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.

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