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.

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