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.

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