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?
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.
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.