendship can distract you from what matters most in an effective business relationship.

What's the difference? In a friendship, the primary benefit is the relationship itself. The two parties simply enjoy spending time together, usually as a result of their common interests and personal affinity. In a business relationship, the primary benefit is the business value gained from the association. A loyal client needn't be a personal friend; your contributions to his or her success is reward enough.

Sometimes professionals mistake the trappings of friendship for the delivery of business value. The fact that a client enjoys spending time with you doesn't necessarily confirm that you are excelling in meeting business needs.

One small engineering firm I worked with derived over 80% of their revenue from a single client contact with whom the principals enjoyed a close personal friendship. But they neglected taking care of business, which included building the relationship with other decision makers in the client's organization. When reorganization changed the dynamics of those relationships, the firm lost nearly all of that revenue and was forced to seek a merger with another firm.

The tyranny of the urgent. Relationship building takes time, and many A/E firms find it difficult to commit the time needed. The primary culprit is the pull of urgency. Most of our work is schedule driven, yet many of the deadlines driving our momentary priorities materialize at the last minute. Thus we resign the bulk of our time to "fighting fires" rather than tending to critically important but nonurgent matters.

So relationships suffer. I've written about this dilemma in previous posts (check out the following: [1] [2] [3]). The bottom line is that you need to allot time specifically for tending to important relationships and guard this time against the intrusion of urgent-yet-less-important tasks. Which leads to my next point...

Lack of a relationship strategy. You'd think something as important as relationships would deserve a structured, disciplined approach. Isn't that what we normally do when we need consistent, replicable results? But I've yet to work with a firm that really had a formal relationship strategy. Is your firm the exception? Would you like it to be?

In my mind, there are four relationship phases that each warrant a specific approach: (1) screening for relationships, (2) initiating relationships (in the sales process), (3) building relationships (after contract award), and (4) managing ongoing relationships. I touched on the first phase in my last post. I plan to go into it and the other three phases in more detail in upcoming posts.

Limited interpersonal skills. Technical professionals often admit their shortcomings in the "touchy-feely" aspects of the business. Most times I think the confession is more an excuse for lacking the commitment to work on interpersonal skills than the inability to do so. I've met very few people in this business who I thought fundamentally lacked the ability to develop adequate people skills. More commonly, it's a problem of downplaying the value of these skills.

Granted, relationships demand some nuanced abilities that don't come naturally for many of us. But we can go a long way toward compensating for this innate weakness by simply committing to care. Genuine concern for others covers many a deficiency in interpersonal competence.

So how do you go about tackling such deficiencies in your firm? Training can be helpful, but don't expect that alone to change behaviors. A better approach is to learn by doing. This takes us back to the previous point--a disciplined approach to building and tending relationships. Outline a general course of action, tailor it to specific clients, go do it, then review and revise as appropriate.

Be sure to structure regular in-house meetings into your process so that your relationship managers can share their successes and challenges, and hold each other accountable. That kind of feedback and encouragement can go a long way in strengthening relationship skills.

Clearly, this is worth making it a operational priority, and all the more if your competitors aren't doing it. Ready to begin? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What Can We Learn From Matchmaking Sites?

Turns out that dating is a rather inefficient way to find your lifelong soulmate. More than nine of ten dating relationships end in failure, often with painful heartbreak.

Enter online matchmaking services like PerfectMatch and eHarmony. Twice as many online dating relationships reputedly result in marriage as the old fashioned way. How can this be? These sites claim their success is rooted in a process of screening for compatibility, to a depth that is rarely pursued in traditional dating.

I confess I'm still a bit uncomfortable with the notion of seeking a spouse online. But I'm always looking for lessons. Is there something to be learned from matchmaking services for those of us in the A/E industry? Maybe.

Our businesses depend on relationships, and most of them don't last. Indeed, most of them don't even get started. There's the awkward courtship phase where we throw ourselves at practically every prospect who will talk to us. There's the expensive proposal phase that ends in disappointment 60-70% of the time. Then for those clients who will "go out" with us (i.e., sign a contract), most of those relationships don't last either.

Isn't there a better way? I think so. And, no, I haven't found an online client matchmaking site. But we can still apply some of the same concepts on our own:

Commit to prioritizing long-term relationships. There's a reason most people eventually end up getting married. Sure, some aspects of the dating scene have their appeal--meeting people, starting new relationships, walking away from those that don't work. But most people ultimately want the stability, commitment, and mutuality of matrimony. That's a big reason many turn to online matchmaking sites.

In our business, the equivalent of the dating scene is project pursuit. Many firms focus their business development efforts more on gaining contracts than relationships. The recession has probably accelerated this trend. Many firms have been desperate for work, and writing proposals (albeit mostly losing ones) provides more immediate gratification than the process of cultivating client relationships.

But there's a cost in taking that approach. Project-focused business development is akin to feeding the furnace. You need to keep throwing logs into the firebox to prevent it from going out. Every day you're burning backlog. So you have to keep bringing in new projects to keep from going under.

By contrast, your best client relationships continue to generate new revenue for years. These are the foundation of a sustainable, successful business. Long-term clients also typically yield your highest profits, not to mention your most satisfying work.

So why do so few firms have a relationship development strategy? Most of us would agree that bar hopping isn't the best way to look for a long-term relationship. But isn't that essentially what many A/E firms resort to in their efforts to secure new work? A better way is to focus limited resources on creating and nurturing great client relationships.

Define what constitutes a great client relationship. I have a friend who recently married a young lady he met through an online matchmaking site. They were initially matched through information they had provided the site on specifically what they were looking for in a spouse. Even from their first date, they openly explored the potential and criteria for a long-term relationship.

Have you ever outlined what your firm is looking for in the ideal client? If not, how then do you go about looking for such relationships? Are you guided by your gut, or does it happen mostly by chance?

I've conducted a few workshops where an A/E firm and one of their best clients were seeking ways to further strengthen their relationship. One of the exercises involved sending each party to opposite corners and having them define the most important attributes of a great client or a great consultant.

That has consistently resulted in a fascinating revelation. They had never thought of the question before. Yet in considering it, they were better able to identify specific ways to improve the relationship. It's not unlike attending a marriage seminar where you and your spouse clarify what you've long wanted but weren't quite getting from the relationship. You leave wondering why you hadn't had that conversation before.

Let me encourage you to do the exercise, if you haven't already. Schedule a brainstorming session to identity what your firm values most in a great client relationship. Be as specific and objective as possible so you can use these criteria to assess existing and potential relationships.

Screen prospects for long-term relationship potential. eHarmony touts its 29 Dimensions of Compatibility as a tool for enhancing your chances of finding a lasting and fulfilling relationship. The effectiveness of that system has been debated, but clearly some kind of screening process is helpful.

Most firms have a go/no go decision process at the RFP stage. But that's too late to determine whether you should invest valuable time cultivating a relationship with that client. On the contrary, the client's "compatibility" should be considered at the qualifying stage--in other words, before you begin the process of relationship building.

Now I'm not suggesting that you pursue only clients with long-term relationship potential. But this kind of client should warrant your best BD efforts. In my experience, when you invest in relationship development before the RFP, your win rate dramatically improves--into the 60-70% range at least. But not every client is interested in building a relationship, and you probably don't want to work for everyone who is either. So choose your best opportunities based on the potential of the relationship.

Develop a plan for strengthening existing client relationships. Matchmaking sites may help you get started in a great relationship, but the true test comes afterward. You have to work at relationships to make them lasting and satisfying. And while most of us are relational by nature (i.e., we desire relationships), many of us aren't natural in maintaining relationships. It requires focused, disciplined effort.

How hard does your firm work at maintaining your strategic relationships? Do you have a plan, have you committed resources, or do you play it by ear? That can be a dangerous way to go. Check out my previous post on displacing incumbents and remember that's precisely what your competitors are trying to do. Don't take your most important relationships for granted.

Finding the right match is one thing, but building those relationships is where your real strength as a firm will be tested.