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.

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