Thursday, February 2, 2012

Thinking Like Clients

Imagine a few of your clients deciding to start their own A/E firm. They've had a lot of experience with firms like yours, so they have a pretty good idea what's involved. But these guys don't want to start just another A/E firm. They want to do something substantially different--to create the kind of firm they wish they'd had the opportunity to work with.

What would that firm look like? How might they do business differently?

If you want to know how to differentiate your firm, sell more work, retain more customers, and increase profits, the best advice I can offer is simply this: Think like clients. Try to look at your firm and how you conduct every aspect of your business through their eyes.

Obviously, the best way to understand how clients see your firm is to ask them. I certainly urge you to do that. But there's also value in using good ol' common sense, so long as it is applied from the client's perspective. Here are a few examples of thinking like clients:

Don't call me unless you have something specific to offer. You should know how it feels to be on the receiving end of a cold call. Yet you call me out of the blue wanting to introduce me to your firm. Do you think I don't know enough firms already? If you want to talk with me, do a little homework to understand my current needs and call only when you can offer some helpful advice or information specific to my problem.

Respect my time. Sure I like you, but I like my wife and kids better and they don't expect to get an hour of my time when I'm working. If you want to meet with me, give me something more than the usual drop-by sales call. Come prepared to deliver what you promised when you called--real help in solving my problem. And don't take more time than is necessary; keep the chit-chat to a minimum. By the way, that lunch invite you thought would spare me an interruption at the office--when else do you think I get a break during the day?

Don't expect me to read your whole proposal (or report). Try this: Do a total word count for your document and divide that by 250, which is about the number of words the average American adult reads per minute. So do you really think I'm going to spend over an hour reading your proposal? No, I think you know I'm going to skim and search for the information I'm looking for. So why did you make it so hard for me to do that?

Tell me when you can actually deliver the project, not what you think I want to hear. I know this is a little confusing. I pressed you to commit to an ambitious deadline that you probably knew you couldn't make. But you said you could and made me happy for a while. Now it's crunch time and your deliverable is late. If you had said no at the start, I could have adjusted the overall project schedule--even though I wouldn't be happy about it. Now I'm in a real bind.

Don't wait to tell me about a problem until it's a big one. I don't know if you've noticed, but project problems don't usually go away by ignoring them. They get worse. I want to you to tell me when you see a problem developing so we can intervene before it gets out of hand. Better yet, anticipate when a problem might arise so we can consider some proactive steps to prevent it from occurring.

Don't just communicate with me on a need-to-know basis. I almost hate to hear from you because it's usually bad news or late news. Yeah, I'm busy and don't want to be bothered with trivial updates. But I don't like hearing about important developments and activities after the fact. That sometimes leaves me with few, if any, options for responding to the situation. Give me a chance to be proactive.

Understand my business. It's not just an engineering or architectural project; it's a business move designed to address financial, operational, competitive, or political issues critical to our success. Sometimes you don't seem to make the connection. You focus on the technical issues that you're interested in and overlook the business drivers that I need to respond to. I don't just need a designer or specialty consultant; I need a problem solver who can see the whole picture.

These are just a few of the perspectives I've gained from clients over the years. None of them are hard to understand if you imagine yourself in the client's role. If you want to raise the value of your services, try mixing more empathy with your expertise.

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