Friday, July 29, 2011

10 Top Tips on ... Client Service

Providing great client experiences (i.e., superior service) is possibly the most neglected success strategy in our business. Perhaps high repeat business rates have lulled us into complacency. But there is plenty of evidence that distinctive client service can deliver the positive business results we're all seeking in this hotly competitive marketplace.

So for the next in my "10 Top Tips" series, I focus on one of my passions--how to distinguish your firm by providing superior client service:

1. Pick the right kind of clients. There's no doubt that your ability to deliver great service is in part dependent on your clients. You'll not succeed trying to provide a Nordstrom level of service to those expecting only a Walmart experience. Some clients are hard to please, others don't seem to value your attempts to give them an extra measure of service. Most A/E firms have at least a few of these clients, but if you want to be a service leader, you need clients who appreciate great service. So screen all prospective clients for the traits evident in your best client relationships.

2. Benchmark service expectations at the outset. Remember this principle: Expectations define the experience. Service problems arise predominantly when the client's experience doesn't match the expectations. Making matters worse, most firms don't even bother to clarify what the expectations are at the start of the project. This step--what I call "service benchmarking"--is essential to enabling you to provide superior service. You might find the Client Service Planner helpful in this process.

3. Solicit feedback on a regular basis. Customer feedback is one of the requisites of providing great service. Yet according to my informal survey, only about one-fourth of A/E firms have a routine process for gathering performance feedback from their clients. I advise soliciting such feedback at two levels: (1) client-specific feedback gathered through ongoing dialogue with key client contacts and (2) general service performance feedback collected periodically from multiple clients via a standard questionnaire. The former seeks opportunities to raise service levels for individual clients; the latter looks for trends that facilitate firm-wide service delivery improvements.

4. Assign a "Client Advocate" for each significant client. While I would certainly encourage project managers to solicit performance feedback from their clients, leaving this task solely to PMs is risky practice. When there are service concerns, many clients are reluctant to confront the PM about it, even if the PM asks for such feedback. I've seen this happen many times.

So it's important to have a credible third party--what I call a "Client Advocate"--to assume responsibility for confirming that the client is happy and to lead efforts to correct any service problems. This person should be someone with some clout in the firm (in terms of being able to address client concerns) and should not be actively involved in the project work in question (to maintain some objectivity). The principal-in-charge for the project is often a good choice for Client Advocate.

5. Manage service tasks like other project tasks. Most client service tasks unfortunately fall outside the sphere of the usual project scope of work. This leads to many service breakdowns because these tasks go unmanaged.
For service-related tasks, particularly those that require significant coordination or resources, I advise defining "service deliverables." These are actions that fulfill a client request or expectation not specifically defined in the contract scope. This involves defining a discrete set of tasks that can be assigned, scheduled, budgeted, tracked, and closed like any other project task.

6. Don't neglect the little things that collectively define the client experience. I've seen many a client miffed over seemingly insignificant offenses--a simple misunderstanding or minor mistake, for example. In most cases, these were simply the latest in a long line of similarly "insignificant" mishaps that added up to an overall bad experience for the client. If you want to provide great service, you can't ignore the details. Probe for such details in soliciting client feedback. Also do your own in-house investigation, assessing every aspect of the interactions you have with clients--how you answer the phone, how quickly you respond, how your invoices look, etc.--and identify where improvements are warranted.

7. Avoid making promises you can't keep.
The 1982 best-selling book In Search of Excellence offered some of the best advice ever on client service: "Under promise and over deliver." Many PMs seem to have this backwards--"tell the client what he wants to hear up front, then beg for forgiveness later." And because clients seemingly are forgiving in many cases, many PMs continue to over promise. This is a more significant problem than many think it is. You compromise your integrity when you don't do what you said you would. You erode trust when you show you're not consistently trustworthy. Commit only to what you are reasonably confident you can deliver.

8. Be readily accessible. In this world of hyper-connectivity, you'd think our being accessible to clients is a given. It's not, although it's getting better. Mobile communication devices have eliminated many of the out-of-the-office disconnects that once plagued our service. But there are still plenty of calls coming into the office, and clients don't always have the best of experiences trying to reach the people they're calling. Don't neglect the basics: Hire a competent receptionist, keep your voice mail greeting up to date, always let the receptionist know your whereabouts, and have a backup assigned when you're inaccessible.

9. Recover strong from service breakdowns. Service problems are inevitable; effective recoveries are not. When you mess up, you can actually strengthen the client relationship if you recover well. On the other hand, you can also irreparably harm the relationship, usually due more to your botched response than the initial problem. Your recovery strategy should at a minimum include the following steps: (1) take responsibility (but not necessarily the blame) for the problem, (2) define your response and get the client's buy-in, (3) do what you said, and (4) take steps to prevent the problem from recurring (and let the client know about it).

10. Nurture the client relationship. Great client service is always easier in the context of a strong relationship. This fact relates back to my first point. Exceptional client experiences are typically the product of mutual commitment. While all firms appreciate such relationships, most lack a specific strategy for developing and nurturing them. I've written several posts on this subject, including: (1) bungled business relationships, (2) initiating the client relationship, (3) the client relationship life cycle, and (4) focusing on your key client relationships.

Monday, July 25, 2011

10 Top Tips on ... Leadership

Busy people are looking for quick advice. Thus it seems if you include a number in the title of your book, article, or blog post (e.g., 7 Habits..., 5 Steps..., 3 Secrets...), it's likely to attract more readers. People wrestling with complex challenges will often settle for a few simple solutions. These may not deliver a complete fix (and rarely do), but at least they offer hope of significant improvement over the status quo.

In that spirit, I introduce my "10 Top Tips" series, starting with the all-important topic of leadership. These represent some of the best strategies I've discovered (and put into practice over the years). There's not a lot of detail presented below, so click on the included links for more insights:

1. Multiply your impact by investing time helping others succeed. By definition, successful leaders have successful followers. This requires the leader spending time helping others increase their skill, productivity, and effectiveness--what I call the Time Investment Principle. Give priority to being an active mentor, coach, encourager. You can never accomplish on your own as much as you can by helping others do more. Even better, focus your attention on developing other leaders who can likewise multiply their impact through others.

2. Bring out the best in people through positive reinforcement.
Undoubtedly you've heard the old axiom, "what gets rewarded gets done." Unfortunately, most A/E firms do a poor job of applying rewards in ways that actually improve performance. Positive reinforcement involves leveraging favorable consequences to increase desired behaviors. It is immediate, frequent, and certain, in sharp contrast with the incentives used most often in our industry. Bottom line, it's a proven method for improving performance, with companies seeing productivity gains as high as 300% after implementing a structured process of positive reinforcement.

3. Don't ignore the power of emotion. Research shows that a person's EQ is a much better predictor of leadership ability than IQ. EQ stands for emotional quotient, which is a measure of one's ability to discern and manage the emotional context of human relationships (i.e., emotional intelligence). Why is EQ so important? Because our emotions strongly affect our interactions with others. Ignore them (and many managers seem to) at your own risk. Doing an online assessment of your EQ might be a good starting place. Understanding yourself is a crucial part of strengthening your EQ.

4. Promote simplicity and focus. The unfortunate reality is that most management actions make life more difficult for employees. The usual outcome is more steps to follow, more forms to fill out, more things to remember, more crippling complexity. Overload and complexity exact a heavy toll in our offices, but it has become so normative that we hardly acknowledge it. The new wave of leaders has mastered the art of simplicity and focus. This was a key finding in the research summarized in the landmark book Good to Great (i.e., the Hedgehog Concept). Take this as your leadership challenge: Be constantly looking for ways to focus on what's most important, clarify expectations, simplify work processes, eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy.

5. Use influence rather than positional power.
Pulling rank is sometimes necessary, but it's a poor excuse for leadership. Leaders influence others to follow even if they have the authority to tell them what to do. Here's why: Mandates typically produce "compliant effort"--doing the minimum required--versus discretionary effort, which is giving more than is required. Discretionary effort is a gift from the employee to the firm; it can't be demanded. But it can be drawn out through influence and positive reinforcement. The essential difference between the two levels of effort is the difference between "have-to" and "want-to." So use your positional power sparingly; your personal power has far greater potential for elevating your team's performance.

6. Shift more time from Quadrant III to Quadrant II.
Time is your most strategic personal and corporate asset. You can't accomplish anything without expending some of it. Here's the rub: Most of us have more things to do than time to do them. So we must carefully allocate the limited time we have. Unfortunately, in many firms, how time is allocated is affected more by externally-driven urgency than internally-defined importance. This mindset leads many firms to spend much of their time on urgent-but-not-important tasks (Quadrant III, according to Covey's Time Management Matrix). Effective leaders, by contrast, are able to shift substantial amounts of time from Quadrant III to Quadrant II--to important-but-not-urgent tasks. This is critical in transitioning from being a reactive organization to becoming a proactive one.

7. Manage nonbillable time. By my calculation, the average 100-person A/E firm has about 7,900 days of nonbillable time each year (you can do the math to determine what that would equate to for your firm). So what are you doing with all that time? Most firms use nonbillable time in haphazard fashion, without specific plans, budgets, assignments, metrics. Yet how you use this time is critical to the success of your strategic initiatives, business development, operational improvements, professional development, and a host of other crucial functions. The simple advice is this: Manage nonbillable time with the same discipline as you manage project time.

8. Foster a culture of collaboration. The advantages of multidisciplinary teams are apparent, but too often the potential benefits are diluted by organizational silos and inadequate coordination. These problems contribute to quality breakdowns, unhappy clients, infighting, eroded profits, and--not to be overlooked--a missed opportunity to gain a competitive edge. What's the solution? Strong leadership. There's no reason why we can't translate the varied strengths of our different technical disciplines into better designs, more innovation, greater efficiency, and higher-value services. This opportunity deserves more attention from leaders than it typically gets.

9. Challenge the status quo. You don't need leaders if your firm is not undergoing change. By change, I mean proactive, internally-driven change, not simply scrambling to keep up with external changes (like the economy) over which you have no control. The recession has presented a wake-up call for leadership, but many firms continue to persist in doing things much as they did before. Successful leaders, by contrast, are change agents. They know how to overcome the typical resistance to change, to define a compelling vision for the future, and to implement the steps toward realizing that vision. The best leaders I know are driven by the pursuit of excellence, not just as a business objective but as a core value.

10. See things through to the end. Many leaders are more effective at starting things than finishing them. They love creating vision, outlining plans, initiating changes, building consensus. But many lose focus and energy over the long haul. That's one of the main reasons that strategic change initiatives ultimately fail. This is where the investments made in developing others and fostering collaboration come into play. There are usually others within the firm who may not be that strong on vision or inspiration, but can finish the job. The leader's task is to engage, support, and encourage these people in keeping the effort going over time until completion.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Leader's Progress Plan

This week I'm doing the final wrap-up session for a six-month leadership program I've been conducting. In this session, we roll the various strategies we've covered over the course of the program into a personalized "Leader's Progress Plan." I thought I'd share the primary steps of that plan in this week's post.

To provide context for this exercise, let me refer you to a previous post I wrote entitled "Leadership: What Really Matters." That succinctly captures what I consider the essential elements of successful leadership. You'll see that philosophy reflected in the Leader's Progress Plan.

Developing this plan involves focusing on three critical aspects in each of the following five areas:
  • 3 priorities
  • 3 strengths
  • 3 people
  • 3 challenges
  • 3 goals
Let's explore each of these five components of the Leader's Progress Plan:

3 priorities to spend more time on. I wrote about the curse of busyness not long ago. If time is your most strategic asset--and it is!--then an effective leader must be able to promote more productive use of individual and collective time. A general goal is to shift more time from urgent-but-not-important tasks to important-but-not-urgent ones.

A good place to start is dealing with your own time usage. Identify your three "high payoff activities," those things you do that deliver the greatest value to the firm. Estimate how much of your time you're currently spending on each of those three crucial activities, and then determine how much time would be optimal. Your action plan is to define how to shift more time to your high payoff activities.

3 strengths to develop further. Workplace research by Gallup found that developing personal strengths is much more effective than trying to shore up weaknesses. Yet training programs often focus on the latter, including leadership development programs. A better approach is to identify your leadership strengths and determine how to improve upon them.

To help leaders inventory their strengths, I like to draw upon the five "core practices" of leaders based on the extensive research of Kouzes and Posner and published in their popular book The Leadership Challenge. A list of those core practices follows, along with some personal strengths that might be associated with each:
  • Challenge the process. Change agent, innovative, willing to take risks, growth oriented, committed to improvement
  • Inspire a shared vision. Visionary, persuasive, influential, passionate, optimistic, focused, problem solver
  • Enable others to act. Team builder, collaborative, communicator, service oriented, willing to delegate and coach
  • Model the way. Personal credibility, possess integrity, personally involved, disciplined, persevering, humble
  • Encourage the heart. High emotional intelligence, positive, encouraging, caring, celebrate success, use appropriate rewards (i.e., positive reinforcement)
Use the above list to help you identify your top three leadership strengths. Then for each strength listed, write down what steps you'll take to improve upon and better leverage those strengths. Possible actions include recruiting a coach or mentor, getting some training, revising your job duties, soliciting feedback from coworkers, and doing some reading and research.

3 people to give more attention to. If you lead a firm, office, or department, your first thought might be that you need to spread your time across all those you lead. But that wouldn't be the best way to improve group performance. A better way is to consider how you could have a greater impact on those you lead who themselves can have the greatest impact on others.

At the core of this strategy is what I call the Time Investment Principle.
This principle states that the best way for you as a leader to increase your productivity is to give priority to helping others increase their productivity. In that way your contribution is multiplied through the efforts of the team or workgroup.

So who are the three individuals who you could help have the greatest impact on your organization? This, in effect, enables you to compound the multiplying impact of helping others perform at a higher level. Having identified those three people, write down specifically how you will help them improve and--importantly--estimate the time allocation needed for each.

3 challenges to overcome. Leaders prove their true value (or lack thereof) in difficult times. Through this economic downturn, the ability of some leaders has been confirmed. New leaders have been revealed by rising to the occasion. But some leaders have been exposed as being inadequate for the challenge. If you are to excel as a leader, you must prepare yourself for taking on the formidable challenges that will inevitably come your way.

This next step of the Leader's Progress Plan involves identifying the three challenges, threats, or obstacles you face--personally or your group--that could most undermine your success in the coming year. List the primary impacts associated with each, the probability that those impacts will manifest themselves, and the actions you will take to overcome or avoid each.

3 group goals to achieve in the next 3 years. Effective leaders keep an eye to the future without getting sidetracked by present difficulties and urgencies. That's why it's important to have some long-term goals to guide your organization. You may already have done this step in some fashion (for example, a strategic planning exercise). But in this exercise we're focusing on those group goals that you personally have the greatest stake and involvement.

This should tie back in part to the first step of this plan, identifying the three priorities that warrant more of your time. Indeed, although the Leader's Progress Plan would seem to result in 15 action items to do, more likely you'll find yourself consolidating several of them. An ideal plan might have no more than 8-10 action items.

Once you've developed your Leader's Progress Plan, I encourage you to engage a colleague or two to help you "stay on plan." Is anything more important than focusing on the issues outlined above? Probably not, but you will undoubtedly have many things competing for that distinction. Here's where the essence of leadership rises to the top. Can you stay focused on those things that matter most? That's the path to truly developing your leadership abilities.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Time to Rethink Your Website?

The internet is a treasure trove of information and advice. Type about any question into the Google search bar and you can get answers on topics from health to home repair to hieroglyphics. Looking for insight into what product or service to buy? Most people use the internet for help in making purchasing decisions, not to mention making the purchase itself at many sites.

This applies to the A/E business as well. A survey found that buyers of professional services (including architecture and engineering) are increasingly influenced by the service provider's website. Indeed, 74% said that the provider's website had at least "some influence" on the ultimate purchase decision. This number represented a 23% increase from a similar study conducted just five years earlier.

So how much of an asset is your website in helping clients choose your firm? One way to assess this is to compare your site to that of your primary competitors. Does your site give your firm an advantage or disadvantage? In my own review of A/E firm websites, I've found very few that really stand out. What are some ways to make your website a more powerful influence in client purchasing decisions? A few suggestions:

Remember that first impressions count. One of the first things many prospective clients will do after hearing about your firm is to check out your website. What impressions might they take away from a few minutes spent there? Some firms design their websites in house, and it shows. Your website can quickly create an image of status and professionalism, or that of a bit player. It's worth the investment of hiring a talented web designer, if you haven't already.

Provide content of value to clients. The best way to promote your firm's credentials is not by telling potential customers about what you can do, but by demonstrating your expertise and insight through "content marketing." Seminars, speaking engagements, articles, white papers, and other resources form the core of this approach. Use your website to post content of value to clients, addressing their issues, concerns, and interests. Very few A/E firms do so. And if you update such material on a regular basis, it can encourage clients to return to your site.

Allow visitors to peek into the soul of your firm. Most A/E firm websites are rather lifeless, a dispassionate outline of basic facts, qualifications, and experience. Prospective clients need that kind of information, of course, but they need much more in making a purchase decision. They are looking for a comfort factor--"What's it like to work with this firm?" Your website should portray something about your culture, your values, your distinct way of doing business. Again, show it, don't just describe it (this firm does a pretty good job of this).

Make your site easy to navigate and skimmable. Busy clients (and which ones aren't?) aren't going to spend a lot of time reading your website (unless you've got some helpful client-oriented content). So make it easy for them to move from page to page and skim the main messages. Most A/E firm sites have relatively few pages, in part due to a lack of good content, but still demand too much reading for those simply interested in learning a little more about the firm.

Invite visitors to stay connected in some way. One of the great challenges of business development is engaging clients at the right time, when they are ready to begin the buying process. That's a key purpose of marketing, to keep your firm in front of the client on a regular basis so that you are "top of mind" when the need arises. Your website, obviously, is not effective in maintaining contact unless you are regularly adding content that draws people back. But you can also encourage visitors to stay in touch by signing up for your mailing list or subscribing to your blog, for example. Of course, this only works if you have something valuable to share!

There are some more ideas in this helpful white paper. You'll have to provide minimal contact information to download. Also, check out the great free resources available at HubSpot on various aspects of internet marketing.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How to Produce an Effective Report

Many technical professionals fail to appreciate the value of a well-done report. They seem to neglect the reality that the report is their work product, not the expertise behind it. A report that is not well written, expertly presented, and clear in purpose can undermine even the best technical work.

It's time that we gave more attention to the quality of the communication products that serve to deliver our findings, design concepts, and solutions to clients and other key stakeholders. This week, let's focus on reports.

Producing a quality report requires adequate planning and management. It also involves setting a high standard for the finished product. It's not simply documentation of your work; it is your work! So let me suggest some basic steps for producing better reports:

First, define the report's purpose. A common mistake is preparing a report without a clear definition of what it is supposed to accomplish. Every report should be designed with a specific outcome in mind. Rarely is a report simply a repository for data and information. Usually it is prepared to support a specific set of actions. Start the report preparation process by clarifying the document's purpose so that you can plan the content and presentation accordingly.

Identify the key messages. Determine the three to five primary messages that need to be clearly communicated to accomplish the report's purpose. Then for each key message, identify your supporting information. Present your key messages in a manner that they get noticed. This approach helps you avoid the amorphous "data dump" that characterizes many technical reports. Defining key messages early not only serves to guide the writing of the report, but can support determination of what data and information needs to be included.

Develop a detailed report outline. The organization and presentation of the report should support communication of your key messages. Avoid automatically defaulting to a standard or previous report outline that may not best serve your purposes. Your report outline should not only include the overall structure of the document, but highlight the core content and how it will be presented.

Engage reviewers early. Have technical and senior reviewers look at your detailed report outline before the writing begins. This will help you avoid major revisions once the report is drafted. It also allows you to strengthen the outline with the input of these valued experts.

You might also consider soliciting reviews of your detailed report outline from the client and other key stakeholders. Taking this proactive step will preclude problems later in the process, just as in getting early input from internal reviewers.

Help your preparation team succeed. Many of the most serious report problems occur due to inadequate planning. Another persistent source of problems is failing to properly assign, equip, and monitor the people preparing the document. A few tips:
  • Insist on detailed section outlines before writing begins. This is particularly important with more inexperienced writers. The outlines enable you to review the overall content and organization in advance, and to offer recommendations for improvement before the writing begins (when corrections are more easily made).
  • Provide sample or source material. Many reports can be modeled after other reports (assuming they are well done). Additionally, sections of the report can sometimes be taken from prior submittals on the same project. Provide authors with representative report sections, tables, and graphics to guide their work.
  • Communicate adequate background and direction. Make sure all team members understand both the context and relevant details of their assignments. Client requirements and intermediate deadlines should be clearly communicated. It's especially important to provide ample direction to those who may not have been involved in the investigation, study, or design development.
  • Generate tables and figures early. This not only helps eliminate some last-minute rushes, but facilitates better writing and organization of the document. In many cases, if you can draw a clear picture of it, you can better describe it in writing.
  • Regularly monitor the work. The project or task manager is responsible for seeing that all work is performed on schedule, on budget, and in conformance with the report outline. This requires ongoing dialogue with team members, including both individual and team progress meetings. Don't wait until drafts are completed before checking the work.
Establish one "final author." It must be clear who has ultimate responsibility for the content and organization of the document. Typically this will be the PM. The final author determines how various review comments will be incorporated into the document, including which revisions to modify or ignore (all revisions should pass through this person and not go directly to administrative staff). The final author is the gatekeeper for report quality. Obviously, this individual should have a thorough understanding of any special client requirements or standards for the report.

Enforce internal milestones.
Failure to stick with internal deadlines is a significant quality problem and source of stress because it typically results in a harried fire drill the last few days before a client or regulatory deadline. The PM is ultimately charged with keeping the project on track, and should monitor and enforce intermediate milestones.
  • Allow enough time for reviews. This is actually a planning step, but I include it here because the problem often manifests itself when you're up against a deadline and it's harder to correct. Hopefully you've engaged reviewers early so there are fewer surprises and time-consuming revisions later. Tip: Clarify precisely what each reviewer's responsibility is; this can both shorten review times and improve quality.
  • But expect team members to self-check their work. Although formal review procedures are defined to help ensure quality, all team members should recognize their responsibility to produce draft and final products that are accurate and meet appropriate quality expectations. No one should assume that his or her errors will subsequently be caught by another team member or reviewer.
Outline next steps. As noted above, reports almost always support specific follow-up actions. I recommend outlining such steps in your report, and placing them in a executive summary or recommendations section where they won't be overlooked. If for some reason it's inappropriate to include next steps in your document, be sure you communicate them in some other manner.