Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Can Clients Count On You?

The essence of your firm's brand can't be created in the marketing department. It's lived out in the experiences clients have with your firm. To provide great service, you must prove yourself trustworthy--that is, deserving of the client's complete trust.

That starts with consistently keeping your commitments. We all realize this, yet failing to keep the promises we make is all too common in our industry. Some of this is inadvertent, some due to neglect, some simply because project managers care too little.

I suspect that most everyone in our business wants to be viewed as dependable. Yet how are we doing? In a survey conducted in 2008 by Morrisey Goodale, only 17% of clients gave their A/E service providers an "A" grade for "follow-through."

Firms fared even worse with two of the three most basic promises we make to clients: To do (1) quality work (2) on time and (3) within budget. Only 14% of clients gave an A grade for quality, 12% for schedule compliance, and 20% for budget control.

So is being dependable something you can take for granted? I don't think so. Below are some things to consider in being someone your clients can always count on:

Don't promise what you can't deliver. Project managers often feel pressured to agree to client requests even when there's considerable doubt they can be fulfilled. And some PMs are quick to acquiesce to seemingly whatever the client asks. Such attempts to please the client for the present usually lead to disappointment later. Worse still, the inability to keep your word compromises your trustworthiness in the eyes of the client. This can ultimately poison the relationship.

So the advice is self-evident: Don't do it! Your good faith efforts to satisfy the client in the moment too often result in broken promises later. If you value your integrity, guard against agreeing to anything you're not reasonably confident you can deliver. Think long term. A happy client in the middle of a project is a desirable thing, but a happy client at the end is even better.

Clarify the client's expectations up front. Fulfilling the established scope, schedule, and budget is necessary in providing great service, but it's far from doing enough. You must also satisfy expectations that usually go unstated unless you ask. So by all means ask. This is a step I call "service benchmarking."

In conducting client surveys over the years I've learned that most service breakdowns result from a misunderstanding of expectations. Sometimes expectations aren't clearly established even in the client's mind. It works best for both parties when they are defined and shared at the outset. To be perceived as dependable, you need to first understand all that is being expected of you.

Don't overlook the importance of keeping commitments internally. External service and quality problems are nearly always hatched in the office. You can tweak policies, procedures, and practices in an attempt to achieve better output. But one of the most effective solutions is simply to embrace the principle I mentioned earlier in reference to clients: Keep your commitments. One example is the common problem of failing to meet internal milestones. This is one of the most significant factors impairing quality and on-time performance. Being dependable for the client requires also being dependable for colleagues.

Exceptions happen, but don't be too quick to excuse them. No matter how dedicated you are, there will inevitably come times when you make a mistake, miss a deadline, or otherwise fail to meet expectations. Clients are usually forgiving, and that can become a problem. For example, I know PMs who are routinely late with deliverables. Why? Because whenever they ask clients for an extension, they almost always get one. Thus the habit is formed.

Let me suggest that just because the client says it's okay to break your word doesn't mean it's really okay. Each schedule extension--or other accommodation for your failure to do what you said you would--chips away at the client's perception of your trustworthiness.

Agree in advance on how to deal with contingencies. Yes, the client's dissatisfaction sometimes results from unforeseen circumstances over which you have little or no control. When the unexpected happens, however, you will be greatly served if you've taken steps in advance to manage expectations. For example, have you and the client agreed on a process for managing changes? Have you jointly assessed project risks? Do you openly talk about potential or developing problems?

Such proactive steps help shape the client's expectations of your firm when things take an unanticipated turn. Then your dependability in such situations can be judged more by how you respond than by the outcomes you can't fully control.

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