Monday, January 16, 2012

Cultivating Client Focus

I've hung around this business long enough to hear lots of disparaging comments about clients. I've voiced a few of my own, to be honest. The question is: What do these complaints reveal about us?

Every A/E firm I know wants to portray itself as being distinctively client focused. But are they really? What does a client-focused company look like? A few years ago, Ed Fredrichs, former president of Gensler, wrote a thought-provoking article for DesignIntelligence entitled "Let the Client Drive Your Organization." He challenged firm leaders to rethink every aspect of how they do business in light of what it takes to do great work for clients.

True client focus goes beyond holding to a philosophy, or even a commitment. It is a way of life. Client focus is not a set of actions so much as a core value and a corporate culture. It's not just what your firm does, but who you are.

Fredrichs wrote that for most firms, client focus starts with an attitude change. Delighting clients, rather than just doing quality technical work, must become the driving force in the firm. Organizational structure and functions are shaped not by looking inward, but by aligning with client needs and preferences.

I've worked with many firms over the years that did a pretty good job of serving their clients. But rare have been those firms that, in my opinion, met the standard of being truly client focused. How do you go about cultivating client focus in your own firm? Here are a few defining characteristics to pursue:

There's a mindset where every employee feels he or she is working directly for the client. Studies show that employee performance can improve dramatically when employees sense a direct connection to serving customers. In organizations like the average A/E firm, it's easy for most staff to feel somewhat removed from external customers. They work for their boss--and not surprisingly, their relationship with that boss is the biggest factor in how satisfied they are with their job, according to Gallup research.

There's something powerful and invigorating about infusing everyone with a sense of working for the client, not just the boss. If it's impractical to bring employees into direct contact with the client, then the project manager or client manager needs to vicariously connect the client to the staff. Give them insight into the client's goals, needs, expectations, preferences, etc. Communicate any feedback from the client, especially when it pertains to those working on the project.

Everyone takes ownership for meeting client needs and expectations. Whenever I investigate persistent quality or service problems in an A/E firm, I invariably find instances of employees not taking "ownership" for ensuring the project is done right. In these cases, work assignments are compartmentalized, with people doing their individual tasks with too little concern for the project overall. Responsibility for delivering service and quality is pushed down the line to the PM or QC reviewer.

Of course, this problem naturally arises when people don't feel a connection to the client. They do their task in a vacuum and assume someone else is responsible for serving the client. In a client-focused firm, a collective vision for project success overcomes the tendency to view work as a collection of individual tasks. Responsibility for meeting customer goals and expectations is shared by all team members. The key to making this happen is ongoing communication.

Employees commit to each other as part of the network that serves the client. One of the first principles of client service is that in order to excel at serving external customers, you must also excel at serving your internal customers. This principle is not to be divorced from the earlier advice to connect all employees to your external clients. But we deliver our work through teams and thus effective teamwork is required.

I'll suggest that most internal dysfunction results from a lack of client focus. When employees are devoted to delighting clients, they work harder at working well together. They are more aware of the interdependencies between colleagues, that all must contribute to the success of the team. Client focus is the tonic for curing much of what ails our organizations.

There's a willingness to work within a consistent service delivery process. As leader of our Quality and Service Initiative, I was able to persuade my last employer's management team to adopt a new core value: "Our top operating commitment is to set the industry standard for service." That begged the question: What is the standard?

We commissioned PSMJ to conduct a client survey for us to determine who set the standard and how they did it. But not one of our competitors emerged as the service leader. Instead, clients identified individuals they felt set the standard for service. Therein lies one of the main reasons our industry receives generally middling scores for client service. We don't employ a process for consistent service delivery, instead relying on individual competency--which produces inconsistent results across the firm.

In a client-focused firm, there must be a consistent way of delivering great work and service. And people--specifically firm leaders and project managers--must be willing to yield to a collective process. Having worked with many firms in trying to implement such processes over the years, I can tell you they usually fail because some senior members of the firm refuse to go along. That's not acting in the best interests of clients.

Organizational functions are designed to better serve clients. Many of the troubles A/E firms have satisfying clients are related to structural issues: Disciplinary departments that are internally focused and don't adequately collaborate. Project managers who lack the authority to deal with problem project team members. Offices that essentially compete with each other trying to meet their respective performance metrics. Quality assurance procedures that were imposed without staff input so that they are now largely ignored.

I don't want to suggest that there's only one way to organize your business. If you look at the organizational structures and functions of the top performing firms in our industry, you'll see that different models can work. But the driving question for any client-focused firm will be: How can we better organize our business to serve our clients? Let me encourage you to gather firm leaders to explore that very question if you've not already.

The firm exercises care in selecting clients. One of the best ways to promote client focus is to work with clients that you enjoy serving. Consultant David Maister once did an informal survey among various professionals that found they only really enjoyed working with 30-35% of their clients. The other clients they tolerated or disliked. What would the percentages be for your firm's current clients?

If you and your colleagues only really enjoy working with a minority of your firm's clients, do you think that impacts performance? Does it diminish client focus? I would think the answer to both questions is a resounding "yes." It's hard to be your best at anything you don't sincerely enjoy doing. That's another reason why there's real value in being selective about what clients and what projects you pursue.

Being client focused doesn't mean you must sacrifice self-interest. On the contrary, client focus should enable you to derive the most satisfaction from your work because you love serving clients. That becomes easier when you build your business on a relationship-building model that seeks the right clients. That makes delighting them all the more rewarding.

Serving clients is the primary attraction, rather than a distraction, in doing the work. Let's be honest, many technical professionals would prefer to labor at their craft without interference from clients. It's clients with their shifting preferences, quirky personalities, burdensome requirements, and tightfisted spending that distract from the work we really love doing. And that perspective is a key reason why we don't love doing the work more.

If all we want to do is engineering or architectural design and consulting work, we're probably in the wrong business. Our real job is to serve clients using our technical expertise, not the other way around. Client-focused firms have that priority straight. Their business is broader than providing technical services; it's helping clients succeed at what drives their business. That's a strategic connection that many A/E firms miss.

When you have the right priority for your business, by the way, you're likely to see less grousing in the ranks about clients that get in the way of the work. That's because the client is the focus of the work. At least that's true for the few A/E firms that can honestly claim to be client focused. I suspect those firms can also claim to be uncommonly successful.


David Key said...

Great article, Mel!

Mel Lester said...

Thanks David! Hope you're doing well.