Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Tangibilize Your Firm's Intangible Strengths


Have you ever tried to articulate your firm's value proposition? Your value proposition is the primary reasons clients are likely to select you over your competitors. For most A/E firms, coming up with a compelling value proposition is exceedingly difficult because most firms aren't that different from each other in the eyes of clients.

I have guided leaders of several firms through exercises designed to help them identify key elements of their value proposition. Most of those firms have predictably struggled with it. They typically start by listing as their top differentiators attributes (such as responsiveness, reliability, quality, relationships) that are difficult to prove to prospective clients.

I like the RAIN Group's description of a strong value proposition. They suggest that an effective value proposition must have three characteristics (likening it to a three-legged stool):
  • It must resonate. A strong value proposition aligns with what clients want and need, and what they value. It's relevant.
  • It must differentiate. It sets your firm apart from your competitors. It's different. 
  • It must substantiate. It offers proof that you can deliver the value you claim. No empty marketing slogans. It's verifiable.
Each of the three characteristics present a formidable challenge to the typical firm. It's easy enough to relate to the client's technical needs. But we're less clear about how we meet high-value strategic business needs. And we often struggle to connect our work to the associated human needs and desired outcomes. (See "Uncovering the Client's Real Needs")

Most A/E firms seem to list differentiators that are experiential and unverifiable. In other words, existing clients might recognize that your firm is trustworthy and flexible, and they might continue to work with you because of a strong relationship. But how do you sell such virtues to prospective clients? And doesn't every firm make similar—and similarly unprovable—claims?

If you're convinced that these kinds of intangible qualities constitute your competitive advantage, then you must determine how to tangibilize them. This means making them, at least in part, observable and verifiable. How do you do that? Let me suggest three primary ways:

Produce objective evidence. You're probably familiar with the venerable test of marketable benefits, which involves answering two questions: "So what?" and "Can you prove it?" Assuming you can describe how a particular area of expertise or qualification is beneficial to the client (and don't assume it's automatically evident!), then you're faced with the second and toughest of the two questions: Can you show me the evidence?

The fact is that there is scant evidence for most of the marketing and sales claims we make: "We provide high-quality work," "Our designers really listen," "We put our clients first," "Our employees are dedicated to producing exceptional solutions." Such verbiage only drains the value from your value proposition. For this reason, I encourage you to try to avoid claims of distinction that you can't validate.

Instead, focus on those strengths that you can verify. For example: "As evidence of our commitment to quality, change orders related to our designs have averaged only 0.7% of construction costs over the last decade, compared to an industry average of 2%." If you lack the evidence to back up your claims, go find it if you can.

Define a delivery process. Most of the supposed intangible strengths that A/E firms offer as differentiators are not the product of corporate intent but of individual competency. Client service is a ready example. Every firm claims to provide it, but very few can show a process or system for ensuring its consistent delivery. Combined with the fact that few firms even measure how well they serve clients, this typically amounts to a meaningless sales claim.

I can attest to the value of being able to describe (and show) a process for delivering the intangible strength you're trying to sell. Years ago, I developed a client service delivery process for my former employer, a firm that determined it wanted to be "the service leader" in its target markets. We even could produce a picture of how we provided leading service:

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Admittedly, it's an oversimplification of what great service entails, but it nevertheless proved to be a valuable business development asset. My favorite example of this was a shortlist interview for a nationwide environmental services contract with a major airline. I had tried to convince my colleagues not to even pursue this since our firm lacked any experience with airlines or airports. But we managed to make it to the shortlist.

We decided to stress our service delivery process since we had heard that the airline wasn't happy with some of their current environmental consultants. When we showed the slide with the diagram above, the selection committee chairman exclaimed, "Why are you the only firm talking about this? Poor service is why we're looking at new firms. Yet you're the only one to tell us how you're going to give us better service!" We got the contract.

Can you take a similar approach for other intangible strengths? I think you can. You could talk about steps you take to strengthen client relationships. You could describe your firm's policies for ensuring responsiveness to clients. You could outline your training program that promotes better collaboration on projects. Et cetera. 

Demonstrate it in how you develop new business. If you've read many of my posts here, you know that I advocate a service-centered approach to business development. To borrow Charlie Green's terminology, this amounts to "samples selling"—demonstrating your intangible strengths versus merely talking about them. You can allow the prospective client to sample most aspects of project work before buying; for example:
  • Client focus—by reversing the usual focus on you the seller and centering it on the buyer instead
  • Problem solving—by helping the client characterize and identify the solution you hope to help implement
  • Quality—by delivering sales products (white papers, correspondence, proposals, etc.) of exceptional quality
  • Reliability—by consistently delivering what you promised, even in the little things like returning phone calls promptly
  • Expertise—by providing great insight and knowledge relative to the client's needs
Those intangible qualities that you believe are genuine and valued by your clients typically mean little to prospective clients without proof. By taking steps to tangibilize them as described above, you can turn those empty sales claims into real points of distinction. Maybe you'll even hear one of your new clients exclaim, "Why is everybody just talking about this instead of showing us how they're truly different?"

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Leading When You're Not the Boss

I've spent most of my career leading without authority. First it was as a business development professional, guiding people in key sales pursuits or on major proposal efforts. Later I was charged with leading several corporate strategic initiatives, from overhauling the firm's project management practices to improving client service to implementing a behavioral safety process. That role continues, now as an outside consultant.

Most A/E firms have several people responsible for leading important efforts with no direct authority over the people they lead. This is often the byproduct of a matrix organization, where leaders of technical disciplines, or practice areas, or nonbillable functions, or strategic initiatives, must engage coworkers in achieving critical goals simply by their influence. If this describes your situation, here are some tips from my accumulated experience in such a role:

Communicate a compelling vision. There is a universal yearning for betterment. Can you capture team goals in a vision that attracts and energizes others? A strong vision should encompass: (1) why we’re doing this, (2) how this benefits both team members and the firm, and (3) what this future state will look like. In casting a vision that persuades, you will want to appeal both to others’ emotions and logic.

Clarify roles and responsibilities. Assuming the vision attracts, team members still want to know what’s expected of them in that pursuit. Role definition is a crucial step in gaining people’s buy-in. Does it look like a good fit? How valued is their contribution to the effort? And, of course, the really important question: How much time will this require?

Budget team members’ time. This is one of the most important, yet overlooked, aspects of building a “volunteer workforce” in a company. Given our industry’s focus on billable hours, people will be particularly interested in knowing how much this effort might impact their personal utilization. The answer: Usually, not at all. That's because their time is budgeted from a portion of the nonbillable hours that already exist.

Manage the effort like a project. A/E firms generally do a poor job of managing nonbillable hours, in large part because they don’t fully appreciate their value. Think of nonbillable time as “investment time.” It’s where most improvement efforts will come from. Like projects, you should define the scope, tasks, schedule, budget, deliverables, standards, and metrics necessary to achieve the desired outcome.

Build your team with advocates. Change guru John Kotter recommends creating a network that works in parallel with but outside the organizational hierarchy. That’s because the typical structure is designed to maintain, not change. A network approach also allows you to build out the team prominently with people who have bought in. A common problem with change/improvement efforts is that they are staffed with people selected because of their position in the organization, not because of their advocacy for the cause.

But also enlist some key influencers. Hopefully the initiative you’re leading was launched with senior management support. In any case, the backing of key influencers within the firm will greatly help your progress. Kotter calls this a “guiding coalition,” and found in his research that the credibility of this group was critical to initiative success. Solicit visible endorsements of the effort from these established leaders.

Learn who in the hierarchy you can count on. There will be times, of course, when you must engage managers in the organizational structure (e.g., when taking the effort to each department or office). It’s helpful to recognize which of these individuals can be trusted to do their part in advancing the effort. If you can work around them, or wait to engage them after more momentum has been created, you can avoid some of the inevitable organizational inertia.

Pilot the effort at a smaller scale first. The objective in this case is to tackle problems at a more manageable level and score a few smaller victories. Demonstrated success often invigorates change initiatives, stimulating more buy-in and participation. So start with those groups, departments, or offices where there is greater chance of early success. Then gradually expand the effort across the organization as appropriate.

Minimize the use of delegated authority. Assuming you have senior management support for your initiative, it will likely be tempting at times to seek their intervention in forcing acquiescence from noncompliers. But this has the same effect as it would if you exerted your own authority to push participation. Some heavy-handed measures may be necessary to bring some outliers into the fold, but they should be used as a last resort. That's because want-to is far more productive than have-to. Seek to influence and negotiate rather than coerce.

Develop your relevant expertise. You don’t need to be the consummate expert to lead an initiative (such as me leading a project management improvement initiative, as I've done several times), but you do need to demonstrate you know what you’re doing. Do your homework and learn as much about the subject matter as possible. You certainly want to be able to articulate why this is the right vision and the best approach for achieving the desired results.

Celebrate small victories. It’s recommended that you set intermediate milestones, spaced no further apart than 4 to 6 months, so you can more easily maintain a sense of progress. Acknowledge and celebrate successes, even small ones. It helps sustain momentum.

Lead by example. Ideally, you should be the hardest worker on your team. Your passion should be contagious. Your personal power as a leader comes more by what people see in you than what you say. In fact, your leadership credibility will be seriously damaged if you’re not living out what you’re espousing.

For more on this topic, see "Why Leaders Are Way Better Than Bosses"

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Thinking Like Your Clients

Imagine a few of your clients decided to start their own A/E firm. They've had a lot of experience with firms like yours, so they have a pretty good idea what's involved. But these folks don't want to start just another A/E firm. They want to do something substantially different—to create the kind of firm they wish they'd had the opportunity to work with.
What would that firm look like? How might they do business differently?

If you want to know how to differentiate your firm, sell more work, retain more customers, and increase profits, the best advice I can offer is simply this: Think like your clients. Try to look at your firm and how you conduct every aspect of your business through their eyes.

Obviously, the best way to understand how clients see your firm is to ask them. I certainly urge you to do that. But for starters, let me share a few examples of how clients think (both during the sales process and while under contract), based on the hundreds of client interviews I've conducted over the years:

Don't call me unless you have something specific to offer. You should know how it feels to be on the receiving end of a cold call. Yet you call me out of the blue wanting to introduce me to your firm. Do you think I don't know enough firms already? If you want to talk with me, do a little homework to understand my current needs and call only when you can offer some helpful advice or information specific to my problem.

Respect my time. Sure, I might like you, but I like my wife and kids better and they don't expect to get an hour of my time when I'm working. If you want to meet with me, give me something more than the usual drop-by sales call or unfocused project meeting. Come prepared to deliver what you promised when you called—real help in solving my problem. And don't take more time than is necessary; keep the chit-chat to a minimum. By the way, that lunch invite you thought would spare me an interruption at the office—when else do you think I get a break during the day?

Don't expect me to read your whole proposal or report. Try this: Do a total word count for your document and divide that by 250, which is about the number of words the average American adult reads per minute. So do you really think I'm going to spend over an hour reading your proposal or report? No, I think you know I'm going to skim and search for the information I'm looking for. So why did you make it so hard for me to do that? Make your document more skimmable and give me a well-written and illustrated executive summary that covers its most important points.

Tell me when you can actually deliver the project, not what you think I want to hear. I know this is a little confusing. I pressed you to commit to an ambitious deadline that you probably knew you couldn't make. But you said you could and made me happy for a while. Now it's crunch time and your deliverable is late. If you had said no at the start, I could have adjusted the overall project schedule—even though I wouldn't be happy about it. Now I'm in a real bind.

Don't wait to tell me about a problem until it's a big one. I don't know if you've noticed, but project problems don't usually go away by ignoring them. They get worse. I want you to tell me when you see a problem developing so we can intervene before it gets out of hand. Better yet, anticipate when a problem might arise so we can consider some proactive steps to prevent it from occurring.

Don't just communicate with me on a need-to-know basis. I almost hate to hear from you because it's usually bad news or late news. Yeah, I'm busy and don't want to be bothered with trivial updates. But I don't like hearing about important developments and activities after the fact. That sometimes leaves me with few, if any, options for responding to the situation. Give me a chance to be proactive.

Understand my business. It's not just an engineering or architectural project; it's a business move designed to address financial, operational, competitive, or political issues critical to our success. Sometimes you don't seem to make the connection. You focus on the technical issues that you're interested in and overlook the business drivers that I need to respond to. I don't just need a designer or specialty consultant; I need a problem solver who can see the whole picture.

These are just a few of the perspectives I've gained from clients over the years. None of them are hard to understand if you imagine yourself in the client's role. If you want to raise the value of your services, try mixing more empathy with your expertise.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

A Branded Experience Delivery Process

Want to get something done in the A/E business? Manage it like a project. That's my usual 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 the client experience? 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 client experience (CX) delivery process. When it comes to providing a great experience, the typical A/E firm simply relies on its 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 in delivering client experiences. 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 consistently provide a great client experience is to manage it. Like a project.

Granted, not all aspects of CX are easily manageable. You have to have decent interpersonal skills and a genuine concern for the client—no process can overcome the lack of these! But you can still plan, design, implement, and measure important dimensions of the 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 and deliverables 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 CX delivery process that I've used with many firms. There are certainly more elaborate processes out there, but I prefer to keep the approach simple and accessible to get better follow-through. 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 experience 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(s) or office(s).

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 delivery of the client experience 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 substantially impact project outcomes (of course, a satisfied client is always a desirable outcome). 
  • 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 will be unlikely able to keep. The old adage "under-promise and over-deliver" is still good advice.
4. Prepare a Client-Specific CX Plan
The CX 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 serving clients well 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 experience 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 CX Plan
The preceding steps of the experience 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 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. If you're really serious about feedback, you should also consider the Client Feedback Tool, which takes tracking client perceptions and your response to them to a new level.

By the way, the client experience sells—not unsubstantiated claims like "we listen" or "we give personal attention" or "we provide unparalleled client service." If you describe a process similar to the one above 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 several 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 how they serve us. Yet you are the only ones to tell us how you will serve us better." 

Let me suggest that you at a minimum commit to benchmarking expectations and getting regular, in-project feedback. Try it with a few of your clients and see for yourself what a difference it can make. Then maybe you'll be inspired to pursue delivering the elusive but highly valued branded experience.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Delivering the Branded 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. 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. Client Savvy, the company behind the excellent 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 nor 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 receive. 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 14,000+ 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, collaborative 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 tackle in my next post.