Friday, December 31, 2010

Being Accessible to Your Clients

Have you made your New Year's resolutions? Let me suggest one: Raise the bar on how well you serve your clients in 2011. For most firms, substantial improvement doesn't require doing anything extravagant. It's taking care of the basics, like communicating with your clients regularly and proactively. Good communication is arguably priority number one in delivering superior client service.

That includes being readily accessible. With today's communications technologies, there's no excuse for being out of touch. Yet stories of inaccessibility abound. Consider the case of Gene, a seasoned engineer and senior project manager. His client calls his direct line with an urgent project matter.

"Hi, this is Gene," his voicemail greeting responds, "I'm either on the phone or away from my desk. Please leave a message and I'll get back to you as soon as possible." The client is aware that this is the same message that Gene has had on his phone for the last five years. For all the client knows, Gene could simply be in the bathroom or on one of his beloved overnight fishing trips (out of cell phone range).

Earlier the client had tried Gene's cell phone with similar results. The client can't wait so he punches "O" to talk with the receptionist. "I don't know where Gene is today," she answers. "The Meridian project? I don't know who else is working on that. I can check in the back and see."

Sound familiar? Offering advice on how to be accessible to your clients might seem like stating the obvious if people like Gene weren't so common in our industry. This is one area where I probably can't suggest anything you don't already know. But some of you, I suspect, could use the gentle reminder:

Make a promise to return calls within a certain time frame. This obviously is reassuring to clients. It's also good general practice in the pursuit of service excellence. Making specific promises to clients yields better results than simply relying on your good intentions. My suggestion? Promise to return all calls within three hours. Next you have to figure out how to make that happen!

Regularly update your voicemail greeting to include your whereabouts. The best do this daily. If that seems a bit ambitious for you, then commit to doing it at least weekly. The goal is to let callers know where you are that day and, if not in the office, whether you can be reached at another phone number.

Always let the receptionist know where you are and whether you can be reached. With direct phone numbers and voicemail, receptionists are less the gatekeepers than they once were. But some clients still prefer talking to a live person. It helps, of course, if that person knows what's going on. Never leave the office without informing the receptionist of your whereabouts and where to direct clients who call for you.

By the way, if your firm insists on having one of those automated receptionists (which is a poor choice from a client service perspective), be sure you present an option to connect with a live person.

Better still, give active clients advance notice when you're going to be inaccessible. That's characteristic of proactive communication.

Assign a backup to field questions when you're going to be unavailable.
The best project managers keep their team informed and engaged so that familiarity with the overall project is shared. Plus it's a good idea, especially on larger projects, to formally designate a second in command. That makes it easier to offer the client an alternative when you're not available.

Offer 24/7 accessibility where appropriate. With cell phones, Blackberries, and the like, such around-the-clock availability is hardly extraordinary these days. But it helps to explicitly invite the client to call you anytime. That's added service even if you never have to answer a call at night or on the weekend.

Bottom line, don't take your accessibility to the client for granted. Despite the technological advantages we have today, there are still many communication gaps to be found from the perspective of A/E firm clients (I know, I've been talking to them). The fact that being accessible is so readily, well, accessible makes it all the more frustrating to clients when it's not.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Top 10 Blog Posts of 2010

I recently received a Christmas card from someone I didn't know who wanted to thank me for my blog and other content posted on the web. What an encouragement! Apart from occasional reader comments and references to my posts in other blogs, I receive little confirmation that the insights shared here are valued. The primary evidence that I'm doing something right is increasing readership.

Thankfully Google Analytics daily reports on how many people read each of my posts. Based on those statistics, the posts below were the most popular over the past year. Interestingly, only four of the top ten posts in 2010 were published this year. Disappointing? Perhaps, but at least it shows that some posts continue to attract attention well beyond their publish date. Here are the top ten, followed by my own assessment of what the top posts were this year:

1. The Four Stages of Organizational Change. This post from 2009 drew three times the number of readers as the second most popular post. Obviously there's some interest in this topic, but I would never have predicted this post's popularity.

2. Managing the Sales Funnel. Another surprise, especially considering the many other posts I've done on the topic of business development. But I do think this puts a fresh spin on using the Sales Funnel, in this case as a management tool. In that regard, let me suggest you also check out the "Sales Force Survey."

3. Relational vs. Transactional Selling. While everyone seems to acknowledge the critical importance of relationships in our business, the predominant model of sales remains a transactional one. This post explains the differences.

4. Why People Resist Change. Undoubtedly, this post drew the attention of many of the same people who read "The Four Stages of Organizational Change." Understanding why people resist change is important to successfully guiding your change initiatives.

5. What Are the Best Marketing Tactics? This post from last month was easily the most popular of 2010. It was retweeted several times and picked up by other blogs. The post presents the consensus of several surveys of professional service or other B2B marketers.

6. Leadership: What Really Matters. There's so much written on the subject of leadership that the multiple (and sometimes competing) perspectives can overwhelm. This post attempts to distill leadership down to three essential activities.

7. Organizing the Sales Effort. Hopefully those who read "Managing the Sales Funnel" also read this post; the two are complementary. The need to better organize the sales effort is prevalent in our business.

8. Great Service Is About the Little Things. This post highlighted the story of losing a major client because of a series of relatively small missteps that combined to bring the end to the relationship. It's a valuable lesson, one I'm glad attracted many readers.

9. Quality Comes From People, Not Process. The popularity of this post was another surprise, but hopefully it touched a familiar nerve. Many firms are dissatisfied with their quality process. Perhaps this post helped point some of them to the root cause.

10. Focusing on Your Key Client Relationships. One of my core management principles is "fewer better." Hopefully this post inspired others to apply this to their most strategic asset--their key client relationships.

As noted, some of the above posts were surprise choices in the people's top ten, at least from my perspective. I often have a sense of which posts will be important or provocative enough to attract a larger audience. And I'm often wrong. My limitations notwithstanding, let me offer my own top ten (in no particular order), those posts that I thought represented my best ideas for 2010:

To all of you who follow this blog, I want to thank you for your interest and hope that what I've written has been and will continue to be helpful. Your feedback and suggestions are always appreciated. May you and your firm enjoy success in the coming year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Helping Clients Do More With Less

Economic forecasts show improvement in 2011, but it's a relative measure. Predicted modest gains in construction-related activity are generally offset by the much larger losses that took place over the last two years. It will be a long slow climb back to the levels we enjoyed in 2008.

Last week I suggested that growth-minded A/E firms that can't buy market share are going to have to take it from competitors. That is a much different strategy than competing for your share of a growing market, as was the case before the recession. I don't see many firms ready to take market share in the coming year.

But perhaps your firm is happy to simply hold its own in 2011, experiencing minimal growth as the market begins to recover. It might not be that easy. As clients' budgets have decreased, their needs have changed as well. They are preparing to get more from less, to stretch limited resources as far as they can to address their pressing needs. Is your firm prepared to help them in that quest?

I must confess that I have a better understanding of your clients' evolving needs than I have insight into how you can make money meeting them. The best I can do is to suggest some ways you might respond to those needs. You'll have to determine how to make an adequate income doing so. With that disclaimer, let me offer some ideas for helping your clients do more with less:

Stay engaged with your clients even when they don't have upcoming projects. These times may test your commitment to client relationships. Will you continue to nurture those relationships even if there's no short-term financial payback? Some A/E firms apparently aren't, as they've stopped calling on cash-short clients. But this is a great time to solidify your relationships (and steal a few from your competitors). The fundamental role hasn't changed: You're there to help your clients, even if that involves a good measure of free advice.

Help your clients characterize and prioritize their needs for the foreseeable future. Many of them, of course, already have a pretty good handle on this. They likely have a facilities or capital improvement plan; some have gone a step further with asset management planning. But those plans probably didn't account for a substantial shift in revenue and funding. You might be able to provide valuable guidance in rethinking facility or infrastructure needs and how best to address those in the evolving financial climate.

Provide operational assessments and consulting. Many clients will have to make do with current facilities that were planned for replacement. That may require some creative thinking with regards to possible operational changes or low-cost modifications. As an outsider with relevant expertise, your firm may be better positioned than the client to objectively assess these situations and offer makeshift solutions. The fact is that all organizations can benefit from retooling their operations to eliminate waste and inefficiency, and tight budgets can provide just the needed jolt to make that happen.

Explore strategic alliances to better serve your clients' changing needs. This is always good advice, of course. But the slogging recovery creates new opportunities to package complementary services and products to help clients. For best results, you probably need to step outside the box of convention. Examine your clients' emerging and unmet needs, even if they're not directly related to your current services. Consider what kinds of expertise is needed to meet those needs, then explore how you might merge that with what your firm can do.

Provide more affordable off-the-shelf solutions.
I was talking with the administrator of a rural county recently who questioned the need for custom designs for facilities like a fire station, branch library, or vehicle maintenance shop. He wondered why he couldn't choose a basic design from a selection of prototypes, similar to how people use house plan books. I remember pitching the same idea to an architectural firm in Minnesota that had designed fire stations for many small towns in that state, but had seen that market decline dramatically. Of course, the notion was met with scorn.

But don't the times call for more economical alternatives? And should we use our specialized expertise to provide them? The problem of course, is giving up the 7% design fee (or whatever) that we've grown accustomed to. But as this administrator observed, sticking with old business models may well mean these projects don't happen at all for the foreseeable future.

Are there ways you can help your clients do more with less and still meet your own financial needs? I don't have the answer yet. But the question is certainly worth exploring further. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Time to Rethink Your BD Strategy?

Recent economic forecasts seem a little more optimistic. Should we be? One thing that tempers my outlook is that these are the same economists who failed to predict this recession in the first place. Can we now trust their predictions regarding the end of the downturn? I'm not so sure.

Another thing that has me wondering is the feedback I'm getting from owners. I've been conducting a series of interviews this month with owners--mostly local governments and utilities--for one of my clients. The common theme is a lack of funding for new capital projects in the next few years.

Even the most optimistic forecasts speak of a slow, prolonged recovery. High unemployment will likely persist. Credit will be tight. Companies flush with cash will be reluctant to spend it for a while. Construction may pick up, but far below pre-recession levels.

So what is your firm's business development strategy for the next year or two? Are you considering doing things radically different from what you've been doing? Will anything less suffice?

Among the firms I've talked to during the recession, I've seen little significant shift in strategy. The prevailing theme seems to be more "let's pick up the pace" than "let's change course." Perhaps that works as survival strategy, but I don't think it will produce the growth that many firms still crave and are built for.

Until the economy caved, the vast majority of A/E firms relied on what I call a "growth share" strategy. That is, they staked out their claim in the marketplace, held their own, and enjoyed a period of substantial growth because the market was growing. Maybe that growth led many firm executives to mistakenly conclude that their BD approach was effective. So when the market shrank, the response was basically "keep at it, but work harder now."

But I want to suggest that there's a fundamental difference between succeeding in a growth share market and the current one that we're going to be in for a while. Firms wanting to grow now are going to have to take market share from their competitors, not simply ride the wave upward. That's a huge shift for most firms.

Some firms have continued to grow through the recession by buying market share. But most firms can't afford that approach. If they're going to grow, they're going to have to take market share. That's not business as usual, even on steroids. It's a wholly different approach.

Almost two years ago, I outlined ten steps towards a radically different approach to business development in a blog post entitled "The Extreme Marketing Makeover." I also shared this approach at several conferences. These steps are uncommon but not untested. I and others have successfully implemented these approaches. I'm convinced they have the potential for helping you increase your firm's market share.

I've elaborated on all of these steps in various other posts. If you want more information, use the search bar on the right to look for related posts. Or send me an email; I'd be happy to answer specific questions or point you to other resources.

Perhaps you have some better ideas. I'd love to hear them. But what obviously really matters is what your firm is doing. Is it more of the same or something different? Is your firm satisfied to ride the now flattened wave or do you want to gain a larger share of the pie? If the latter, there's a good chance it's time to rethink your BD strategy.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Training for Tangible Results

I'm a big advocate for training, as you might expect of someone who earns a substantial portion of his income providing training services. But my enthusiasm is mitigated by the realization that training usually fails to yield noticeable or lasting changes or improvement in those who are trained. This is particularly true of so-called "soft skills" training like that related to leadership, business development, project management, client service, or communication.

Don't you typically expect behavior change and performance improvement when you invest in training? Then you need to look beyond merely training. That's not to suggest that training isn't valuable in meeting such goals; it's just not the whole solution. Unfortunately many managers seem to think it is, or at least tend to rely too heavily on training to address performance deficiencies.

If you want to see a good return on your training investment, there's a lot more involved than simply hiring a good trainer. In fact, the quality of the training provides little assurance, in my experience, that it will have a positive impact on your firm. What matters most is what happens before and after the training. Let me offer some suggestions:

First, define what specific outcomes you're seeking. While training has other inherent benefits, let's focus on the one that most managers expect in return for spending thousands of dollars on it--performance improvement. That, of course, involves behavior change.

Training works best when it is part of a larger performance improvement initiative where the expected outcome is changing how people do their work. Training, then, becomes only one step towards achieving the desired results, and is dependent on the success of the other steps. So before you hire a trainer or develop your own in-house program, determine specifically what you want it to accomplish.

Align training content with the specific changes you intend to make. I've long been baffled by firms that invest in training that teaches strategies or methods they have no real intent to adopt. Do you want to improve how your people manage projects? There are some very good project management training programs available. But you must first address the question of how your firm is going to manage projects differently in the future. There's no point having someone teach your people to do things a certain way if the firm will continue to do it another way.

Firms routinely bring in trainers or send employees to outside training programs to learn a "better way." But those employees won't be changing how they do things unless the company is committed to such changes. So select training based on what changes your firm or department intends to make (or that simply reinforces what you are already doing).

Build the necessary "infrastructure" before training. The way you do your work is usually supported by certain procedures and tools, both formal and informal. If you expect changes in how your people work, you'll need to make corresponding changes in the "infrastructure" that supports that work. If you intend to train project managers in a different approach to tracking budget and schedule status, for example, you'll probably need to change some project accounting procedures and perhaps create some new spreadsheets. Make these changes before you do training.

There are a number of reasons why this is important. It signifies you're serious about the training resulting in real changes. It further reinforces the content and concepts of the training. It enables the training participants to begin applying the new approaches immediately after training, while they're still fresh in their minds.

A few years ago, I led a major initiative to overhaul project delivery processes for a national environmental services firm. We spent over a year preparing for the training--identifying internal and external best practices, determining which new practices we were going to adopt, compiling these in a project managers handbook, creating new tools and resources. The training program, then, specifically addressed the changes we had already decided to make, and participants used the new handbook and associated tools in hands-on exercises during the training. There was no doubt the firm was serious about the training having a lasting impact!

Your objectives may be much less ambitious, but there is still wisdom in preparing the way to make the training you're planning be successful. Don't jump into training until you've taken the needed steps in advance to support it.

Make sure the training incorporates real-life, hands-on exercises. People learn best by doing, so any good training program should include adequate time for practicing some of the methods being taught. These exercises are still more effective when they involve real-life scenarios.

If you're providing sales training, for example, you want participants to have the chance to apply the material to current sales opportunities. This both makes the material more relevant and gives participants a head start in actually using what they've learned. Still better, have participants do some preparation in advance of the training (e.g., pulling sales account information together) so they can get the most out of the exercises.

Adopt new terminology from the training program.
Many technical professionals fail to appreciate the importance of using new terms to describe new approaches. But the research bears this out. Words have a powerful influence in how we perceive things. Calling new ways by old names only reinforces the natural tendency to revert back to old habits.

For this reason, an effective training program should introduce you to some fresh terminology. My advice: Adopt at least some of these new terms as your own. If you prefer your own terms, that's fine as long as it's different from what you've been using.

Provide ongoing coaching and encouragement. Changing old work habits is difficult, so don't expect lasting change after training unless you continually reinforce it. Talk about the new approaches and expectations constantly. Get rid of procedures and tools that encourage people to revert back to old ways. And provide ongoing help in applying the new concepts on the job.

My favorite approach to training is what I call "real-time coaching." If you wanted training in proposal writing, for example, we would spend a little classroom time covering some fundamental concepts, but spend most of the time actually working together on a real proposal. There's no better way to learn and to help ensure that the training "sticks."

But regardless of what approach you use for the training itself, I strongly advocate the use of follow-up coaching. You can learn more about this approach in my previous post on the topic.

Reward those who best put the training into practice.
The old axiom that "people do what rewards them" is true. If behavior change is the primary objective of training (and it usually is), make sure you acknowledge those who fulfill that objective and reward them for their efforts. Because change is difficult, many people will try hard initially but give up when the effort is not reinforced in some way. Rewarding your top achievers ("changers") also serves to motivate others who may be more reluctant about adopting the new approach.

The rewards need not be extravagant or costly. In fact, elaborate tangible rewards tend to displace the more enduring intrinsic rewards of doing things a better way. Focus on the latter, using positive reinforcement to sustain desired behaviors.