Monday, January 28, 2013

Are We Clear About Client Service?

Several years ago, the company I worked for decided to add this statement to its core values: "Our top operating commitment is to set the industry standard for service." This begged the question: What then is the current standard?

We hired a consultant to find the answer by surveying a set of existing and prospective clients within our core markets. The responses we got were a bit perplexing. Clients said the two top traits of outstanding service were expertise and quality. Really? Expertise and quality seemed to relate more to the technical work product than client service. 

That survey was my first clue of apparent confusion about what client service is. Clients and service providers alike seem to blur the distinction between service and services. On the other hand, some tend to define client service too narrowly, as a distinct part of the working relationship rather than the whole of it. Let's consider what client service isn't, and what it is, for our business:

Client service is not about more services. I was consulting a regional A/E firm a few years ago that was seemingly committed to making service excellence the centerpiece of its differentiation strategy. They had hired a corporate client service officer, designated a network of client service managers, and enacted several service-related project procedures. 

Yet when I suggested that their market sector leaders include specific client service goals in their annual business plans, none seemed to understand what service was. Goals included cross selling, adding new services, expanding marketing, making strategic hires—even increasing fees. There was nothing about better communication, more responsiveness, improved accessibility, or higher satisfaction scores. 

In various client service workshops I've conducted, participants often seem to equate better service with expanded services. "We need to let our clients know we can do...," is a common response to my question about how to improve service. A new service may well help you serve your client better, but what about providing better service through the work you're already performing?

Client service is not a distinct activity in the scope of serving the client. Conversely, client service is sometimes reduced to just one of many things a firm can do to serve the client. One well-known professional services marketing guru stated in an interview that trying to differentiate your firm based on superior client service is not likely to succeed. Yet when asked in the next question what differentiation strategies work, she immediately pointed to the "client experience." Does not great service create great experiences?

Last week, I wrote about Hinge's excellent report entitled Why Buyers Buy, which was based on a survey of over 400 A/E/C firm clients. One of the surprising findings (for me, at least) was that only 4% of buyers considered good service an important selection factor. Yet other higher-ranked factors (e.g., delivering on promises) would, in my opinion, fit within realm of client service. The survey seemed to set client service apart as a distinct function.

Perhaps this narrow definition of client service is rooted in a product-oriented view of customer service. In a product company, there is typically a customer service department that deals largely with customer questions, complaints, and returns. There are other departments—such as tech support, marketing, sales, finance and accounting—that also contribute to the overall customer experience.

In our business, the delineation between those functions is not so evident. In many cases, the same individuals who deliver the work also sold the work, bill for the work, provide "tech support," and, of course, are responsible for client service. The experience is still derived from the combination of multiple encounters with the firm, but those encounters are usually centered on just a few individuals. In other words, the client experience is a much more personal and relational transaction in professional services—and much more integrated with the work product itself.

Client service is about satisfying clients. Thus my favorite definition of client service is "the sum of all actions involved in satisfying the client." Does this mean that technical delivery is part of client service? In one sense, it is. You can deliver an outstanding technical work product without providing great service. But a client is not going to credit you with great service if your work is of poor quality. So excellent service must include a strong work product.

That's not to suggest that client service is everything you do for the client. It is how you deliver your work, not what you deliver. It focuses on the interactions you have with the client, the interpersonal dimensions of the project. It is the working relationship. It's what the client experiences in working with your firm.

When I survey clients to determine their perceptions of client service, I usually use a questionnaire that explores 12 primary aspects of service:
  • Meeting expectations: Overall, we met your performance and service expectations.
  • Communication: We kept you sufficiently informed of our progress and any new developments.
  • Accessibility: Our people were accessible when you needed them.
  • Dependability: We consistently followed through on our promises to you.
  • Schedule compliance: We met the established deadlines.
  • Responsiveness: Our staff was responsive and flexible in adapting to your needs.
  • Quality: Our work products met anticipated quality standards.
  • Expertise: We provided the range of expertise you needed, resulting in technically sound solutions.
  • Understanding needs: We listened carefully and demonstrated a thorough understanding of your needs.
  • Recovery: When problems arose, we were prompt and effective in responding to them.
  • Innovation: We were able to think out of the box and provide creative solutions to your toughest challenges.
  • Value/cost: We provided good value for the dollar and effectively controlled your costs. 
The veracity of these 12 service factors has been tested in hundreds of client interviews that I've conducted over the last decade. Various studies of client service have used similar criteria. So I'm confident in suggesting that these comprise an extended definition of what client service really is. Excel in these things and you will have satisfied, loyal clients.

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