How did Apple know that people wanted an iPad when they introduced it in 2010? I was among the many initial skeptics: "Why would people buy a miniature, underpowered laptop without a keyboard?" I wondered. Thankfully Steve Jobs and his team had much better intuition as to what would appeal to the buying public. The iPad and similar tablets have now surpassed personal computers in sales.
Four decades earlier, Ford missed an opportunity to introduce the minivan in part because their market research didn't indicate any demand for it. Chrysler, desperate for a catalyst to turn around their flagging business, took a chance on the hunch that there would indeed be a market for a "garageable van." Obviously, their intuition proved correct (although Chrysler has long since lost its status as an innovator).
These two stories illustrate the central point of this post: Market research or customer feedback isn't always accurate because sometimes customers don't know what they're missing. There are times when you should trust your gut in determining what your clients might want.
Let's apply this premise to the task of providing great client service. I'm a strong advocate for getting feedback from clients—before, during, and after the project—on how well you're meeting needs and expectations. Most A/E firms aren't doing this, which doesn't make sense to me. But I've also seen evidence that, contrary to the popular axiom, the customer isn't always right.
Years ago, I was leading the service improvement initiative for a national environmental firm when we decided to pursue an ambitious goal—to become the "service leader" in our core markets. The first order of business was to better define the target: Who were the current service leaders? What were they doing that set them apart? What mattered most to clients in terms of receiving exceptional service? We hired PSMJ to survey existing and prospective clients to find out.
What we learned was both revealing and perplexing. There were no firms that emerged as service leaders. Instead, clients identified individuals as the difference makers. When asked what aspects of service were most important, clients most often mentioned expertise and quality. The problem was we had other data, including in-house client surveys, that indicated that neither expertise nor quality was an effective differentiator (and I continue to believe that to this day).
If expertise and quality aren't what matters most, why did clients answer as they did? I believe it's because those were the most evident benefits that the environmental firms they worked with delivered. Remember, it was individuals, not firms, that were identified as service leaders. But we asked what firms were doing that clients valued most. I interpreted the results to indicate that clients had not yet experienced the level of structured, company-wide service that we believed we could provide them.
So going with our gut, we designed a unique service delivery process that was instrumental in our winning major new contracts and significantly raising our service scores. In the years since when I've spoken at conferences, I've asked audience members representing hundreds of firms if they had a similar process. No one has yet raised a hand. So if you were looking to clients to help you design such a process or substantially increase your service level, they would have to use their imagination in most cases.
Perhaps this helps explain why only 4% of clients listed good service as an important selection factor in Hinge's report How Buyers Buy, based on a survey of over 400 A/E/C firm clients. Firms generally don't give client service a significant mention in their proposals, and if they do, they describe it in intangible terms that can't be validated.
So why hasn't your firm institutionalized a service delivery process and culture? Why isn't creating distinct client experiences an operational priority? Because your clients aren't asking for it? They may not know what they're missing. And what is your firm missing out on by not satisfying that unspoken need? I don't think you need to be Steve Jobs to see a window of opportunity.