Jack had an excellent relationship with his client Bill—or so he thought. The two had worked together on various projects for almost a decade, becoming friends in the process. Jack regularly took Bill on hunting and fishing trips. Their families got together every summer for a big cookout at Jack's mountain cabin.
Jack naturally assumed his environmental engineering firm would be awarded the upcoming contract for reclamation of the Willow Creek mining site, Bill's biggest project yet. Although Bill had used other firms, Jack's firm always did the larger projects. And work on the last big reclamation project had seemingly gone well, by all accounts.
Yet Bill awarded the Willow Creek contract to another firm, one with relatively little experience working with him. Jack was stunned. When he asked Bill for an explanation, he was told that the other firm had proposed a better approach, addressing some lingering shortcomings in the way Jack's firm had served their best client.
"Why didn't you tell me about these issues?" Jack queried.
"You never asked. They did," responded Bill.
Jack made the mistake that commonly plagues A/E firms in their client relationships—he assumed too much. He let his friendship with Bill obscure the fact that the business relationship was suffering from neglect. Because Jack's firm had been the favored consultant for so long, he spent little time probing how they might do better. He assumed they were doing well enough.
What about your clients? Do you really understand what they want? Or do you merely assume they want more of the same?
Based on my informal survey of hundreds of attendees at my workshops and conference sessions over the years, it's apparent that fewer than one in four firms formally solicit regular feedback from their clients. Perhaps the others are getting the needed feedback informally. But there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that too often they are assuming they know what their clients want instead of asking.
I strongly advocate what I call benchmarking service expectations at the start of every project. Doing this step would prevent many of the service delivery problems that commonly occur in our business. It's quite simple, really, just asking clients how they'd like the working relationship structured.
You might be surprised what you learn. I've done numerous client interviews, workshops, and partnering sessions where assumptions about what clients wanted were revealed to be inadequate or mistaken. In many cases, the A/E firm and client had a long-term relationship where you'd think they knew each other well. But concerns, frustrations, and misunderstandings came to light simply because I asked questions the firm never had.
What should you know about your clients? Two essential insights come to mind:
You should understand both the client's requirements and expectations. Requirements include project details that you would expect to find in a contract or work order—scope, schedule, budget, compliance with codes and regulations, etc. These are tangible, objective, impersonal, and usually readily evident.
Expectations are what the client wants but may not articulate. They relate to how the client wants to be served and how the project should meet personal needs. These are intangible, subjective, personal, and often unknown to the A/E firm because no one sought to know.
You should understand the business drivers behind the project. There is often a strong connection between business (or "strategic") needs and personal needs because the client, like you, must achieve certain business outcomes to meet the expectations of his or her job. Yet technical professionals are often content to simply focus on technical issues without addressing the need to solve business problems.
This was the circumstance in the true story I opened this post with. Bill was under increasing pressure to meet business objectives, in part due to new leadership in his division. He had communicated this to Jack, but the narrow technical orientation of Jack's project team caused them to miss the human element attached to the project. And Jack let his friendship substitute for giving appropriate attention to how the business aspects of the project really impacted Bill personally.
How well you know your client is not measured by rapport or longevity or nonbusiness interaction. It's determined by how well you can view the project through the client's eyes and understand the motivations that truly define project success. Too many technical professionals rely on their own vision of the project, assuming they know what the client wants without really asking.
It can be a big mistake. Just ask Jack.