Thursday, January 9, 2020

What Client Surveys Tell Us

Next month I'll be conducting telephone interviews of about 50 clients for a regional engineering firm, using a standard questionnaire that I've used for many years. The purpose is to learn how these clients really feel about the firm, now under new leadership, and what improvements they would like to see. Over the years, I've conducted hundreds of interviews like these. This article summarizes some of the key trends I've noticed in client responses:

Relationships matter. This is an obvious conclusion. Yet firms continue to neglect the basics of managing relationships, seemingly assuming that their technical expertise will carry the day. There are many engineers, architects, and scientists in our business who tend to focus more on the project than the client. But what keeps clients coming back is the quality of the working relationship, not superior technical expertise or work products.

Not surprisingly, clients tend to judge technical performance in the context of the relationship. A client who enjoys working with your firm will be more forgiving of technical mistakes or shortcomings. But a client who finds you difficult to work with will nearly always find fault with your work. So, does your firm have an intentional approach to building strong client relationships.

Flexibility is important. I know, this can drive us nutty: Clients who change their minds at inopportune times, who want us to dumb down our designs, who expand the scope but not the budget, who have their own unique invoicing requirements. Indeed, our clients' demands are sometimes unreasonable. But we are also sometimes unjustifiably inflexible and slow to adapt to our clients' needs.

The best way to manage these situations is to establish mutual expectations at the start of the project. Discuss with your client how changes will be managed, critical junctures in the project schedule when decisions will need to be made (and adhered to), how best to maintain good communication, how performance will be evaluated, what technical and regulatory criteria will drive the project, etc. With mutual expectations, reasonable boundaries can be defined that help enable flexibility without compromising your firm's needs.

Proactive client communication is crucial. One survey found that 67% of clients who dump their consultants do so because of perceived indifference. Poor communication is at the heart of such perceptions. When the client has to initiate most communications or is contacted only on a "need-to-know" basis, it's easy for that person to assume that he or she isn't really valued by the consultant. We sometimes overlook the fact that good communication is a critical deliverable. Clients depend on timely information and updates to meet internal deadlines, manage budgets, satisfy reporting requirements, and allocate time and resources. Simply meeting contractual deliverable schedules is not enough.

Clients also want to know our thought process—how we reached certain decisions, why we favored one solution over another, what other options were considered. Many technical consulting and design firms are prone to leave clients out of the loop. That means the client's input comes too late—after the deliverable is well developed—forcing expensive revisions and delays. It's better to engage the client early and often, starting with the project management plan, scoping documents, and preliminary concepts.

Clients see our organizational dysfunction. Clients often know more about our internal workings than we'd like. They seem to recognize when departments don't coordinate well, when the PM doesn't keep the project team adequately informed, when deliverable review procedures are not followed, and other such issues. They naturally associate these problems with the project screw-ups that happen from time to time.

When is this a particular concern? When performance deficiencies persist or mistakes recur with ongoing clients. Most clients understand that a few problems are inevitable on every project, and most consultants are responsive in trying to make things right when such problems occur. But clients grow frustrated when their consultants fail to address the root causes of lingering problems. Client surveys and interviews indicate that they know the difference between short-term corrective actions and longer-term, systematic responses to our shortcomings.

The best solution isn't always best. Imagine you're shopping for an economical compact car and the salesman persists in trying to interest you in his line of SUVs. Irritating, isn't it? Yet I'm surprised how often clients complain that their consultants keep offering them the "Cadillac solution" when they wanted a VW. Architects seem particularly prone to this. Clients are left to wonder whose needs are driving the design solution.

There may well be compelling reasons for nudging the client to a more elaborate or expensive solution—regulatory requirements, community acceptance, reduced liability, lower life cycle costs, etc. But sometimes we have to admit it's mostly our subjective preference. We like delivering the "best" solutions because we want to be among the best solution providers. Yet budget-constrained clients are increasingly asking us to deliver "good enough." Keep in mind that a good-enough technical solution is often part of providing great client service.

Bottom line: Make it easy for clients to work with you. The client surveys I've done reinforce the research that indicates that clients value the experience as much as our expertise. Simply put, they want an experience characterized by our concern and their convenience. They want consultants who understand and care about their needs.
Most clients have too much on their plate, so they're looking for low maintenance, trouble-free working relationships. That's why they tend to stick with their current consultants, even if they're not convinced they're the best available. But clients don't like being taken for granted, and the apparent complacency of their long-time consultants is a major reason why many eventually make a change.

One way to avoid appearing complacent? Get regular feedback on how you're doing, listen carefully, and make improvements where needed. By my own informal polling, only about 1 in 4 A/E firms have a formal process for getting such feedback. That's unfortunate. When I conduct client interviews, I always uncover a few surprises. Without feedback, those surprises—left unattended—can mean the untimely end of a valued client relationship.

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