Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Test of Time

Among the challenges facing those in management roles, perhaps none is so daunting as the lack of adequate time to do all that needs to be done. Nor is there a challenge that is so overlooked when it comes to management attention.

Time is our most strategic asset. We can't do anything without it. And what we are able to do is limited by the amount of time available. So we must make wise choices. Like any limited resource, we should strive to put time to its best and most productive use.

There is ample evidence of misused time in the average A/E firm. Unnecessary rework, inefficient work processes, rambling meetings, urgent matters pushing aside more important ones. These foibles not only impact the bottom line; they detract from the workplace environment. Stress levels are at the breaking point in many firms, and out-of-control time demands are often at the hub of the problem.

Are we really resigned to a professional life of incessant "putting out fires?" Or is there a better way? Stephen Covey's firm studied how various organizations make use of their time and found that the most successful ones spent the bulk of their time on important-but-not-urgent tasks. The average performers, by contrast, spent most of their time on urgent-but-not-important tasks. So some firms seem to have found a way out of the compulsive firefighting business.

Yet what tasks are you doing now that aren't important? Ah, there's the crux of the matter. We can readily identify some things as more important than others, but most of us are prone to assign some importance to virtually everything we do. So how then can we shift more time to those critically important yet not urgent activities? A few thoughts:

Focus on eliminating wasted time. If we find it hard to agree upon what tasks are urgent but not important, we might at least reach consensus on where there is waste. What about correcting mistakes? Preventing mistakes can make more time available for our priorities. What about taking more time to complete tasks than is necessary? Better planning and efficient work flow can free up more time. I'm convinced that there is a substantial reserve of time available to the average A/E firm willing to make the effort to eliminate waste and inefficiency.

Redirect time to high-payoff activities. I discussed this in my earlier post "Creating Strategic Capacity." Firm leaders, in particular, need to take a hard look at how they spend their time and offload activities that don't really merit their time and attention as leaders. By definition, leaders should not be consumed with the tyranny of the urgent. It is their role to focus on what really matters, which more often than not is not an urgent matter. Best way to allot time for such activities? Make appointments and keep them like any other. Don't consign your highest value tasks to leftover time.

Devote appropriate time to helping others be more productive. Managers by definition accomplish goals through the efforts of others. Yet too many of them spend the vast majority of their time on personal tasks to the neglect of the office, department, or team for which they are responsible. Effective managers multiply their productivity by giving adequate time to helping others improve their productivity. That's what I call the Time Investment Principle.

Preserve blocks of uninterrupted time for important tasks. I would urge you to do a couple of exercises: (1) track how you spend your time on the job for one week and (2) track interruptions at work for another week. (You might find the Time Tracker and Interruption Tracker at my website useful for these exercises.) These two exercises will make you more aware of how fragmented your time usage is, and hopefully provide added incentive to do something about it.

In fact, the whole office should be striving to improve in this area. Colleagues can work together in minimizing unnecessary interruptions. Some might find it helpful to post "office hours" for this purpose. I've also found it very productive to locate the project team in the same space (such as a conference room) during critical periods of a project where they can both focus better and collaborate more.

Make productive use of nonbillable time.
We typically try to manage our collective billable hours. Nonbillable hours, on the other hand, often receive little management attention. Yet these constitute "investment time" where strategic initiatives are implemented, new business is procured, work processes are improved, training and mentoring takes place. I advocate budgeting and managing this time like project time. Check out the article "Investing Nonbillable Time" for more insight on this issue.

Giving greater attention to how you and your colleagues use their time could be the most important thing you do in the months to come. It's a precious, limited resource. By all means, treat it as such. The benefits go straight to both your personal and your company's bottom line.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Focusing on Your Key Client Relationships

The Pareto Principle is evident among most A/E firms, with roughly 80% of their revenues coming from 20% (or less) of their clients. Obviously these few client relationships are critically important to the well-being of our firms. Yet relatively few firms have adopted a key account management approach.

The stakes are high. The loss of a key client can have a devasting effect on a firm. Over the years, I've witnessed the defection of a few top 5 clients, resulting in millions of dollars in lost revenue--and several staff positions. In one case, the firm lost over $70 million in anticipated backlog.

Surprisingly, there were no dramatic failures in any of these situations. No design busts. No blown schedules. Not even the loss of a key staff member. The shortcomings were much more subtle--and cumulative. Misunderstandings. Inadequate communication. Perceived slights. Differences in expectations.

The fact is that any of these situations could have been easily avoided. These key client accounts simply needed the management attention they deserved. They needed a disciplined, collaborative approach to ensure the firm was giving appropriate care and attention to their most valuable clients. Such an approach might look something like this:

Appoint an account team. Your most important client accounts should never be entrusted to a single individual. Even the best client managers can make mistakes, or have blind spots, or leave your firm! They may be too close to the work or the client to have an objective perspective. The collective brain power of an account team increases your chances of having a sound account strategy and taking good care of the account. This team should have a leader (account manager) and meet at least monthly. What should they be working on? Raising the level of service. Ensuring the success of current projects. Planning how to position your firm for new work with the client.

Develop a key account plan. This brief written document outlines how you intend to strengthen the client relationship, address any service deficiencies, position your firm for new work. Have the account team spend a few hours developing the initial plan, then update it periodically as things progress and new situations arise. The following outline for your key account plan is suggested:

1. Describe the Client
  • Overview of the client (size, services, organization, etc.)
  • What are the client's priorities? What are the projected expenditures?
  • What are the client's major challenges? How can we help the client be successful?

2. Assess the Relationship

  • What work have we done for the client? How have we performed?
  • What is the current state of our relationship with the client?
  • Who are the key decision makers? What is our relationship with each?
  • What are the critical success factors for each? Do we know?

3. Evaluate our Positioning

  • What are our relevant strengths, differentiators, weaknesses, vulnerabilities?
  • Who are our primary competitors? What is the current standing of each?
  • What is our current positioning relative to our competitors? Where do we need to improve?
  • How can we improve performance on our current work with the client?

4. Define our Strategy

  • What are our goals in terms of services, projects, revenue, etc.?
  • How do we leverage our strengths?
  • How do we mitigate our weaknesses and vulnerabilities?
  • What is our single best opportunity at this time?
  • What are the next best actions we need to take to strengthen our position?

Give top priority to improving service to your key clients. There's a tendency sometimes to take our best clients for granted. We work hard to win new clients and address problems with existing clients. But when things seem to be going well with our top clients, we may not give them the attention they deserve. Don't let your guard down! There's always someone trying to displace you, and they may be providing that next level of service and attention. Never be satisfied with the status quo.

Be sure you're getting regular feedback. Only about one-fourth of A/E firms formally gather feedback from clients. Feedback is the bedrock of great service. You can't be sure you're serving your clients well if you don't ask. Certainly, you want to be certain that your top clients are fully satisfied with your performance and service. For more insight into how to do this, check out this earlier post.

Become a trusted advisor and valued resource. In their book Clients for Life, authors Sheth and Sobel describe the path from "expert for hire" to "steady supplier" to "trusted advisor." Obviously the latter is the more secure position. Many firms serve only as a steady supplier even for their top clients. That leaves them vulnerable to being displaced. Trusted advisors are indispensable. They provide valued insight, not just expertise. They work collaboratively with the client, not just perform tasks. Are you a trusted advisor with your top clients? If not, determine what you need to do to become one.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Building Your Brand

There are relatively few strong brands in the A/E profession. There are, of course, many well-known firms. But name recognition doesn't equal a strong brand. Unfortunately, many "branding" efforts focus on image and familiarity. Brand goes deeper.

There is great confusion about brand. Even the experts differ on how to define it. One consultant website I discovered listed over 200 definitions of the word brand that he had found on the internet. So let me offer a working definition for our purposes, one drawn from some of the most respected books I've read on brand: Brand is the perception in the mind of the customer that differentiates a product, service, or company.

How that perception is formed is critically important. Most branding activities in our industry (and in others) are misguided. They focus on logo redesigns, graphic standards, positioning lines. These only support brand; they don't create it or redefine it. At its core, brand perceptions are shaped by the direct and indirect experiences clients have with your firm. Marketing can contribute to those experiences, but the substance of your brand is rooted in how you serve the client.

So if you're looking to strengthen your brand, don't start by turning to your marketing department or hiring an outside branding expert. Go first to the heart of your brand. Build (or at least investigate) the foundation before adding the infrastructure. Here's what I suggest:

Learn how you are perceived by clients. Since your brand resides here, this is the obvious place to start. Ask clients what they think about your firm. A few basic questions will suffice:
  • When you think of our firm, what impressions immediately come to mind?
  • What do you think distinguishes us from other similar firms?
  • What qualities among firms like ours do you consider most valuable?
  • How well do we deliver what we promise? Are we consistent and trustworthy?

You can survey clients yourself, but you'll get more accurate results if this is done by a third party. Include both existing and potential clients if you can.

Assess all the interactions you have with clients. Again, brand perceptions are shaped by direct and indirect interactions with your firm. So what are the quality and character of those interactions? Dig deep: Meetings and conversations. Work deliverables. Invoices. Reports. Visits to your office. Correspondence (including email). How your phone is answered. Sales calls. Marketing mailings. And so on.

Don't overlook the importance of any encounter with the client. Perceptions can be rapidly formed, yet be grudgingly slow to change. A mishandled phone call can cost you a prospective client. A rudderless meeting can start a slide in confidence in your firm. A couple of inaccurate invoices can erode trust. The failure to return a phone call can sour the relationship.

Determine what you need to do to strengthen positive client perceptions. The path to a stronger brand passes through the intersection of (1) what you've learned about client perceptions of your firm and (2) how the myriad of interactions you have with clients influence or reinforce those perceptions. Obviously this can quickly become overwhelming. So you need to prioritize. What are 2-3 things you can do right now to strengthen your brand? What are the most important (albeit likely difficult) things you need to do?

Develop a reasonable action plan and commit your best resources to it. Is there anything more important than your brand? If the fruition of your efforts is well into the future, you can at least celebrate and share your progress. Clients often appreciate your devotion to improvement even if you haven't yet perfected it.

Seek alignment between your external brand and your internal culture and processes. I know some firms that want to brand themselves on the basis of superior client service. Good idea! They rigorously promote that objective, both internally and externally. They've written it into their values statement.

But something is amiss. There are no formal standards or processes to support consistent service delivery. Service breakdowns are routinely tolerated. There is a culture of independence that resists compliance with the "company way" of doing things. Client managers seem to think they're doing good enough already.

This is not uncommon, and is one of the main reasons why there is a paucity of strong brands in our industry. You don't build brand with a fresh coat of paint; you have to reinforce the structure itself. Ultimately, your brand is a reflection of your culture. If the two are not aligned--your desired brand with your existing culture--you've got a lot of hard work ahead of you. But it's worth it.

Demonstrate your brand in how you market and sell. If superior service is the heart of your brand, serve the client through your business development activities (my favorite approach!). If you are known as the consummate experts, don't tell clients about your expertise, demonstrate it during the sales process by helping them solve problems. If clients think of you as "that high design" firm, engage the client in developing some design concepts before the RFP. Sell substance, not image. Enable prospective clients to experience your brand, not just tantalize them with it.

Not the post you were expecting based on the title? I apologize. But these steps represent the reality of building your brand. Don't settle for the cosmetic makeover. It's hard work, but that's what makes a strong brand so difficult for your competitors to dislodge.