Friday, December 31, 2010

Being Accessible to Your Clients

Have you made your New Year's resolutions? Let me suggest one: Raise the bar on how well you serve your clients in 2011. For most firms, substantial improvement doesn't require doing anything extravagant. It's taking care of the basics, like communicating with your clients regularly and proactively. Good communication is arguably priority number one in delivering superior client service.

That includes being readily accessible. With today's communications technologies, there's no excuse for being out of touch. Yet stories of inaccessibility abound. Consider the case of Gene, a seasoned engineer and senior project manager. His client calls his direct line with an urgent project matter.

"Hi, this is Gene," his voicemail greeting responds, "I'm either on the phone or away from my desk. Please leave a message and I'll get back to you as soon as possible." The client is aware that this is the same message that Gene has had on his phone for the last five years. For all the client knows, Gene could simply be in the bathroom or on one of his beloved overnight fishing trips (out of cell phone range).

Earlier the client had tried Gene's cell phone with similar results. The client can't wait so he punches "O" to talk with the receptionist. "I don't know where Gene is today," she answers. "The Meridian project? I don't know who else is working on that. I can check in the back and see."

Sound familiar? Offering advice on how to be accessible to your clients might seem like stating the obvious if people like Gene weren't so common in our industry. This is one area where I probably can't suggest anything you don't already know. But some of you, I suspect, could use the gentle reminder:

Make a promise to return calls within a certain time frame. This obviously is reassuring to clients. It's also good general practice in the pursuit of service excellence. Making specific promises to clients yields better results than simply relying on your good intentions. My suggestion? Promise to return all calls within three hours. Next you have to figure out how to make that happen!

Regularly update your voicemail greeting to include your whereabouts. The best do this daily. If that seems a bit ambitious for you, then commit to doing it at least weekly. The goal is to let callers know where you are that day and, if not in the office, whether you can be reached at another phone number.

Always let the receptionist know where you are and whether you can be reached. With direct phone numbers and voicemail, receptionists are less the gatekeepers than they once were. But some clients still prefer talking to a live person. It helps, of course, if that person knows what's going on. Never leave the office without informing the receptionist of your whereabouts and where to direct clients who call for you.

By the way, if your firm insists on having one of those automated receptionists (which is a poor choice from a client service perspective), be sure you present an option to connect with a live person.

Better still, give active clients advance notice when you're going to be inaccessible. That's characteristic of proactive communication.

Assign a backup to field questions when you're going to be unavailable.
The best project managers keep their team informed and engaged so that familiarity with the overall project is shared. Plus it's a good idea, especially on larger projects, to formally designate a second in command. That makes it easier to offer the client an alternative when you're not available.

Offer 24/7 accessibility where appropriate. With cell phones, Blackberries, and the like, such around-the-clock availability is hardly extraordinary these days. But it helps to explicitly invite the client to call you anytime. That's added service even if you never have to answer a call at night or on the weekend.

Bottom line, don't take your accessibility to the client for granted. Despite the technological advantages we have today, there are still many communication gaps to be found from the perspective of A/E firm clients (I know, I've been talking to them). The fact that being accessible is so readily, well, accessible makes it all the more frustrating to clients when it's not.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Top 10 Blog Posts of 2010

I recently received a Christmas card from someone I didn't know who wanted to thank me for my blog and other content posted on the web. What an encouragement! Apart from occasional reader comments and references to my posts in other blogs, I receive little confirmation that the insights shared here are valued. The primary evidence that I'm doing something right is increasing readership.

Thankfully Google Analytics daily reports on how many people read each of my posts. Based on those statistics, the posts below were the most popular over the past year. Interestingly, only four of the top ten posts in 2010 were published this year. Disappointing? Perhaps, but at least it shows that some posts continue to attract attention well beyond their publish date. Here are the top ten, followed by my own assessment of what the top posts were this year:

1. The Four Stages of Organizational Change. This post from 2009 drew three times the number of readers as the second most popular post. Obviously there's some interest in this topic, but I would never have predicted this post's popularity.

2. Managing the Sales Funnel. Another surprise, especially considering the many other posts I've done on the topic of business development. But I do think this puts a fresh spin on using the Sales Funnel, in this case as a management tool. In that regard, let me suggest you also check out the "Sales Force Survey."

3. Relational vs. Transactional Selling. While everyone seems to acknowledge the critical importance of relationships in our business, the predominant model of sales remains a transactional one. This post explains the differences.

4. Why People Resist Change. Undoubtedly, this post drew the attention of many of the same people who read "The Four Stages of Organizational Change." Understanding why people resist change is important to successfully guiding your change initiatives.

5. What Are the Best Marketing Tactics? This post from last month was easily the most popular of 2010. It was retweeted several times and picked up by other blogs. The post presents the consensus of several surveys of professional service or other B2B marketers.

6. Leadership: What Really Matters. There's so much written on the subject of leadership that the multiple (and sometimes competing) perspectives can overwhelm. This post attempts to distill leadership down to three essential activities.

7. Organizing the Sales Effort. Hopefully those who read "Managing the Sales Funnel" also read this post; the two are complementary. The need to better organize the sales effort is prevalent in our business.

8. Great Service Is About the Little Things. This post highlighted the story of losing a major client because of a series of relatively small missteps that combined to bring the end to the relationship. It's a valuable lesson, one I'm glad attracted many readers.

9. Quality Comes From People, Not Process. The popularity of this post was another surprise, but hopefully it touched a familiar nerve. Many firms are dissatisfied with their quality process. Perhaps this post helped point some of them to the root cause.

10. Focusing on Your Key Client Relationships. One of my core management principles is "fewer better." Hopefully this post inspired others to apply this to their most strategic asset--their key client relationships.

As noted, some of the above posts were surprise choices in the people's top ten, at least from my perspective. I often have a sense of which posts will be important or provocative enough to attract a larger audience. And I'm often wrong. My limitations notwithstanding, let me offer my own top ten (in no particular order), those posts that I thought represented my best ideas for 2010:

To all of you who follow this blog, I want to thank you for your interest and hope that what I've written has been and will continue to be helpful. Your feedback and suggestions are always appreciated. May you and your firm enjoy success in the coming year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Helping Clients Do More With Less

Economic forecasts show improvement in 2011, but it's a relative measure. Predicted modest gains in construction-related activity are generally offset by the much larger losses that took place over the last two years. It will be a long slow climb back to the levels we enjoyed in 2008.

Last week I suggested that growth-minded A/E firms that can't buy market share are going to have to take it from competitors. That is a much different strategy than competing for your share of a growing market, as was the case before the recession. I don't see many firms ready to take market share in the coming year.

But perhaps your firm is happy to simply hold its own in 2011, experiencing minimal growth as the market begins to recover. It might not be that easy. As clients' budgets have decreased, their needs have changed as well. They are preparing to get more from less, to stretch limited resources as far as they can to address their pressing needs. Is your firm prepared to help them in that quest?

I must confess that I have a better understanding of your clients' evolving needs than I have insight into how you can make money meeting them. The best I can do is to suggest some ways you might respond to those needs. You'll have to determine how to make an adequate income doing so. With that disclaimer, let me offer some ideas for helping your clients do more with less:

Stay engaged with your clients even when they don't have upcoming projects. These times may test your commitment to client relationships. Will you continue to nurture those relationships even if there's no short-term financial payback? Some A/E firms apparently aren't, as they've stopped calling on cash-short clients. But this is a great time to solidify your relationships (and steal a few from your competitors). The fundamental role hasn't changed: You're there to help your clients, even if that involves a good measure of free advice.

Help your clients characterize and prioritize their needs for the foreseeable future. Many of them, of course, already have a pretty good handle on this. They likely have a facilities or capital improvement plan; some have gone a step further with asset management planning. But those plans probably didn't account for a substantial shift in revenue and funding. You might be able to provide valuable guidance in rethinking facility or infrastructure needs and how best to address those in the evolving financial climate.

Provide operational assessments and consulting. Many clients will have to make do with current facilities that were planned for replacement. That may require some creative thinking with regards to possible operational changes or low-cost modifications. As an outsider with relevant expertise, your firm may be better positioned than the client to objectively assess these situations and offer makeshift solutions. The fact is that all organizations can benefit from retooling their operations to eliminate waste and inefficiency, and tight budgets can provide just the needed jolt to make that happen.

Explore strategic alliances to better serve your clients' changing needs. This is always good advice, of course. But the slogging recovery creates new opportunities to package complementary services and products to help clients. For best results, you probably need to step outside the box of convention. Examine your clients' emerging and unmet needs, even if they're not directly related to your current services. Consider what kinds of expertise is needed to meet those needs, then explore how you might merge that with what your firm can do.

Provide more affordable off-the-shelf solutions.
I was talking with the administrator of a rural county recently who questioned the need for custom designs for facilities like a fire station, branch library, or vehicle maintenance shop. He wondered why he couldn't choose a basic design from a selection of prototypes, similar to how people use house plan books. I remember pitching the same idea to an architectural firm in Minnesota that had designed fire stations for many small towns in that state, but had seen that market decline dramatically. Of course, the notion was met with scorn.

But don't the times call for more economical alternatives? And should we use our specialized expertise to provide them? The problem of course, is giving up the 7% design fee (or whatever) that we've grown accustomed to. But as this administrator observed, sticking with old business models may well mean these projects don't happen at all for the foreseeable future.

Are there ways you can help your clients do more with less and still meet your own financial needs? I don't have the answer yet. But the question is certainly worth exploring further. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Time to Rethink Your BD Strategy?

Recent economic forecasts seem a little more optimistic. Should we be? One thing that tempers my outlook is that these are the same economists who failed to predict this recession in the first place. Can we now trust their predictions regarding the end of the downturn? I'm not so sure.

Another thing that has me wondering is the feedback I'm getting from owners. I've been conducting a series of interviews this month with owners--mostly local governments and utilities--for one of my clients. The common theme is a lack of funding for new capital projects in the next few years.

Even the most optimistic forecasts speak of a slow, prolonged recovery. High unemployment will likely persist. Credit will be tight. Companies flush with cash will be reluctant to spend it for a while. Construction may pick up, but far below pre-recession levels.

So what is your firm's business development strategy for the next year or two? Are you considering doing things radically different from what you've been doing? Will anything less suffice?

Among the firms I've talked to during the recession, I've seen little significant shift in strategy. The prevailing theme seems to be more "let's pick up the pace" than "let's change course." Perhaps that works as survival strategy, but I don't think it will produce the growth that many firms still crave and are built for.

Until the economy caved, the vast majority of A/E firms relied on what I call a "growth share" strategy. That is, they staked out their claim in the marketplace, held their own, and enjoyed a period of substantial growth because the market was growing. Maybe that growth led many firm executives to mistakenly conclude that their BD approach was effective. So when the market shrank, the response was basically "keep at it, but work harder now."

But I want to suggest that there's a fundamental difference between succeeding in a growth share market and the current one that we're going to be in for a while. Firms wanting to grow now are going to have to take market share from their competitors, not simply ride the wave upward. That's a huge shift for most firms.

Some firms have continued to grow through the recession by buying market share. But most firms can't afford that approach. If they're going to grow, they're going to have to take market share. That's not business as usual, even on steroids. It's a wholly different approach.

Almost two years ago, I outlined ten steps towards a radically different approach to business development in a blog post entitled "The Extreme Marketing Makeover." I also shared this approach at several conferences. These steps are uncommon but not untested. I and others have successfully implemented these approaches. I'm convinced they have the potential for helping you increase your firm's market share.

I've elaborated on all of these steps in various other posts. If you want more information, use the search bar on the right to look for related posts. Or send me an email; I'd be happy to answer specific questions or point you to other resources.

Perhaps you have some better ideas. I'd love to hear them. But what obviously really matters is what your firm is doing. Is it more of the same or something different? Is your firm satisfied to ride the now flattened wave or do you want to gain a larger share of the pie? If the latter, there's a good chance it's time to rethink your BD strategy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Can Clients Count On You?

The essence of your firm's brand can't be created in the marketing department. It's lived out in the experiences clients have with your firm. To provide great service, you must prove yourself trustworthy--that is, deserving of the client's complete trust.

That starts with consistently keeping your commitments. We all realize this, yet failing to keep the promises we make is all too common in our industry. Some of this is inadvertent, some due to neglect, some simply because project managers care too little.

I suspect that most everyone in our business wants to be viewed as dependable. Yet how are we doing? In a survey conducted in 2008 by Morrisey Goodale, only 17% of clients gave their A/E service providers an "A" grade for "follow-through."

Firms fared even worse with two of the three most basic promises we make to clients: To do (1) quality work (2) on time and (3) within budget. Only 14% of clients gave an A grade for quality, 12% for schedule compliance, and 20% for budget control.

So is being dependable something you can take for granted? I don't think so. Below are some things to consider in being someone your clients can always count on:

Don't promise what you can't deliver. Project managers often feel pressured to agree to client requests even when there's considerable doubt they can be fulfilled. And some PMs are quick to acquiesce to seemingly whatever the client asks. Such attempts to please the client for the present usually lead to disappointment later. Worse still, the inability to keep your word compromises your trustworthiness in the eyes of the client. This can ultimately poison the relationship.

So the advice is self-evident: Don't do it! Your good faith efforts to satisfy the client in the moment too often result in broken promises later. If you value your integrity, guard against agreeing to anything you're not reasonably confident you can deliver. Think long term. A happy client in the middle of a project is a desirable thing, but a happy client at the end is even better.

Clarify the client's expectations up front. Fulfilling the established scope, schedule, and budget is necessary in providing great service, but it's far from doing enough. You must also satisfy expectations that usually go unstated unless you ask. So by all means ask. This is a step I call "service benchmarking."

In conducting client surveys over the years I've learned that most service breakdowns result from a misunderstanding of expectations. Sometimes expectations aren't clearly established even in the client's mind. It works best for both parties when they are defined and shared at the outset. To be perceived as dependable, you need to first understand all that is being expected of you.

Don't overlook the importance of keeping commitments internally. External service and quality problems are nearly always hatched in the office. You can tweak policies, procedures, and practices in an attempt to achieve better output. But one of the most effective solutions is simply to embrace the principle I mentioned earlier in reference to clients: Keep your commitments. One example is the common problem of failing to meet internal milestones. This is one of the most significant factors impairing quality and on-time performance. Being dependable for the client requires also being dependable for colleagues.

Exceptions happen, but don't be too quick to excuse them. No matter how dedicated you are, there will inevitably come times when you make a mistake, miss a deadline, or otherwise fail to meet expectations. Clients are usually forgiving, and that can become a problem. For example, I know PMs who are routinely late with deliverables. Why? Because whenever they ask clients for an extension, they almost always get one. Thus the habit is formed.

Let me suggest that just because the client says it's okay to break your word doesn't mean it's really okay. Each schedule extension--or other accommodation for your failure to do what you said you would--chips away at the client's perception of your trustworthiness.

Agree in advance on how to deal with contingencies. Yes, the client's dissatisfaction sometimes results from unforeseen circumstances over which you have little or no control. When the unexpected happens, however, you will be greatly served if you've taken steps in advance to manage expectations. For example, have you and the client agreed on a process for managing changes? Have you jointly assessed project risks? Do you openly talk about potential or developing problems?

Such proactive steps help shape the client's expectations of your firm when things take an unanticipated turn. Then your dependability in such situations can be judged more by how you respond than by the outcomes you can't fully control.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What Are the Best Marketing Tactics?

I've noted in this space before that I think marketing (as contrasted with sales) is grossly undervalued in our industry. I suspect this is due in large part to the fact that few A/E firms do marketing well. One of the best ways to confirm this conclusion is to look at which marketing tactics are deemed most effective in other professional service sectors. I think you'll find that none of these is commonly used in our business.

In preparing for work with one of my clients, I recently researched best marketing practices for professional service firms and other B2B marketers. I looked at surveys conducted by, The Bloom Group, MarketingProfs, Junta42, BlissPR, and the Association of Management Consulting Firms. These surveys asked marketing professionals to rate the effectiveness of various marketing tactics.

A couple notable observations emerged from my research. One was a remarkable correlation between the surveys. There was general agreement as to what worked well and what didn't. That, of course, lends added credibility to the ranking of tactics provided below. The second thing I noticed was the clear advantage of various forms of content marketing. I've written on this topic before, and have pointed out that this is not common practice among A/E firms.

Following are the eight marketing tactics, listed in order, that a compilation of these surveys indicates are most effective:

1. Seminars and other in-person events. There's no better way outside of project work to demonstrate your firm's insight and expertise. This category includes both firm- and third-party-sponsored seminars, and both paid and free sessions. "In-person events" can be a rather broad category, but here refers to issue-driven, educational events such as roundtables, forums, and workshops.

2. Conference presentations. If you want to avoid the expense and hassle of sponsoring your own events, the next best choice (other than having someone else sponsor your seminar) is to speak at industry conferences and trade shows. By the way, this has been by far the most effective marketing tactic I've used in building my business.

3. Webinars. While their educational value can be questioned, webinars are clearly an increasingly popular alternative to attending conferences and seminars. They're relatively cheap and convenient, and should be part of your marketing arsenal. Providing your own is better, but working with trade groups and other third-party sponsors can also be effective.

4. Articles in third-party publications. The key to success with this tactic--besides writing good stuff, of course--is placement in publications that your clients read. Print publications are still important, but the growth of online sources is far outpacing the traditional medium (and most print publications are also available online).

5. Search engine optimization. This tactic is all about increasing traffic to your website and any other internet venues (e.g., blog or social media sites) where your firm can be found. Some technical know-how helps (which may warrant hiring some outside help), but much of it involves strategically enhancing your firm's web presence.

6. Articles posted on your website. This one surprised me, a tactic with an obvious caveat. If you're only generating minuscule traffic to your site, posting articles there won't help much. The implication is that this tactic must be part of a larger strategy to enhance your website's popularity. Placing good content there (which is rare among A/E firms) is key, as well as doing some search engine optimization.

7. PR pitches to journalists. There's some benefit in sending out press releases, but having reporters and other journalists contacting your firm's experts as valued sources is even better. Or having them write an article or do a news spot about your firm. The downside--which you're aware of if you've ever been interviewed or been in the news--is the difficulty in controlling the message. So as with item #6, I present you the results with a little reservation.

8. Email newsletter. Publishing a newsletter is among the more popular marketing tactics in our business. But many firms still prefer hard copy and the content tends to be too self-congratulatory. It may surprise you that print newsletters did not fare as well in the surveys, although some obviously prefer print over digital. I'm convinced that the email format has many advantages, including the ability to use other people's content. For more on this, check out this earlier post.

So how much is your firm employing the tactics listed above? Is it time to re-evaluate your marketing strategy? By the way, the research indicates that the following tactics are significantly less effective than the top eight:

  • Trade show exhibiting
  • Direct mail
  • Social media
  • Blog
  • Advertising
That's not to say that these should be avoided as part of your overall marketing strategy. But many firms rely heavily on tactics like these while largely ignoring the more effective ones.

Social media is a bit of an enigma and perhaps a surprise inclusion here among the less effective tactics. For one thing, these same studies indicated that firms are dramatically increasing their spending and activity in social media. It's potential is promising and still evolving. But one thing is clear; it is more potent when combined with strong content. I've addressed social media at some length in two previous posts (post 1 and post 2).

Those are the results of the surveys, at least. They generally conform to my own experiences. What about yours? I'd love to hear which marketing tactics you've found work best for your firm.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Give Your Best to Your Best Opportunities

I have a client who opened an office across the country in hope of expanding work with their federal government clients. After several months they finally landed a signature project at a military base near their new office. Obviously this was a special opportunity, a chance to gain a foothold in a promising new but ultra-competitive geographic marketplace.

Unfortunately things have not gone well on this project. There have been a number of serious quality and delivery problems, leading the client to conclude that the local office wasn't ready for prime time. The repercussions could turn out to be damaging for some time to come.

As we explored the reasons behind these problems, it was evident that the firm had failed to give the project the level of attention it deserved. It was staffed as any routine project would be, basically with whoever was available. Some team members weren't quite up to the technical challenges the project presented. The difficulties of working with a remote office on such a large project weren't fully considered. There was even confusion about who was really the project manager.

My client's troubles illustrate a common shortcoming--the failure to give special priority to a firm's most important opportunities. I suspect the problem is linked in large part to the task-oriented, crisis-driven management culture that is so prevalent among A/E firms. Devoting more attention to important versus urgent matters is a rare competency in our business.

But part of the problem is probably related to an unrealistic expectation. When I suggested to my client's management team that they would do well to single out some projects and clients for special attention, some resisted. "We should be giving A-grade service and quality to all our clients," one said to the nodding approval of others.

That's simply impractical. No firm has staff that are all equally qualified and motivated. Some project managers are better than others. There are resource constraints. Management can only focus on so many things at once. Doesn't it make sense to allocate these limited assets in such a way as to maximize the firm's success? In other words, give your best to your best opportunities.

Your best opportunities would include:
  • Important sales opportunities. New projects or clients that are particularly crucial to achieving your goals. Are you willing to forgo other sales or proposal opportunities to focus more effort on the ones that matter most?

  • Key client accounts. Most firms derive most of their revenue from a few clients. Do you give these client accounts special attention? Do you have key account plans in place to guide activity relative to these valuable clients?

  • Special projects or contracts. Such as my client's project described above. Do these get your best project managers and project teams? Do you give extra attention to client service, the delivery process, and quality assurance? Do you have periodic reviews (by experts not on the project team) of these projects?

  • Strategic initiatives. Internal efforts to position your firm for growth, change, improvement. Do you budget and commit adequate resources for these initiatives to succeed? Do you take steps to ensure follow-through on assigned responsibilities?
Of course, any of the above can compete for much of the same allocation of limited resources and management attention. So you have to be wise in choosing which are most deserving of your time and money. Let me suggest the following strategies:

Be selective. Don't over-commit. Be willing to make tough choices. Giving your best to a few things undoubtedly means cutting back or eliminating investments in other things. The volume strategy (e.g., many firms pursue on proposals) never beats the advantages of doing fewer better.

Have a plan. A good plan helps concentrate focus and resources. It's the difference between being proactive and reactive. My advice for creating an effective plan is: Keep it simple and keep it real. The goal isn't simply to come up with a plan, but to put it into action.

Wisely allocate resources. To the extent practical, assign your best people to your best opportunities. Be realistic about their availability. If you add new responsibilities, relieve them of others. Looking to the future, you don't want to neglect stretching (and growing) your other staff through challenging assignments, but make sure they receive adequate mentoring and oversight.

Track progress and performance. Always consider how best to measure how you're doing. Beware of merely defaulting to your usual metrics; they may not be adequate for these high-priority efforts. Look at both leading (actions) and trailing (results) indicators.

Do periodic third-party reviews. Every special opportunity deserves occasional reviews by individuals who are not directly involved in the effort. The frequency and timing of the reviews should be outlined in your plan. The primary purpose of the reviews is not to find fault (although there may be occasion for that), but to identify opportunities for raising the bar. Remember, the goal is to give your best.

If your firm isn't doing this already, let me urge you to start today. Pick a few choice opportunities and organize your best people and efforts around them. You can't afford, like my client, to let your best opportunities pass without giving them the attention they deserve.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Closing the Knowing-Doing Gap

I have a client with a common problem: The firm has implemented a sophisticated quality management system but many people aren't following it. Sound familiar?

Substitute any number of corporate activities and directives--from making sales calls to implementing strategy to filling out time sheets--and in all likelihood your firm has the same problem. Employees aren't doing the things they're expected to do. They know what to do, they're capable of doing it, they're even motivated to do it in some cases. But it's still not happening.

Stanford professors Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton call this predicament "the knowing-doing gap" in their book by the same title. They conclude--and I would concur--that the biggest difference between companies is not what they know, but how well they're able to put what they know into action. Best practice insights are a commodity these days (just read this blog!), but implementation acumen is a rarity.

In recent posts, I've shared several strategies from the field of performance management. Let's apply that wisdom now to the challenge of getting things done. Most firms take a familiar path in trying to solve problems like my client has. They step up the pressure, tweak the process, reassign responsibilities, do more training, modify goals.

If you read my last post on quality, you might recognize that these steps are all antecedents, things that come before and set the stage for action (or behavior). Antecedents are important, but they're not effective in sustaining behaviors over time. Unfortunately, most managers rely almost exclusively on antecedents in trying to change behavior. There's a better way. Let me outline some key steps in closing the knowing-doing gap in your firm:

Define the specific desired results. Sometimes firms launch initiatives without clear objectives. For example, if you implement a new quality process, what do you hope to accomplish? Improve quality? That's not a very helpful goal (by the way, most quality programs fail to significantly improve quality). How much improvement do you expect? In what specific areas? How will you measure it?

I don't think I need to review here the qualities of SMART goals. You're undoubtedly familiar with the concept. Yet I'm surprised how many firms I've witnessed investing substantial time and money in various strategic efforts that lack explicit performance goals. That makes it much harder to change behaviors. Which do you think works better: Ask an employee to work harder or tell her specifically what more needs to be done? Review your goals and see if they meet the SMART criteria.

Seek to understand why. If people aren't doing what they should, start by exploring the reasons for this. Certain antecedents may be a factor, but you need to consider the consequences of behaviors as well. If someone isn't doing what is desired, that behavior is undoubtedly being reinforced in some way.

For example, failing to do a quality review saves time, is easier, may fit in with one's peers, could earn a compliment for finishing the work on schedule. The individual may not be aware that these consequences are influencing his actions, but you can uncover likely sources of influence through some inductive reasoning and asking good questions. Once you have a better understanding of why people do what they do, you're able to take more effective steps to support behavior change.

Address antecedent shortcomings, but don't stop there. We're all accustomed to the usual fixes--new or revised programs, policies, procedures, action plans, tools, reorganizations, trainings, etc. These can all be part of the solution, but usually are insufficient in closing the knowing-doing gap. Sometimes the "fixes" even exacerbate the problem of inaction.

The important question is always: How will these steps help people do what needs to be done? Be persistent in pursuing the answer to that question. Most "structural" solutions to organizational problems are incomplete. New processes, of course, can only be effective when followed. Technology investments require a corresponding change in how people do their work. Training rarely is effective unless reinforced over time.

Changing behaviors is almost always part of the solution. And it's usually the hardest part. So let's talk about that next...

Identify specific behaviors needed to achieve your desired results. This requires a step called pinpointing, determining those few behaviors that are most critical to achieving your desired results. Don't get overly ambitious. This is the problem with most corporate initiatives--like implementing a quality management system--where firms try to tackle too much behavior change at one time.

A better approach is to phase in change, guided by staged objectives. Don't attempt full compliance to your quality procedures at first, for example. Instead, pick perhaps five pinpointed behaviors that will have the biggest impact on quality. Once those behaviors become commonplace, then add a few more and so on.

Use effective metrics. There are two types of measurement associated with pinpointing solutions: (1) leading indicators that typically measure behavior and (2) trailing indicators that measure results. Obviously, the later is far more common in business. But measuring behavior enables you to better evaluate your progress and to target course corrections where needed.

How do you measure behavior? There are two primary ways--counting and judging. Counting, of course, is more objective and should be preferred where possible. Having identified pinpointed behaviors, say completing a discipline-specific technical review for all multidisciplinary projects, you can then count how often that occurs when it is called for.

For behaviors that don't lend themselves to counting, you should consider judging. Because it is subjective, this kind of measurement should come from more than one person. For example, you could have project managers anonymously grade how well department heads support them in getting quality contributions from technical staff. The composite grades could then be tracked over time to look for improvement.

Metrics work best when oriented towards providing positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, many firms use metrics for negative reinforcement. Whenever you have the choice, choose to measure desired behaviors versus problem ones.

Provide regular feedback and reinforcement. Imagine your favorite college football coach giving instructions to his team on how to conduct the prescribed practice drills. In this case, however, he sends them off to practice on their own while the coach goes to his office. "You can come to my office if you have questions," he tells them, "But I'll wait to give you feedback until after the game on Saturday."

Obviously he wouldn't last long in the coaching profession. That approach clearly would not succeed in getting top performance from the team. But did you notice the familiar ring to that illustration? It's how most business managers direct their teams. "Here's what you need to do. Let me know if questions come up. I'll give you feedback after you've finished."

If you're going to provide effective feedback and reinforcement, you need to periodically observe the pinpointed behaviors. The more frequently, the better. Too busy for that? Maybe you should reassess how you allocate your time if you serve the role of manager. The manager's first priority, in my opinion, is helping the team succeed. (For more on this, check out my earlier post on "The Time Investment Principle.")

What's the difference between feedback and reinforcement? Feedback is sharing information that enables one to adjust their performance. Measurement can be an effective tool for providing feedback. Reinforcement involves creating or leveraging consequences that cause behavior (in this case, the desired behaviors) to increase. I dealt with this aspect of behavior change in an earlier post on positive reinforcement.

Any solution that involves changing behaviors should include these steps. To review, these are the key questions you should address in closing the knowing-doing gap:

  • What are the desired results?
  • What's motivating people not to act as expected?
  • What are the vital behaviors needed to produce those results?
  • How will we measure progress toward both the pinpointed results and behaviors?
  • How will we provide performance feedback?
  • How will we reinforce the pinpointed behaviors?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Seven Steps to a Winning Workplace

Back in 2007 (remember the good ol' days?) the area of top concern among A/E firm managers was finding good employees. In fact, this concern had topped the list in various surveys over the past several years. The demographic data indicated a long-term shortage of technical professionals. But months later when firm principals were polled at an industry roundtable, the talent crunch didn't even make the list of top concerns.

Now that business is slowly improving for most firms, staffing will again rise to priority status. Only for the near term the primary issue won't be supply, but retention. Human resource experts are predicting substantial turnover as hiring picks up. I don't expect it to be any different in our industry. For one thing, there is "pent-up energy" where the usual movement between firms has been impeded for several months. Plus many firms under the pressure of the recession transformed into rather undesirable places to work.

So let me suggest that it's time to again make the workplace environment a priority. I offer my "seven steps to a winning workplace," based on my experience working with many different firms and my extensive research on this topic:

Conduct an employee survey. What constitutes a great workplace? The only opinions that matter are those of your employees. That's why I encourage all firms to survey their employees to determine what they think of the firm as a place to work. The responses you receive will help you prioritize the actions needed to make your workplace better. Don't go overboard asking too many questions; about 20-25 should suffice (I offer a sample questionnaire on my website).

To maximize participation, you want to allow employees to respond anonymously. So while it's useful to collect some demographic information for analysis, don't ask for so much that your staff has doubts about the anonymity of the process. It is useful, however, to compare responses by different offices and departments since perceptions of the firm are likely to vary by work unit.

Give importance to your values and mission. Most employees want to work for a firm that's committed to operating by a set of immutable guiding principles and to making a significant contribution to society. Many A/E firms, however, give only lip service to their stated values and mission. They're missing out on a critical differentiator in the competition for talent. Numerous studies confirm that companies that have a strong sense of vision and purpose have a real advantage in attracting and keeping good employees. I addressed the matter of corporate values in this previous post.

Commit to frequent, open communication.
Over the years of working with many different firms, the most common problem I've encountered is poor communication. It infects every facet of our operations. Solving the problem can be difficult, but you can make significant headway if you're committed. From the perspective of creating a winning workplace, start with improving communication between management and staff. I'm amazed how many CEOs, principals, and other senior managers envision themselves as leaders but have little discourse with rank-and-file employees. The connection between management and staff is crucial to giving employees a sense of importance and purpose, among other benefits.

Develop a clear plan for professional development and advancement. Today's mobile workforce gives more importance than ever to professional development. Few employees expect to spend their entire career with one employer anymore. So they want to work where they'll receive training, mentoring, and valuable experience. They also want to know specifically what it takes to advance in the firm.

Many firms in this business provide only random training and vague career paths, so this is an obvious opportunity to differentiate your firm from your competitors. Develop a professional development curriculum that spells out what training is needed (and provided) at every stage of the employee's advancement through the ranks. Provide clear career paths. Foster a mentoring culture (structured mentoring programs usually don't work all that well). Not only will these steps provide a tremendous recruiting advantage, but they'll help you keep your employees "less mobile."

Expect more from those in supervisory roles. Based on their extensive workplace research, the Gallup organization concluded that "people join companies and leave bosses." Indeed, those in a supervisory capacity have a tremendous impact on employee perceptions of the firm as a place to work. In looking at employee satisfaction across hundreds of firms, various studies have found greater differences among work units or offices within a company than between companies. Why? Because the employee's unit manager or immediate supervisor is the most important variable.

This means if you're serious about creating a great workplace, you've got to have great bosses. This involves setting clear expectations for those in supervisory roles and enforcing minimum performance standards. You'll need to track supervisory performance, of course, which inevitably requires getting some kind of feedback from supervisees. You'll also want to provide ongoing training and mentoring. For more on developing great bosses, read this previous post.

Adequately recognize and reward good performance. I recently wrote a series of posts on the power of positive reinforcement; plus I'll refer you to a still earlier post on how to motivate employees to give their best. These practices definitely work in elevating performance, but they also contribute in a big way to creating a great workplace. Naturally everyone wants to feel valued and appreciated. Yet when I've conducted employee surveys, getting recognition and positive reinforcement has consistently finished among the lowest scoring factors.

To turn this around, many managers face the difficult task of rewiring how they respond to their staff. Most are unintentionally neglectful, providing too little reinforcement, either positive or negative. Others are prone to negative reinforcement, even when the intent is to do something positive. A common problem is relying too much on formal (typically delayed) incentives while shortchanging a potentially more powerful motivator--simply expressing praise or thanks. Some workplace studies have concluded that the lack of adequate recognition is the number one reason for voluntary turnover.

Create a flexible, employee-friendly work environment. Long hours and high stress are routinely found in our workplaces across the A/E industry. Many firm managers seem to regard these conditions as merely the metrics of success (i.e., high utilization). But the underlying costs may negate the apparent benefits of pushing employees to the limit. Higher turnover is only one of the unintended outcomes. Productivity (as distinguished from production) suffers, as does morale. There are increased mistakes, accidents, and conflicts.

But on-the-job stress is only part of the resulting discontent. Today's workers place higher value on maintaining balance between work and their personal lives. To attract and retain employees, most companies now offer flexible work schedules, more part-time positions, comp time, and other employee-friendly benefits. Firms that don't are increasingly at a competitive disadvantage.

But don't rely entirely on your policies and benefits. Employees want bosses who acknowledge the value of life outside of work. Make this sensitivity part of your supervisory training and reward those bosses that excel in helping employees achieve the right balance between work and life. Your company will ultimately be the prime beneficiary.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mastering Marketing Messages

Most marketing in our business shares a fundamental flaw: It's self-centered instead of client-centered. The problem persists because most marketers (and their bosses) seem to think that marketing by definition is about self-promotion. But more accurately, it's about attracting attention and creating impressions.

Impressions of distinctiveness being the ultimate goal.

Which leads me to the second big problem with most marketing--it's so been there, done that. In other words, hardly distinctive. To test this premise, just visit your competitors' web sites. Anything noteworthy out there? Anything that convincingly communicates, "We're different, really"?

If you've followed this blog you know my basic philosophy of both marketing and sales is to
serve the client. Because a service-centered approach to business development is so rare, and so appreciated by clients, I believe it's the best way to distinguish your firm. I've written about this in previous posts ("Marketing for Leads," "Marketing Your Intellectual Capital").

However, there's obviously a time and place for focusing the message on yourself. In making hiring decisions, clients routinely ask about your firm. They want to know about your experience. Your capabilities. Your people. So some proportion of your marketing effort should be devoted to communicating to clients what your firm is all about.

That's what this post is about. I'd like to suggest some strategies you can apply to strengthen your marketing messages and avoid the pitfalls that make most such content boring and ineffective:

Have an out-of-the-body experience.
Well, not literally (unless you know how to do that). My point is that you need to try to prepare marketing content from the audience's perspective. What makes most marketing seem self-centered isn't just the fact that it's self-promotion. It's that so little of it connects with the interests, needs, and priorities of the intended audience. If you're going to brag about yourself, at least make it interesting and relevant to the client. A third-party reviewer can help you in this regard--if not a client, at least someone outside your firm.

Emphasize benefits not features.
I hesitate to include this point because you've heard it many times before. But if benefits selling has been hammered into our consciousness, it's not all that evident in most of the marketing content I see. Take how we write about our project experience, for example. The majority of project write-ups describe only what was done, not what was accomplished. Tasks completed versus goals achieved or
value delivered.

This problem originates outside the marketing department. When I've asked project managers to tell me how they added value, most have been rather stumped. The most common response has been some variant of, "Well, we did what we were asked to do." Fine, then. That means the client could have hired any of your competitors and gotten the same result. Perhaps that's reality, but it's not a very compelling marketing message.

Don't ignore the customer experience. Clients don't just hire you for your expertise; they pay for a positive experience. That's the essence of service. Is this important to clients? You betcha. The research bears this out, but you don't need the studies. Just consider the times your firm has gotten crosswise with a client. Was it related to your expertise or the customer experience?

So where is the customer experience in your marketing? This is created in two primary ways. The first is what the client experiences through your marketing efforts. That's one reason service-centered marketing works; it creates positive experiences that position you for the sale. The second way is describing how you deliver (or have delivered) great customer experiences. You have to be specific about it for this to be effective. In other words, describe the process by which you ensure exceptional service. Which leads to my next point...

Avoid unsubstantiated claims. Most marketing content is full of this. "We provide unparalleled service to our clients," or "Our project delivery system consistently delivers on-time performance." Where's the proof? Without proof, it's perceived as just hype--even if by chance it's true.

Ah, and there's the rub. We don't offer proof because either it doesn't exist or the statement is not really true. Or most often, it's somewhere in between. Most A/E firms don't do a good job tracking the metrics that might be of interest to clients: On-time performance, estimate-to-actual-cost comparisons, frequency of design-related change orders, documented cost savings, etc. So the tendency is to say we excel at those things even though we have little to no evidence that we do.

If you want to stand out, make distinctive claims about the benefits you deliver to clients--and be able to back it up! Again, check your competitors' web sites and see how often they make unsubstantiated claims. Do you see an opportunity?

Reveal the soul of your firm. What really distinguishes your firm? Is it not your people, your culture, your values, your passions? Most marketing is too antiseptic to capture a sense of what the firm is truly like. Unfortunately that misses the characteristic that should most make your firm attractive. It's not simply what do you do or have done, but who you are--and by extension, what it's like to work with you.

One web site that illustrates this approach well belongs to the architectural firm The Preston Partnership. From its informal design to its description of the firm's culture and values, this site conveys a picture of a different kind of firm. Moreover, it seems like a good firm to work with, whether as a client or an employee. I know nothing of the firm beyond its web site, so I can't vouch for the accuracy of the marketing message. But at the basic level of creating an impression of distinction, it is effective.

Make it user-friendly. I'm surprised at the propensity of marketing professionals--supposedly skilled at communication--to create marketing pieces that require minutes of reading to get to the core message. Sometimes their firms have spent many thousands of dollars on these. Do they really believe clients take the time to read them?

Let's try another out-of-the-body experience. This time look beyond the content (Is this even remotely interesting?) and consider the presentation. No, I'm not primarily concerned with how it looks. I'd like for you to consider how it works. Does it communicate at the skim level? Are the core messages evident at a glance? Have you presented your proofs (see above) graphically? Is it easy to navigate?

There's obviously much more involved in creating effective marketing content. But hopefully these points give you something to mull over. Want to discuss this in more detail? Give me a holler.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Thank You For Reading This Post!

Few people read my last post on positive reinforcement. I'm not surprised. The evidence would suggest that most people fail to grasp how powerfully the mix of positive and negative interactions influences the workplace. If you're a manager, it could be the most important thing you're not really paying attention to.

In one study, an astounding 65% of employees said they had received no positive reinforcement over the last year. Even if that's a bit of an exaggeration, it indicates a very real perception. In my own experience conducting employee surveys, recognition from management is consistently one of the lowest scores. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the number one reason employees voluntarily leave their job is because the don't feel appreciated.

Okay, so the workplace could be more positive. That doesn't necessarily raise a red flag for the results-oriented firm principal or manager. But it should. Would you like to boost financial performance, increase productivity, improve quality, enhance innovation, or promote greater receptivity to change? Various studies have shown that all of these factors improve--often dramatically--when there are more positive interactions in the workplace than negative ones.

So what's the positive-to-negative reinforcement ratio in your firm? It likely isn't as positive as management thinks it is, based on the research. Studies indicate that positive reinforcement should outweigh the negative by at least 4:1. Gallup found 5:1 to be the optimum balance.

Yet in many firms, negative reinforcement is much more common than positive. One reason for this is that many of management's attempts to provide positive reinforcement are actually perceived negatively by staff. Incentive programs are viewed as too infrequent, uncertain, and subjective. Many employee recognition programs touch too few individuals, and are often perceived as unfairly biased. The negative consequences of not reaching certain goals outweigh the potential rewards of achieving them.

The best way to determine how the positive-to-negative ratio is perceived in your firm or office is simply to ask. Of course, employees need to trust that they can provide honest feedback without negative repercussions. That may involve bringing in someone from the outside.

So let me summarize some valuable tips in thinking about how to increase positive reinforcement in your workplace. I'll include the main points made in my last post as well:

Determine what the perceived ratio is of positive-to-negative interactions in your firm, office, or department. Chances are that employees will struggle to give you a specific answer. You might find it helpful to use Gallup's "Interaction Scorecard" or similar tool to track and characterize interactions over some period of time.

Discover the best ways to provide positive reinforcement. Some suggest a modification of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as they would like you to do for them." Observe what seems to be currently working, or try different approaches, ask employees about their preferences, track the results of your efforts at positive reinforcement. Remember, if you didn't get the desired results, your reinforcement wasn't (reinforcement, that is).

Be sure to make positive reinforcement contingent. Link reinforcement to the specific behavior both before and after. "If you do this, you will receive this." Sounds simple, but you might be surprised how many so-called rewards or incentives are not contingent on clear, specific outcomes. Bonuses, for example, are often awarded for subjective reasons or loosely defined results that employees have a hard time connecting to their actions. Plus these results are often contingent on factors employees have no control over. That does little to reinforce targeted behaviors.

Give special attention to reinforcers that are both immediate and certain. These influence behavior far more strongly than consequences that are future and uncertain. Positive and negative consequences that are immediate and certain reinforce both desired and undesired behaviors. So you should take the time to analyze why your staff does things you don't want them to and determine what interventions are needed to reinforce the behaviors you want. For example, staff may shortcut certain quality control steps because it allows them to save time (a positive, immediate, certain consequence). So what then do you need to do interrupt that sequence and substitute it with reinforcers that promote the actions you want?

Beware of the "yes but" trap. Managers often inadvertently undermine positive reinforcement by mixing it with criticism. "You did a great job on that report, but next time let me suggest you..." There's a place for constructive criticism, but joining it to positive reinforcement is not it. Yes, that goes against the common advice to sandwich criticism between encouragement. But the fact is, people tend to remember the criticisms and downplay the positive reinforcement when both are offered simultaneously.

Avoid overdoing your attempts at positive reinforcement. Like seasoning in food, a lot more of a good thing doesn't necessarily make it better. If you go overboard with positivity (an unlikely prospect in the average A/E firm!), you can neutralize its effect. Too much praise, for example, can come across as lacking authenticity, plus it likely evolves into reinforcing mediocrity. Research suggests that 13 positive interactions to every negative one is about the limit before the beneficial effects are negated. Again, most firms don't have to worry about this, although you might find a few individual managers going over the top.

If all this sounds a bit too "touchy-feely," you're dismissing the tangible business results that are achievable by applying these principles. Positive reinforcement is no longer confined to the domain of the academics and researchers. It has repeatedly delivered substantial improvements in business performance across multiple industries. And putting it into practice is not beyond the practical sensibilities of technical professionals.

Obviously I sought to incorporate a little positive reinforcement myself in choosing the title to this post. Don't know if it worked, but if you've made it this far, hopefully the ideas outlined above are reward enough for your time.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Postive Reinforcement Works 100% of the Time!

If you've served in a supervisory capacity (or as a parent) you've undoubtedly learned that people don't always do what you asked them to. Imagine if that wasn't the case. Most managers have a pretty good idea what needs to be done; they just can't seem to get people to do it dependably. How much more successful would your firm be if managers could get consistent follow-through from their staff?

I have the solution: positive reinforcement. I know, that hardly sounds like the breakthrough strategy you might have expected. Perhaps you question the potential impact of a few more "attaboys" around the office. Or maybe you've actually tried it and didn't find that it improved performance all that much. If that's the case, you don't really understand positive reinforcement--because it works 100% of the time.

Whoa, you're likely thinking, nothing works all the time! Oh but it does, when the action is defined by the result. In other words, it's not positive reinforcement if it doesn't work. That's self evident in the definition:
  • Positive reinforcement is a favorable consequence that increases the frequency of a specific behavior.
I discussed this in my last post in relationship to quality. I noted that we naturally repeat behaviors that produce favorable results. So if you are seeking a specific behavior that will improve performance, you want to reinforce that behavior in some positive fashion. Simple in concept but, alas, not so simple in execution.

The first challenge is to determine what action on your part will positively reinforce the desired behavior. Unfortunately, what reinforces behavior for one person may not work for another. To make matters still more complicated, what served as effective reinforcement for an individual in the past may not work today.

But these challenges don't make positive reinforcement impractical to implement. Numerous companies have enjoyed dramatic improvements in business performance through application of positive reinforcement. It works, but it's not easy--nor natural for many technical practitioners. So were do you start? A few principles to keep in mind:

Find what works for others, not what works for you. As noted above, the effectiveness of different reinforcers varies among different people. A common mistake that managers make is to assume that what is reinforcing to them should work for their staff. Not true. Some people like public recognition, others don't. Some respond to monetary rewards, others not so much.

So how do you find what works for others? The first step is to simply to pay attention to what reinforces them and what doesn't. Next, try different approaches to see what works. Most attempts will work because people generally find your efforts at reinforcement to be reinforcing. If you're sincere in trying to provide positive reinforcement, others usually give you the benefit of the doubt. Lastly, you can ask your staff what is reinforcing. But this is not the first choice for a variety of reasons, including the potential for inadvertently setting up false expectations.

Make the reinforcement contingent on the desired behavior. If one can achieve the same positive consequence without engaging in the prerequisite behavior, that undermines the value of the reinforcer. To check your firm for this problem, consultant Aubrey Daniels encourages making a list of the reinforcers and rewards your firm uses to influence performance. Put each into the following statement: "You can get (reinforcer / reward) only if you __________." Daniels notes that you will typically be surprised at how few reinforcers are contingent upon the behaviors you want.

It's important to make the connection. Many of the positive reinforcements that companies try are ineffective largely due to what Daniels calls "contingency error." Take profit-sharing programs, for example. These are supposed to incentivize better performance. But employees recognize that the connection between individual performance and profit-sharing is pretty loose. Effective positive reinforcers are both contingent and consistent.

Focus on providing immediate reinforcement. It is well established that immediate, certain reinforcers are far more effective than future, uncertain ones. Again, we see why the most common financial incentives are mostly ineffective in improving performance. Don't assume that the value of such rewards overcomes the effect of delaying them. Which is more valuable, your health or eating that second helping of desert? Of course, your health is. But diets routinely fail because the benefits are future and uncertain. On the other hand, the payoff from that piece of pie is immediate and certain.

Research has found that the most effective leaders and managers are those who reinforce people while they are working. That's what coaches do, and it's the primary reason that coaching yields much higher performance than traditional management. Most managers will argue that they don't have time to reinforce others on the job. That's a matter of priorities. If you are a leader or manager, what more important responsibility do you have than helping others perform at a higher level? That's what I call the "Time Investment Principle."

Positive reinforcement is not so trite as offering up a few attaboys. Nor is it so detached as pointing everyone to the firm's annual incentive program. It involves actively engaging with others and helping create favorable outcomes in response to the things they do that you want to see them continue to do. It always works, although it's not always easy to find and do what works. But those who have leveraged the power of positive reinforcement have realized substantial success.

If you want to learn more about this approach, I encourage you to check out the works of Aubrey Daniels. Two books in particular: (1) Bringing Out the Best in People and (2) Measure of a Leader.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Quality Comes From People, Not Process

I've worked with A/E firms that went to great lengths to improve the quality of their work products, yet troubling quality breakdowns persisted. These firms substantially revamped their quality control procedures and systems, some even earning ISO 9000 certification. Still their employees continued to make costly mistakes. Dumb mistakes, in some cases.

What's up? Another lesson in human behavior. While there's no denying the value of implementing effective work processes, don't assume that these alone will improve how people do their work. Some times, in fact, they make m
atters worse. That's because process doesn't produce quality; people do. And how people perform is influenced by factors not typically addressed in standard operating procedures. Indeed, these procedures can produce opposite effects than what was intended.

To help us better understand this d
ynamic, let me refer you to the ABC model. Bear with me as we delve briefly into the science of behavior modification. It could be one of the most useful things you ever learn about leading others:

An antecedent is what comes before a behavior, what sets the stage for the behavior to occur. When managers want their employees to do something, they resort to antecedents like assigning a task, giving instruction, setting a deadline, providing training. These are all helpful and necessary steps, but antecedents typically have a short shelf life. They activate and direct behavior, but they don't do a good job motivating behavior for an extended period of time.

What really motivates us to repeat a behavior over time (say, conducting a quality check of our work) are the consequences it produces. This is common sense, if you think about it. If a behavior produces a favorable result, you're more inclined to repeat it, right? In fact, everything you do on a regular basis has been reinforced in some manner. This reinforcement is a powerful factor in shaping your behaviors, whether you're consciously aware of it or not.

You work out at the gym, drink that morning cup of coffee, use a software-based contact manager, watch your favorite television show because you like what those activities do for you. It can be just a feeling, or a tangible result, or even avoidance of something you don't want. But if you keep doing something, there is undoubtedly some kind of consequence that reinforces that behavior. Can you see where this is headed in terms of motivating quality-producing behaviors?

(By the way, if you'd like learn more about this approach to leadership, check out this excerpt from Aubrey Daniels' book Measure of a Leader. Start at the heading "Behavior Is a Function of Its Consequences.")

For this post, let me focus on one important aspect of quality management: Addressing quality problems, specifically the process of "root cause analysis" (RCA). Despite the fancy-sounding term, RCA is relatively simple in concept. It's the process by which you:
  • Define what happened (the problem)
  • Determine why it happened
  • Identify how to minimize the chances of it happening again
With rare exceptions, all quality breakdowns are ultimately expressed in behavior. There is a calculation error, a dimension is misprinted on the drawing, there's a misunderstanding with the client, the QC review fails to identify a serious mistake. The problem with the traditional approach to RCA is much like the shortcoming with traditional management; it tends to focus only on the antecedents of behavior.

That can lead to mischaracterizing the real "why" behind behaviors that lead to quality problems. Here's a common example: A firm's p
roject teams are repeatedly failing to follow the QC process for design drawings and errors are not being discovered until during construction. Management decides to add more detail to the process to try to clarify expectations, including more sign-offs to confirm that people have "followed" procedures. But those steps fail to noticeably reduce errors.

Going back to the ABC model, you can see that management attempted to solve a behavioral problem the old-fashioned way--by strengthening the antecedents (in this case, the process that is supposed to guide behavior). But without exploring why people were failing to follow the process, their cure actually magnified the root cause: The process was too complicated to begin with. Plus the people who were required to follow it had no input into its development, so there was little buy-in. Management tried to solve the problem by making the process still more complicated, again without seeking input from project staff.

Had management taken the time to try to understand the why behind employee behavior, they could have identified a more effective solution. Indeed, the behaviors that caused quality problems were inadvertently being reinforced. Shortcutting QC reviews enabled the team to meet tight schedules (a problem exacerbated by the firm's failure to budget adequate time for reviews). The firm's culture unintentionally placed greater emphasis on production than quality. The QC process so stressed third-party reviews that project team members were prone to conclude it wasn't really their responsibility.

So let me suggest that a better approach to RCA--and quality assurance in general--is to look hard at the motivation for recurrent behaviors that fail to deliver expected levels of quality. You must do this without rushing to affix blame, instead seeking to understand why people do what they do. The underlying causes usually arise from company actions, systems, and culture, not just the people involved. By better understanding and responding to the factors than motivate employee behaviors, you're better able to align your quality processes with the people who must carry them out.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Should Clients Be Your Friends?

The small engineering firm had a client relationship that most would envy. Millions of dollars in fees were awarded on a sole source basis. No proposals were necessary. "Business development" activities focused on hunting and fishing trips. The families of the firm's president and main client contact actually vacationed together!

But when the firm hired me as a consultant, I was concerned with what I saw. Although over 80% of the firm's business came from this one client--a large energy company--no one in the firm could tell me what upcoming work was in the pipeline. There was no contract. The firm's principals deemed it unnecessary to try to extend their relationship to other key decision makers in the client organization ("our contact makes all the decisions," they told me).

Then the unexpected happened: The firm's client was acquired by another company. Reorganization followed, and the firm's primary contact was reassigned. The new management team raised questions about the firm's work. They had never really been required to demonstrate their success in delivering business results--construction cost control, life cycle costs, system performance, value engineering, etc. It would prove to be their undoing.

The engineering firm lost most of the work with that client, and ended up being a bargain-bin acquisition by a larger A/E firm. Eventually what remained of their staff and three offices was discarded by the new owners, with the exception of two or three employees.

Was their fate avoidable? Perhaps. At least their story offers a cautionary tale about client friendships that neglect taking care of business. And that's a distinction worth noting since there are some who think that friendship is the apex of a strong client relationship. But that's not necessarily true.

Should you seek to make clients your friends? The philosophy of "friendship selling" was once commonplace, and I still encounter rainmakers in our profession who cling to that approach. There are still firms that largely equivocate client care with client entertainment. And the temptation still exists to neglect the business relationship because the client is a friend.

So what's the difference between a friendship and a business relationship? It's important to understand the distinction:
  • In a friendship, the primary benefit is the relationship itself. The two parties are rewarded simply by spending time together because of their common interests and strong affinity.

  • In a business relationship, the primary benefit is the business results derived from the relationship. That's not to suggest that affinity between the two parties is unimportant--it is. But a business relationship must deliver business value to survive long term.
Every client relationship by definition is a business relationship, whether a friendship develops or not. Yet I've witnessed several times, like in the story above, where friendship seemed to dull the service provider's attentiveness to meeting the client's business needs. Friendship should never be a substitute for fulfilling your responsibility to help your clients achieve business success.

A couple of important conclusions to draw from this discussion:
  • Not all clients want to be your friend. Of course, you know this. But I still see sales and client retention strategies that are arguably based on a friendship model. A telltale sign? Rainmakers who seem to call everyone they know "a good friend."

  • You don't have to have a friendship to have a great client relationship. Indeed, this has become the norm. Now I'm not suggesting an impersonal association. You still need to meet personal needs. But you can do that without a friendship that extends outside of work.
With that backdrop, let me offer a few suggestions relative to client friendships and business relationships:

Don't make making friends the focus of your sales approach. Instead center your strategy on demonstrating your ability to give the client exceptional service and deliver strong business value. Of course, personal chemistry and affinity are important, but are not a substitute for taking care of business first.

Don't mistake client entertainment for client service.
Thankfully, client policies (and a few lawsuits) have curbed most of the excesses that were prevalent several years ago. But I still encounter some who feel it necessary to regularly entertain clients to gain or retain their favor. A better approach is to delight clients in the process of working for them, not after hours.

Don't actively pursue friendships; let them develop naturally. I'm sure some will disagree, but it seems to me that friendship is not something that can be forced or manipulated; it's a natural byproduct of mutual interests and affinity. Those conditions don't always exist, or sometimes it takes an extended period for friendship to take shape. Certainly I would encourage you to nurture friendships, but don't presume to try to make clients your friends.

If friendship develops, don't ease up in delivering business value. In fact, you should be all the more motivated to do your best in this regard. Now it's not just your client's interest at stake; it's your friend's. Take the added steps to clarify mutual expectations, refine your delivery process, solicit performance feedback. I would advise engaging others in your firm who don't share the friendship to contribute in these areas. They are likely to see dimensions of the relationship that you don't.

Don't neglect other important relationships within the client's organization.
It's easy to stick with your friend. But there is usually value for both parties in broadening the relationships on both sides. Strive for a "zipper relationship" (multiple people in multiple points of interaction) versus the "button relationship" that sometimes results when friendship is involved. Make it a goal to demonstrate the value you deliver, not only to your friend, but to his or her colleagues. That will benefit both parties in the end.