Thursday, September 28, 2017

Do Client's See You as an Industry Insider?

What expertise do clients value most? A deep understanding of their business. This answer will likely surprise many in the A/E industry who apparently think that expertise in their various technical disciplines is what is most valued. Obviously, clients expect you to know your business. But what usually matters more to them is how much you know theirs.

Client/market knowledge is a critical competitive advantage that many firms in our business undervalue. They're too busy filling the pipeline with proposal opportunities to invest in learning much about the clients they pursue. If you're looking for causes of the commoditization of your services, start here. The value of your work is much enhanced when you can meet clients' strategic needs. That requires an understanding of their business.

When I work on proposals, I always ask: What are the strategic drivers behind the project. What are the business results that we need to deliver through the project? I'm typically disappointed with the answers I get. It's apparent that most technical professionals (especially engineers) are more interested in the what and how than the why. Yet the why—the desired business outcomes—is what clients really care about.

So how do clients perceive your firm? Are you and your colleagues viewed as insiders or outsiders when it comes to their business. Of course, I don't expect you to have a deep understanding of all your clients and their respective industries. But the important question is: Would you be seen as an industry insider for any of your clients' businesses?

An industry insider is not only knowledgeable of that business but actively participates in it. So let's say that higher education is one of your core markets. Do you simply design facilities for it, or do you know trends driving that market from an insider's perspective? Do you understand how demographics will change future enrollment? Or how slower tuition growth is fueling greater competition among schools? Or how the student loan debt crisis might impact them?

If you think these (and other similar trends) don't really matter to your business, think again. Moreover, if you want to stand out among the many firms serving this market, leverage your facilities expertise in helping schools respond to these emerging challenges and uncertainties. Become a recognized industry insider. How? A few suggestions:

Research your clients' businesses. Given the easy access to market information on the internet, I'm perplexed by how little research most firms do. Don't have time? Make it a priority, and delegate some of the responsibility to others (e.g., administrative and junior staff). Firms that give priority to market research are more profitable and grow faster.

Talk to clients about their strategic needs and concerns. Don't limit client conversations to technical issues and personal chitchat. Find out what defines success for your clients, what issues cause them particular concern, and how their business is changing. Then determine how your firm can better help them achieve their pressing business objectives.

Get involved in their trade and professional associations. By involvement, I don't mean simply attending events. Become an active participant in committee work, especially those that are most strategic to their industry. For example, my previous employer was a key player in working through client trade organizations to help influence changes in environmental regulations that would save our clients millions of dollars in compliance costs. That earned us a great deal of credibility among clients in those industries.

Share your expertise through targeted writing and speaking. These same trade organizations typically sponsor conferences, seminars, webinars, and publications where you can share your insights on issues of importance to their business. To become a recognized industry insider, you should have something interesting to say and do so on a regular basis. Seek outside help, in terms of research and writing, if necessary. It's a worthwhile investment.

Develop other resources helpful to those industries. You might prepare relevant articles, white papers, and ebooks and share them through your email list. Or publish regulatory updates or planning checklists. Or establish a resource website specifically targeting people in those industries who might be interested in hiring you. One of the best ways to establish your reputation as an industry insider is to offer resources that help companies in that market be more successful.

Build peer relationships within your clients' businesses. Partner with other service providers to offer distinct integrated solutions, as well as to share knowledge and insights about those industries. Especially consider affiliations with experts outside the AEC industry, since these are less common and may offer distinct value to clients. For example, you might build alliances with attorneys who specialize in legal and regulatory support within your target markets. Or financial experts who can help clients find funding for their projects.

Hire people out of those industries. There's real value in having people on your staff who can really see things from the perspective of clients. They've been there. They often have instant credibility that can take you years to establish on your own. But do your due diligence; confirm that they are known and respected in their industry.

Don't confuse business development focus with becoming an industry insider. Market focus to many firms simply means seeking more sales opportunities within that market. But what I'm describing goes much deeper. Becoming an industry insider means being recognized as a valued contributor to your clients' business, not just another firm seeking to mine it for revenue. The core philosophy is this: Help clients succeed and they'll help you succeed.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Great Client Service Is About the Little Things

Our client circulated an internal email praising our firm for saving them as much as $20 million dollars in the cleanup of one of their contaminated properties. A few months later they fired us. 

You probably would assume that we were guilty of some serious offense to go so quickly from hero to has-been. But that's not the case. Since this was a long-time, top-five client, we dispatched our president to meet with the client and learn what went wrong. His findings were almost as surprising as our termination.

There were no technical mistakes. No breaches of contract. No unethical behavior. Not even missed deadlines or blown budgets. It was an accumulation of little slights and unintended neglect. We had failed to adequately serve the client despite our exemplary technical performance.

Some of the aggravations the client reported: We frequently failed to deliver what we promised. Not contractual deliverables, mind you. But promises to return phone calls, provide supplementary information, invite certain individuals to team meetings. Our project manager seemed out of touch and indifferent at times, communicating only on a need-to-know basis. The spotty communication had led to several misunderstandings.

There were even complaints that our employees, many of whom traveled to the site from offices across the country, had made disparaging comments in the client's presence about the city where the facility was located. Admittedly, it was a dilapidated, heavily industrialized city that was frequently ridiculed by our client's representatives themselves! But they resented our out-of-town employees echoing their criticisms. "This is our home," they told our president.

Perhaps this is an extreme example, but it illustrates an important point: Great service is about the little things. Nuances that technical professionals often miss. The all-important client experience is nothing but the sum of momentary encounters, both direct and indirect, between the client and service provider. Taken individually, these encounters may seem relatively insignificant. But collectively they comprise a "deliverable" every bit as important as your technical work products.

So what can you do to give needed attention to the little things? A few suggestions:

Identify the spectrum of client encounters. Some elements of the client experience are obvious (e.g., conversations between your PM and the client). Others are more easily overlooked (e.g., the quality of your invoices). Develop a list of every type of direct and indirect client encounter you can think of. This would include things such as phone calls, emails, letters, meetings, work products, contracts, invoices, site visits, marketing activities, web site. The first step in being attentive to the little things is to remind yourself of what all they entail.

Assess the quality of those encounters and make improvements as needed. Assemble a team to review the list you developed and make an internal assessment of how well you're doing with each type of encounter. Undoubtedly you'll find significant differences among clients, project managers, projects, departments, etc. But avoid over-analyzing the differences. At this point, the objective is to identify which type of encounters most need improvement and outline the steps for doing so.

Regularly solicit feedback from clients. While it's helpful to do an internal assessment, the client is obviously the ultimate judge of service quality. Don't wait until the end of the project to ask how you're doing. On the contrary, mutually determine at the start the means and frequency of formal discussions with the client regarding their experience. Have a third party do this, someone other than your project manager. Be sure to ask about the kinds of "little things" you identified in the first two steps.

Make the client experience a routine part of internal project discussions. This aspect of the project should be continuously mentioned and reviewed in meetings, emails, and individual conversations. Ask, "How are we doing? What feedback—formal or informal—are we getting from the client? What can we do better? Are there service concerns that deserve our attention?" The regular discussion helps the project team keep these matters fresh in their minds.

Don't ignore the warning signs. Sometimes we get signals that the client isn't totally happy yet conclude it's not a significant problem. I hear project managers explain away such concerns on a frequent basis. That's what happened in the situation I described earlier.
I was the leader of our firm's quality and service improvement initiative at the time. I'd heard stories suggesting that the client was less than satisfied with our service. But when I shared my concerns with the project manager and other key players in the project organization, they were generally dismissive. Again, none of the problems seemed serious on their own, and the project team thought things were under control.

Obviously, they weren't. We made the same mistake many firms make, assuming that the problems were isolated and not all that significant. We overlooked the cumulative impact of neglecting the little things that make for a great—or not so great—client experience. Don't let that happen to your firm. Dig into the details of serving your clients well.