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.