Wednesday, August 20, 2014

3 Dimensions of the Client Relationship

Firms survive when they find enough work to cover their expenses and generate a little profit. But firms thrive when they build enduring client relationships that continue to produce revenue and profit for the long haul.

Ever notice how most business development efforts seem driven by a survivalist mentality? They're mostly transactional, focused on winning projects rather than clients. And as those projects are being completed, there's the constant push to find more of them. Meanwhile, the firm's ongoing clients provide the stable base needed to create a sustainable business.

I've long advocated that firms should devote as much attention to building great client relationships as they do to chasing new work. The best firms in the A/E business do, but most I encounter seem to favor fishing over farming. If you're going to get serious about relationship building, it might be helpful to recognize three important dimensions of the client relationship:

Business relationship. As professional service providers, our foremost responsibility is helping our clients be successful. The true value of your projects is how well they deliver business results. Unfortunately, technical professionals are often prone to neglecting the business performance aspect of their designs and solutions.

One of the best ways to differentiate your A/E firm in the competition for clients is to demonstrate a keen understanding of the client's business and how your services will help achieve business outcomes. Divorced from the client's strategic needs, your services are likely to be viewed as a commodity. Commodity purchasers are much less likely to form the long-term relationships with service providers that you desire.

Working relationship. This involves how well the two parties work together, another aspect of client relationships that gets too little attention. The working relationship defines the client experience, which surveys suggest constitutes half of the perceived value that you deliver to clients. Yet the working relationship is seldom mentioned in sales conversations or in proposals. Most firms lack any kind of standards for delivering great client experiences, nor do they regularly solicit feedback from clients on how they're doing.

There are three critical steps to excelling at the working relationship: (1) benchmarking the client's expectations, (2) developing processes and standards for meeting those expectations, and (3) getting feedback on your performance. Do these three things and your firm will be in rare company.

Affinity is how much you and the client like each other. Friendship with clients is a wonderful thing, but it's overrated. You can have a very productive relationship with a client who is not a friend if you deliver business value and a great experience. When I speak of friendship, I'm talking about a relationship where simply spending time together is valued. There is a personal caring for each other, a natural attraction, and common interests. 

In business, the term friend is commonly too broadly applied. Some seem to call everyone they know a friend. Others consider any client they get along with a friend. But getting along is a result of a strong working relationship, not necessarily a friendship.

Why are these distinctions important? I've seen too many friendships in business strained by the failure to deliver business results or tend to the working relationship. There are still sellers in our business who think that making friends is more important than meeting business needs. Too many firms think that quality technical work is all that really matters, without giving proper regard to the client experience. And our industry's neglect in linking our work to business outcomes is a significant factor in the commoditization of our services.

If your firm is serious about building more profitable, long-term client relationships, you'll want to avoid these common mistakes. Great client relationships result from helping clients succeed in their business or mission, delivering great client experiences, and—if the opportunity arises—being a good friend.

Monday, August 11, 2014

What Client Surveys Tell Us

I'm in the midst of doing another client survey, this one the sixth I've performed for a very successful engineering firm and long-time client of mine. It still amazes me that so few A/E firms do this on a regular basis. I always uncover a few surprises, revealing that firms don't know their clients as well as they'd like to think. Yet there are some consistent themes I've noticed in the many surveys I've done over the years: 

Relationships matter. This is stating the obvious. But many firms continue to neglect the basics of managing their critical client relationships. Very few have a deliberate approach, instead simply trusting their client managers and project managers to follow their instincts and do the right thing. Unfortunately, too many technical professionals are prone to focusing more on doing the work than serving the client. 

Not surprisingly, clients tend to judge the quality of your technical work in the context of the relationship. A client who enjoys working with your firm will be more forgiving of any shortcomings or mistakes. But a client who finds you difficult to work with will generally find fault with your technical work as well.

Flexibility is important. I know, this can drive you nutty. Clients who change their mind at inopportune times, who want you to dumb down your design, who expand the scope but not the budget, who have their own unique invoicing requirements. Indeed, clients' demands are sometimes unreasonable. But A/E firms are also sometimes unreasonably inflexible and slow to adapt to client needs.

The best way to manage these situations is to establish mutual expectations at the start of the project. Discuss with the client how changes will be managed, critical junctures in the project schedule when timely decisions are needed, how best to maintain good communication, how performance will be evaluated, what precisely is expected in work deliverables, etc. With mutual expectations, reasonable boundaries can be defined that help enable flexibility without compromising your firm's needs.

Proactive client communication is crucial. One survey found that about 67% percent of clients who dump their consultants do so because of perceived indifference. Poor communication is at the heart of such perceptions. When the client has to initiate most communications or is contacted only on a need-to-know basis, it's easy for that person to assume that he or she isn't really valued by the service provider.

Technical professionals sometimes overlook the fact that good communication is a critical deliverable. Clients depend on timely information and updates to meet internal deadlines, manage budgets, satisfy reporting requirements, and allocate time and resources. Simply meeting contractual deliverable schedules is not enough.

Clients also want to know your thought process—how you reached certain decisions, why you favored one solution over another, what other options were considered. Many A/E firms are inclined to leave clients out of the loop in such discussions. That means the client's input often comes too late—after the deliverable is well developed—forcing expensive revisions and delays. It's better to engage clients early and often, starting with the project management plan, scoping documents, and preliminary design concepts.

Clients see our organizational dysfunction. Clients often know more about our internal workings than we'd like. They seem to recognize when departments don't coordinate well, when the PM doesn't keep the project team adequately informed, when deliverable review procedures aren't followed, and other such issues. They naturally associate these problems with the project screw-ups that happen from time to time. 

When is this a particular concern? When performance deficiencies persist or mistakes recur with ongoing clients. Most clients understand that a few problems are inevitable on every project, and most firms are responsive in trying to make things right when such problems occur. But clients grow frustrated when we fail to address the root causes of lingering problems. My interviews with clients indicate that they know the difference between your short-term corrective actions and longer-term, systematic fixes to recurring issues—and they'd like to see more of the latter.

The best solution isn't always best. Imagine you're shopping for an economical compact car and the salesman persists in trying to interest you in his line of SUVs. Irritating, isn't it? That's how many clients feel when we keep offering them the Cadillac solution when they wanted a VW. Architects seem particularly prone to this. Clients often wonder whose needs are driving the design solution.

There may well be compelling reasons for nudging the client toward a more elaborate and expensive solution—lower life cycle costs, easier operation, reduced liability, greater flexibility, etc. But sometimes we have to admit that it's mostly our subjective preference. We like delivering the "best" solutions because we want to be among the best solution providers. Yet budget-constrained clients are increasingly asking us to deliver "good enough." Keep in mind that a good-enough technical solution is often part of providing exceptional client service.

Bottom line: Make it easy for clients to work with you. Client surveys reinforce the research that reveals that clients value the experience as much as your expertise. Simply put, they want a project experience characterized by your concern and their convenience. They want service providers who are committed to understanding and responding to their needs.

Most clients have too much on their plate, so they're looking for low maintenance, trouble-free working relationships. That's why they tend to stick with their current A/E firms, even if they're not convinced that it's the best they could do. But clients don't like being taken for granted, and the apparent complacency (or indifference) of their existing service providers is the major reason why many eventually make a change.

One way to avoid appearing complacent? Get regular feedback on how you're doing, listen carefully, and make improvements where needed.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Is Your Sales Approach Aligned with the Buyer?

Years ago, I received a call from the environmental manager at a large manufacturing facility. He was interested in outsourcing operation of their wastewater treatment plant and wondered if that's something our firm could do. I was happy to respond that we could.

This seemed the breakthrough I had been waiting for. I had pursued this client, located in the small town where I lived, for years. Yet we had only been awarded a few small contracts. I called a couple experts in our firm and invited them to come to Colorado to meet with the client. I was about to learn another painful lesson about the need to understand where the client is in the buying process.

My biggest mistake was failing to account for the other decision makers involved—what's often called the "complex sale." My contact had done his homework and come to the conclusion that outsourcing was the way to go. So our team came prepared to talk about how that transaction would take place. But besides my contact, we would be meeting with the facility manager, engineering manager, and wastewater plant operator. And I had no idea what to expect from them.

Research suggests that people go through five stages in making a purchase decision (or most any kind of decision). These are:
  1. Recognize the problem or need
  2. Search for information about both the need and possible solutions
  3. Evaluate the possible alternatives
  4. Make a decision (or purchase)
  5. Assess the decision (post-purchase evaluation)
In selling, it's important to recognize where in this process the buyer is and to align your approach accordingly. In the complex sale, of course, different buyers can be (and often are) in different stages of the decision process.

You can guess where this story goes. The environmental manager was ready to make a decision, and we came prepared to help him do just that. The facilities manager, however, was still searching for information, aware that there were problems but not sure what course of action to take. The engineering manager was a little further along, considering various options, with one being outsourcing...but he was leaning against that option. Finally, the operator was incredulous. "What's the problem?" he wanted to know.

It was a rancorous meeting, one we were hardly prepared to moderate. The outsourcing opportunity never materialized, nor did any other contracts with this client. My primary contact, the environmental manager, left the company shortly afterwards to become a consultant. Perhaps he thought he could do a better job than we did that day!

Obviously, I could have handled the situation better. Before committing to flying people from different parts of the country, I should have asked what concerns or questions the other decision makers might have had about the outsourcing option. If my contact didn't know (and he seemed surprised at their resistance in the meeting), that would have been a red flag suggesting that more consensus building was needed before pitching a final solution.

But I'm not alone in making such mistakes. In my experience, not many sellers among A/E and environmental firms excel in managing the complex sale. It takes time and can be difficult to navigate at times. That's all the more reason to give it priority. Understanding the players involved and where they are in the buying process enables you to calibrate your sales approach to maximize your chances of success.