Friday, February 18, 2011

Another Take on Client Feedback

A/E firms like to tout their client service as a key selling point. But clients aren't buying it. In a survey conducted by the consulting firm Morrissey-Goodale, only 16% of clients gave their A/E service providers an "A" grade for service. A couple of other surveys found that only a fourth of clients would recommend their top service providers, while almost two-thirds are open to switching providers.

So there would seem to be a ripe opportunity for firms to distinguish themselves in a tough economy. Yet surprisingly, by my own informal poll, only one in four firms have a regular process for gathering client feedback. Isn't that necessary to ensure you're providing excellent service?

In a previous post, I outlined an effective strategy for getting feedback. It's not that difficult. But if your firm is serious about it, you should at least investigate the advantages of the Client Feedback Tool created specifically for our industry by DesignFacilitator. It makes the task even easier, plus adds functionality to the feedback you collect that can help you better cultivate your client relationships, improve your delivery process, and evaluate your staff and project teams.

Recently, I got together over the phone with Ryan Suydam, DesignFacilitator's Director of Operations, to compare notes on the topic of client service and feedback. Here are some of the things we talked about:

Feedback supports better service. This would appear obvious, but Ryan had an interesting finding to back this up: Among firms using the Client Feedback Tool, 24% of responses included at least one score below "Met Expectations." In looking at subsequent responses from those same clients, the occurrence of scores below "Met Expectations" declined by 83%. We can assume those firms took some kind of corrective action in response to the low scores. But it makes you wonder: How many of those firms would not have even known there was a problem if they weren't collecting feedback?

Client satisfaction varies at different stages of the project.
The results of over 3,500 surveys performed with the Client Feedback Tool reveals some trends in client satisfaction over the course of a project. Average scores vary significantly by phase: Proposal (4.57), programming (5.19), schematic design (5.33), construction documents (4.80), bidding (4.82), construction administration (4.76), furnishings (6.10), end of project (5.21).

So clients grow more satisfied as the design concept takes shape, but their enthusiasm declines as the details (and costs) are defined. They are least satisfied during construction, but most pleased as furnishings are selected and delivered. Overall, they tend to be happier at the end of the project than at the beginning, which is what we'd hope.

Knowing this can help design firms adjust their level of engagement with the client to account for those phases (notably construction) when problems are more likely. But, of course, it would be even better to have client-specific, project-specific feedback to guide your responsiveness.

Benchmarking client service scores in our industry is still a bit challenging.
Unlike the financial and operational data coming from PSMJ and ZweigWhite, there seems to be little correlation among the limited client surveys available. DesignFacilitator and Morrissey-Goodale offer the only substantial client service data I've found for our industry. They use different scales for measuring satisfaction, as do I in the client surveys I conduct. But even making general comparisons is difficult.

For example, responsiveness has the highest average score among six service categories in DesignFacilitator's survey results. Almost 29% of respondents gave it top scores. But only 19% of clients in Morrissey Goodale's survey gave an "A" grade for responsiveness. Their survey measured 13 service factors. There are similar incongruences in trying to compare other aspects of the two sets of survey results.

Timing can make a difference.
DesignFacilitator found that response rates are best when invitations are sent mid-morning, and on Wednesdays. The differences, in fact, can be quite substantial compared to other times of the day and other weekdays. This probably matters little if you're not using their tool, but it raises the question whether this might apply to soliciting other types of responses from clients. Try it and see.

Reminders significantly improve your response rate.
DesignFacilitator found that sending reminders increased the response rate by 23%. But other studies have seen response rates double by sending a reminder. Bottom line: Always send reminders to clients who are slow to respond.

Ryan shares other interesting findings from the data they compile with the Client Feedback Tool on the DesignFacilitator blog. Check it out for another take on this important topic of serving clients well and confirming it through effective feedback.

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