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.

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