But there are some basic principles of great service that are pretty consistent from client to client. These are what I call the Five Rs of Superior Service. Do these well and you'll go a long way towards distinguishing yourself as a "super server."
Definition: Obviously a coined word (hey, I needed an “R”) referring to how easy it is for the client to contact you.
Illustration: When your client has a problem or question, you can assume that he wants to be able to reach you immediately. That may be impossible, but there are steps you can take to increase your reachability:
- Make a promise to return client calls within a specific time frame (e.g., 3 hours)
- Regularly update your voicemail greeting to include your whereabouts
- Always let the receptionist know where you are and whether you can be reached
- Have backups assigned to field questions when you are unavailable
- In some cases, offer to wear a pager for more immediate accessibility
Application: This is probably the easiest of the Five Rs to excel at. But based on my experience in calling my clients and colleagues, there’s much room for improvement (at least relative to the second and third bullets). The suggestions above are a good start, but ask your client specifically how he would like you to make yourself more reachable. This might be delineated in a written client service plan.
Definition: This refers to your willingness to adapt to meet your client’s changing needs.
Illustration: Most technical professionals work hard at being responsive. They readily agree to scope changes, alter schedules and shift resources, and put in long hours to accommodate their clients. But the focus is on what I call “situational responsiveness.” We often refer to this condition as “fighting fires.” Fewer firms go beyond this kind of responsiveness to make systematic changes in response to client needs and expectations—what we’ll call “systematic responsiveness.” This involves proactive and long-term adaptations to better serve clients, such as changes in work processes, systems, and policies that are client-driven.
Application: A commitment to superior service should move your firm towards improving your systematic responsiveness. This enables a consistent level of service across your organization. This will involve actions such as the following:
- Systematically uncover client expectations that go beyond the technical scope of work (i.e., service benchmarking)
- Develop "service deliverables," converting service delivery into a set of tasks that can be managed, budgeted, and scheduled like technical work activities
- Seek regular client feedback leading to continuous improvement of project delivery and client service practices
- Ensure that invoices and project accounting practices align with the client's accounting system
Definition: Reliability is the quality of trustworthiness that you demonstrate to your clients.
Illustration: Do you consistently meet client requirements and expectations? Do you always follow through on your commitments? For example, if you often extend client deadlines, even with the client’s approval, you are not proving yourself reliable. Your reliability defines the level of trust in your relationship with the client. Without it, you cannot deliver added value. Some ways to enhance the client’s perception of your reliability include:
- Avoid making commitments that you doubt you can meet, even when the client wants it
- Treat all missed targets and mistakes as service breakdowns, even if the client appears to be okay with it
- Follow a standard, careful process for assuring the quality of all client deliverables
- Communicate on a proactive, regular basis with your client
- Offer service guarantees to your clients (these need not be terribly risky to be effective)
Application: Consistent processes and standards are an effective way to improve reliability. But resist the temptation to go too far in this respect, which can stifle creativity and responsiveness. The best way to get buy-in is to allow staff to actively participate in defining the processes that can achieve client- and management-defined standards.
Definition: Recovery refers to the actions taken in response to a service breakdown.
Illustration: No matter how diligent you are, you will occasionally experience a service breakdown—a design error, a missed deadline, a budget overrun, a misunderstanding. This is a critical juncture in the client relationship. Failure to respond appropriately may cost you the client’s trust, and ultimately their business. But a well executed recovery can actually strengthen the relationship.
Application: The following steps typically are key to effective recovery from a service breakdown:
- Take responsibility for the problem. This doesn't mean you necessarily have to take the blame. Sometimes service breakdowns result from circumstances beyond your control. But if it's your fault, admit it. Don't make excuses; that only makes the situation worse. Even if it's not your fault, let the client know that you will take responsibility for trying to resolve it.
- Make a commitment to correct the problem. You should, of course, determine what the client desires or expects you to do to fix it. It's wise to try to understand the implications of the problem from the client's perspective. Ask about how it specifically impacts them. Then suggest an appropriate plan for addressing the problem to the client's satisfaction. And commit to follow through.
- Take steps to prevent it from happening again. This demonstrates your commitment to continuous learning and improvement, which is at the heart of true responsiveness. As mentioned earlier, simply fixing the problem (situational responsiveness) is important. But taking steps to prevent it from recurring (systematic responsiveness) is where you can really show your devotion to delivering superior service.
Obviously, there may be serious liability concerns associated with service breakdowns, which can place limits on your recovery. Keep in mind, however, that satisfying your clients is one of the best risk management strategies available.
Definition: Your relationship with the client is not simply a contractual obligation to provide a scope of services or work products. Indeed, the interaction between the two parties should be part of the value delivered. The best business relationships are characterized by the qualities of trust and mutuality.
Application: A good relationship with the client facilitates superior service delivery, and great service strengthens the relationship. Service is not an impersonal product like studies or designs. There are no defined codes or "standards of care" for service. It must be delineated and delivered at the personal, subjective level in the context of relationship. This lack of concrete objectivity may foil many technical professionals who often find clients an impediment to "just doing the work." But those who push the client relationship to the forefront are those who truly excel in this business.