Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Branded Experience Delivery Process

Want to get something done in the A/E business? Manage it like a project. That's my standard advice when confronted with almost any kind of corporate initiative. Need more sales? Make it a project. Need to increase profitability? Make it a project. Need to improve client service? Same answer. Projects are what we do best, so the more we can fit other corporate activities into a similar framework, the better.

In my last post, I mentioned a study by Accenture of companies that are among the leaders in providing the "branded experience" to their customers. The study found that these companies share two key traits: (1) they have a deliberate process for delivering a consistently great customer experience and (2) they regularly solicit customer feedback to determine how they're doing and what they can do better. The vast majority of A/E firms do neither.

So in this post, let me focus on the first strategy—managing the service delivery process. When it comes to providing great client service, the vast majority of firms simply rely on their good people doing the right thing for the client. There's no planning, little process, few standards, no metrics. We would never entrust our technical work products to such an unstructured approach. Why? Because the results would be wildly inconsistent.

And that's what most firms get with their service delivery. Some individuals have strong client skills and consistently delight their clients. Others fail to provide clients the personal attention and responsiveness they expect, focusing instead on the technical aspects of the work. The only way to provide consistently good service is to manage it. Like a project.

Granted, not all aspects of client service are manageable. You have to have decent interpersonal skills and a genuine concern for the client (no process can overcome the lack of these!). But we can still plan, design, implement, and measure important dimensions of the client experience, just like the technical components of our projects:
  • Plan. The starting point is to uncover what the client expects in terms of the working relationship. Such expectations are rarely explicit in the contract or scope of work, yet they strongly influence the client's experience.
  • Design. Understanding the client's expectations, you then determine what actions are needed to meet or exceed them.
  • Implement. Knowing is one thing, doing is another. Most firms need healthy doses of support and encouragement to raise service levels. Support can involve training, resources, and holding people accountable.
  • Measure. The most important measurement is getting periodic feedback from clients. The basic questions: How are we doing? What can we do better?
Let's break that process out in some more detail. Below is a basic service delivery process that I've used with many clients. Not every client is receptive (nor deserving) of such a structured approach, but for those who are (usually your best clients), this can be a definitive competitive advantage.


1. Benchmark Expectations
Uncovering your client's hidden expectations is the foundation of managing the service delivery process. Service benchmarking involves meeting with the client at the outset of the project to establish mutual expectations for the working relationship. The discussion should address issues such as communication, decisions and client involvement, information and data, deliverable standards, invoicing and payment, management of changes, and performance feedback. You might find the Client Service Planner useful for this purpose.

2. Identify Gaps
The focus of this process is meeting the unique expectations of your client. So having completed the benchmarking step, the next activity is to identify where what the client wants varies significantly from what you normally do. This assessment should take into account both the standard practices of the firm and the respective project manager or office.

3. Create Service Deliverables
The next step is to create "service deliverables" to close the gaps identified. This means treating the delivery of service like the delivery of any other work product, as mentioned above. Producing service deliverables involves defining a discrete set of tasks that can be assigned, scheduled, budgeted, tracked, and closed like any other project task. This moves service delivery from the realm of the ethereal to the realm of the manageable. Some additional guidelines:
  • Give special attention to those requiring significant resources or coordination. Focus on those involving multiple responsible persons or significant costs, or those with potential to impact the project schedule.
  • Alert the client of the costs of special deliverables. Don't automatically acquiesce to every request the client may make if there are substantial costs or difficulties associated with satisfying the request. Explain the added costs (in terms of budget, time, etc.) and let the client decide if he or she is willing to assume them. Look for other satisfactory alternatives where appropriate.
  • Don't commit to what you cannot deliver. While this seems obvious, there are many PMs, who in their zeal to please the client, make promises that they are unlikely able to keep. The old adage "under-promise and over-deliver" is still good advice.
4. Prepare a Service Plan
The client service plan provides direction for the project team on how service deliverables will be handled in the context of the project. Preparing such a plan recognizes that client service involves time and resources like other project tasks, and should be managed accordingly. This plan is typically brief and is integrated into the overall project management plan (in most cases, the completed Client Service Planner will suffice).

Since the quality of service deliverables is much more subjective than technical work products, it's especially important to secure the client's endorsement of the client service plan. Confirm that the planned service deliverables fully meet the client's expectations. Delivering great service is largely dependent on the client doing his or her part in making the relationship work. The plan provides a blueprint for key aspects of that relationship, and involves both parties meeting the obligations established in it.

5. Implement the Service Plan
The preceding steps of the service delivery process alone will set your firm apart from all but a few. But these activities ultimately accomplish nothing if there is inadequate follow-through. Your commitment to the branded experience obviously must extend beyond the planning stages to the point of delivery. This involves not just implementing the service plan, but being responsive to the client's evolving needs and expectations through the course of the project. 

The over-arching goal: Make every client encounter (every touchpoint) a positive experience.

6. Solicit Client Feedback
Getting regular feedback from your clients is critical to ensuring that you are meeting expectations. Two primary means are recommended: (1) ongoing dialogue with the client and (2) periodic formal survey. I outlined a general approach to this in a previous post.

By the way, service sells. Not unsubstantiated claims that "we listen" or "we give personal attention." But if you describe the above process in a sales call, proposal, or shortlist presentation, you will immediately set your firm apart.

I've seen it be a major factor in winning large contracts. One such client, a major airline, responded in the interview: "Why is no one else talking about this? The reason we're replacing five of our six current consultants is we're not happy with their service. Yet you are the only ones to tell us how you will serve us better."

Finally, let me close by summarizing the three basic advantages of a service delivery process:
  • Managing service delivery like other project tasks puts it more in the realm of the familiar

  • It enables you to provide a more consistent level of service across the organization

  • It converts client service into a more tangible (you can draw it) value proposition
Could this be your best unexploited opportunity to differentiate your firm? Test drive it with a few of your clients and see for yourself. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Delivering the Branded Client Experience

At the core of your firm's brand is what the client experiences working with your firm. So how much time and money do you spend on enhancing the quality of the client experiences you deliver? If you're like the overwhelming majority of A/E firms, it pales in comparison to the investment made in your technical capabilities. So here's a golden opportunity to differentiate your firm: Deliver what is known as the branded experience

What is the branded experience? The most helpful definition I've found comes from the Forum Corporation. They describe the branded experience as one characterized by four basic qualities: (1) it's consistent, (2) it's intentional, (3) it's differentiated, and (4) it's valued. Notice that the first two characteristics are dependent on the service provider; the second two are discerned by the customer. The branded experience involves a sort of informal partnership between the two parties. 

Accenture conducted a study to determine what separates the companies that deliver the branded experience from the rest. The study found that the best companies did two important things:
  • They had a formal process for consistently delivering the branded experience
  • They rigorously solicited customer feedback to determine what customers want
Notice the alignment between Accenture's and Forum's research? Companies that have a delivery process are intentional and able to provide consistent customer experiences. Those that regularly solicit feedback can determine what customers think is different and what they value.

So how are we doing in our industry? Over the years, I've polled hundreds of firms on this topic at events where I've spoken. I've yet to find a firm that has a true client experience delivery process (other than firms I've worked with). I'm sure there are a few out there, but they are rare. Only about one in four firms I've polled have a formal process for client feedback. The company behind the Client Feedback Tool claims that only 5% of A/E firms collect client feedback regularly. 

In my research of differentiation strategies for professional service firms, delivering the branded client experience is at or near the top of the list. This reflects a general trend in business, popularized by the book The Experience Economy. The most distinctive and successful brands across multiple industries generally provide great customer experiences. There's certainly evidence within our own industry that clients place a higher value on the experience that we have typically acknowledged. 

So how is your firm doing in delivering the branded experience? The graphic below, adopted from the Forum Corporation, is a handy way to assess where you stand in the service-level progression leading to the branded experience:
Random experience. At this level, the customer experience is neither consistent or intentional. It varies from one time to another depending on which individual service provider you work with, which office or department, or what service or product you received. In other words, it's like working with many A/E firms. One project manager is very attentive, the next seemingly indifferent. One office provides great quality work products, another not so good.

Predictable experience. At this level, the experience is pretty consistent because the provider has taken steps to make it so. But it is either not significantly different from what you could get elsewhere or the difference isn't that valued by most customers, or both. I call this the Golden Arches Experience. The one thing McDonald's has going for it is that the food, service, and atmosphere are pretty consistent whichever of their 14,350 restaurants in the U.S. you visit. But that's also what's working against them!

Branded experience. When you reach this level, you're consistently delivering an experience that customers value. You don't get here simply because you've got good people working for you. It requires intentional effort. It requires a reliable experience delivery process. And it requires regularly asking clients what they really want, and how you can do better. There are many good A/E firms out there, and clients are generally satisfied. But the opportunity remains for your firm to distinguish itself because it commits to the high standard of the branded experience.

Can you really package the delivery of professional services into some kind of consistent process? That's the question I plan to answer in my next post.