Customer centricity is one of the prevailing trends in business. It really seemed to take off during the years of slow growth following the Great Recession. As companies searched for ways to coax some growth out of a stagnant marketplace, getting closer to customers proved to be consistently effective. In fact, several studies conducted during that period, spanning multiple industries, concluded that customer focus was the top growth strategy.
That trend shows no sign of abating. While most companies are growing in this economy, the prudent ones are preparing for future growth when the current wave will have run its course. So customer centricity continues to be a strategic priority. In the A/E industry, many companies have implemented some form of client focus initiative, to mostly mixed results. Ironically, one of the greatest challenges has come from one of our traditional strengths.
Analytical skills are highly valued in our industry, and rightly so. Particularly among our engineering and scientific professionals, analytical skills facilitate complex problem solving ability. They are manifested in a characteristic attention to detail, critical thinking, and decision making capability. But the analytical mindset that is so prevalent in our industry can also be a substantial hindrance in building a culture of client focus.
Why? Because clients aren't a technical problem to be solved. Most client organizations exist for other purposes than to perform A/E projects. Our projects are merely a means to an end. The analytical mindset often leaves us strangely disconnected from the larger purposes of our projects. Want evidence? Read your firm's project descriptions. How many of them address the results the project delivered?
Over the last two years, I've been heavily involved with a national environmental firm pursuing the goal of becoming more client focused. We've given emphasis to the matter of perspective, how we see things. In a client-focused firm, of course, we should be able to see projects much as clients do. Projects are not just a technical scope, schedule, and budget. They're a problem or an aspiration, a solution, and a set of desired outcomes.
We know this. But seeing projects this way is not the natural bent for many of us. In training hundreds of technical professionals in client skills, I've found the following analogy helpful in developing a more client-centered perspective—zoom out. The table below highlights the key differences between this perspective and the more zoomed-in analytical viewpoint:
Analytical vs. big picture thinking. There's an old axiom that touches on this: "Can't see the forest for the trees." To better understand client needs (and define the best solutions), we need to adopt a more "ecosystem" perspective of our projects—more like clients see them.
Technical needs vs. strategic and people needs. A helpful tactic for broadening our perspective is to uncover client needs at three levels: technical, strategic, and people needs. We should also consider the client's desired outcomes at each of these levels.
Projects vs. clients. Again, projects are a means to an end. Satisfying clients and their constituents is the ultimate end.
Services vs. value. A dominant theme in the business literature is value creation, something that's rarely discussed in our profession. We need prioritize delivering value—in particular, business value—not just technical services.
Technical vs. business solutions. I advocate that we start thinking of our work as providing technically-oriented business solutions. That's how real client value is created.
Scope, schedule, budget vs. client expectations and the client experience (CX). Client focus means giving as much priority to meeting client expectations as fulfilling project requirements. Experts say that CX is supplanting price and product as the key differentiator.
Project completed vs. return on investment. I challenge consultants and designers to stop thinking about project success as a completed scope on schedule and on budget. Project success is not achieved until the client realizes the ROI—after the project is constructed and in operation. Are you taking the long view of your projects?
Zooming out (big picture thinking) does not suggest that we abandon our natural skill in zooming in (analytical thinking). Both perspectives are needed. But one comes more intuitively for most technical professionals. So remind yourself to periodically switch from the macro lens and zoom out to see what the client is seeing (and more). That makes your analytical problem solving all the more valuable.