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:
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.
- Positive reinforcement is a favorable consequence that increases the frequency of a specific behavior.
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.
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 matters 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 dynamic, 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:
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.
- Define what happened (the problem)
- Determine why it happened
- Identify how to minimize the chances of it happening again
That can lead to mischaracterizing the real "why" behind behaviors that lead to quality problems. Here's a common example: A firm's project 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
A couple of important conclusions to draw from this discussion:
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.
- 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.
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.
All relationships go through stages as they develop and mature. Client relationships are no exception. It's helpful to understand where you are in the relationship life cycle so that you can better identify the appropriate steps to take to preserve the relationship and hopefully advance it to the next level. There are also inherent risks associated with each stage that it's important to recognize.
Through my work with clients over the years, I've noticed five distinct stages in the life of the relationship. These are illustrated in the figure below:
Whatever stage you find your firm in relative to any given client, there is one constant: Your competitors are vying for that same relationship. That alone makes this discussion more than merely an academic one. You should approach any valued client relationship with a sense of urgency. One survey by RainToday.com found that over half of A/E firm clients are open to switching from their current providers. Don't take these relationships for granted!
With that backdrop, let's consider each stage of the relationship life cycle:
Courtship. This stage encompasses your business development activities. In courtship, you are prospecting, screening, initiating relationships, submitting proposals, closing deals. The key question in the context of this stage is: Are you pursuing just projects or relationships? I advocate making "relationship potential" at least part of your decision making regarding which prospects to pursue and which to pass on.
The reasoning behind this is simple. If we're all agreed that long-term, profitable client relationships are to be highly valued, then why would we not specifically seek such relationships? Instead, most A/E firms focus their business development efforts on pursuing projects rather than clients. I think it wise to define what you want in a client relationship and then go looking for it. Check out these earlier posts for more thought on the Courtship stage of the client relationship--"What Can We Learn From Matchmaking Sites" and "Choosing the Right Clients."
Contract. While contract award is often thought of as the terminus of your business development effort, it is only the beginning of the formal client relationship. To draw an analogy from romantic relationships, this is hardly marriage; it's more like cohabitation. There's no long-term commitment at this point, only a pledge to stay together until "project completion do us part."
Even at this stage, many A/E firms are still not thinking long term. It's easy for technical professionals to turn their focus to the work rather than the relationship. Of course, quality work will contribute to a continuation of the relationship, but only if there's a relationship to extend. Client relationships rarely end because of technical shortcomings; it's more likely related to a breakdown in the working relationship.
That's why it's critically important to do what I call "benchmarking expectations" immediately after contract award (if not before). This involves mutually defining what is expected in terms of the working relationship. For more detail on this, read my earlier post "Building the Relationship After the Sale."
Continuation. If all goes well enough, there's a good chance that you'll have another opportunity or more to work with the client. Usually this is reward for passing the test under the previous contract. The terms of that test are defined not only in the contract, but in the client's informal expectations about the the relationship. Fail the test and the relationship ends at project completion (if not before!). Of course, some clients simply won't have subsequent work or prefer to spread it around regardless of how well you do.
While it's certainly affirming to reach the Continuation stage with a client, there's little reason to get comfortable here--even if it lasts over an extended period. It doesn't necessarily imply that the client is loyal. In fact, that's probably not the case. Confused? Well remember the earlier point that over half of clients are open to change. In other words, if someone better came along, clients would be tempted to upgrade. Also consider that another study found that only 16% of clients give top grades for A/E firm service and performance. Only one in four would recommend their go-to firms to others.
My point is, if you want to reach the next stage in the relationship life cycle, you have to work at it. Most A/E firms boast that over 80% of their work comes from repeat clients. But not all of those clients are committed to continuing the relationship into the future. Indeed, the hard fact is that many client relationships in the Continuation stage are largely sustained by convenience, familiarity, or resignation (vs. delight) that there's not a better alternative. To get to the next stage will be even more challenging than getting from Contract to Continuation.
Commitment. At the commitment stage, the client has developed a loyalty to your firm. There's little if any serious consideration of other choices. If your service and performance were scored by the client, you would get mostly fives. This is obviously a great place to be in your relationship with the client. Now you've finally entered the equivalent of marriage. It's not contract to contract anymore; it's for the foreseeable future.
Most A/E firms recognize the specialness of the reaching the Commitment stage. They continue to actively invest in maintaining the relationship. But some grow lax, just as in many marriages. When there was still concern about retaining the relationship, the firm was attentive and devoted. Now that it appears secure, some turn their focus to other relationships earlier in the life cycle. Watch out!
As I described in an earlier post, even the best committed relationships can collapse under the right set of circumstances. Sometimes it's not any one big thing, but a persistent series of little failures that all add up to a perceived neglect of the relationship. That's why I advise a proactive plan of attack to stave off the risk of stagnation in such relationships. Schedule periodic meetings with the client to review performance and discuss how to take the relationship further still. Define specific, actionable steps. Identify meaningful metrics to gauge progress and follow-through. Specifically budget time to invest in the relationship outside of project work.
Convergence. A committed relationship is wonderful, but there is a higher level still. Convergence is reached when your firm becomes an integral, strategic component of your client's business. It's a level very few A/E firms attain.
Reflecting on the three levels of client needs, I think there is a correlation between these and the stages of the client relationship life cycle. Meeting technical needs can get you to the Contract stage, and even to the Continuation stage if you do a passable job of meeting personal needs. But to get to the Commitment stage, you'll have to excel at meeting personal needs. Convergence is achieved only when you master meeting strategic needs.
You'll never reach this highest stage if you are only a design or technical services firm. This is the realm of the trusted adviser. At this level you are not only responding to your client's strategic needs but helping define what those needs are. You are not only providing solutions, but have become an essential part of those solutions. You are both consultant and practitioner.
So what can you do with this right now? Let me suggest that you get your management team together and review your client list, identifying where each client relationship currently is relative to the five stages described above. Be brutally honest. Then outline what steps are needed to take each relationship (at least the ones you want to retain) to the next level. If that seems too ambitious, then do the exercise only for your top clients.
I'm convinced you'll be well served in going through such an analysis. Better still, so will your clients.