Expectations define the experience. That's one of the fundamentals of delivering exceptional client service. The client is the sole arbiter of what constitutes great service (i.e., a great experience), and that opinion depends as much on what was expected as what was delivered.
So what steps does your firm take to ensure that you understand the client's service expectations? In my experience, few firms follow any formal process for clarifying expectations. Worse still, most do a poor job of soliciting this input even on an informal basis. The focus instead is on determining the usual scope, schedule, and budget.
Yet the traditional project parameters usually fail to outline service expectations adequately. To illustrate this, consider your own experience procuring a technical service--in this case, hiring a mechanic to fix your car. What explicit instructions do you give the mechanic? Diagnose the problem. Fix it. Perhaps you ask when the work will be done, or for an estimate of the cost.
Where in that conversation do you discuss your service expectations? Usually this matter is largely ignored. Do you want the mechanic to inform you of other problems with the car? If you trust him, probably yes. But if you don't, such information could be perceived as a ploy to try to take more of your money. Do you want new parts or refurbished? If you have an older car, you might prefer the latter.
Indeed, there are several expectations you have about the transaction that likely won't be discussed. But what factors will determine whether you continue to do business with that mechanic? Fixing your car is a given. Are not the service you receive and trust you build the primary determinants of a continued relationship? Yet how can the mechanic know how best to serve you and gain your trust if you don't discuss your expectations?
This is the situation you face with your clients, especially the ones you have limited experience with. And by the way, don't merely assume that you know your long-term clients' expectations if you've never asked. Through the many client surveys and interviews I've conducted, I've learned that many A/E firms don't know their clients as well as they think. When I've gotten involved in troubleshooting service breakdowns, once again I've found that expectations weren't clearly understood.
So what can you do? I recommend a process I call "service benchmarking" to clarify the service expectations at the outset of the project (to be revisited periodically over the course of the project). This activity can be conducted formally in a meeting with the client (the preferred method) or informally over several routine conversations. Following are the kinds of issues you want to explore as part of service benchmarking:
Communication. How often does the client want to communicate on a routine basis? By what means? Who are the key points of contact within both organizations? What kinds of communications is each responsible for? How many meetings are expected? Who is responsible for facilitating those meetings?
Decisions and involvement. What kinds of decisions does the client want to be involved in? Who will make what decisions? At what specific points in the project is client approval needed? Does the client want to participate in any internal project team meetings or joint strategy sessions? At what stages does the client want to review draft work products?
Information and data. What information does the client want you to routinely report to them? What information will the client provide? What specific records should your firm maintain for the client's purposes and in what form? What are the best electronic means for sharing information and data?
Deliverable standards. Does the client have specific deliverable standards? Are there any special document control requirements? How many copies are needed and to whom should they be sent?
Invoicing and payment. When should invoices be delivered to the client to ensure timely payment? What attachments or backup information does the client require? Are there any special payment methods that might be beneficial to both parties?
Changes. Does the client prefer a specific change management process? What is the basis for estimating extra costs? What approval is needed and how long should this take? How does the client want you to respond should a mistake occur?
Performance feedback. Is the client willing to provide honest feedback on your firm's performance? What is the best timing and process for soliciting this feedback?
These are just a few of the questions you might ask the client in defining service expectations. Be sure to write down the client's responses and share them with the client to confirm mutual understanding. You might develop a questionnaire for this purpose (or download my "Client Service Planner"). After filling it in, forward it to the client to confirm that you accurately captured his or her comments. This establishes the "benchmark" by which service performance during the project can be managed and measured.
In my next post, I'll outline a suggested process for conducting service benchmarking. Any insights you'd like to share on this topic are welcome. Stay tuned!