Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Staying Close to Clients in Uncertain Times

Last time we faced an economic downturn, I set out to research growth strategies for businesses that faced low growth conditions in their respective markets. One strategy rose to the top—getting close to your customers. A few excerpts from studies I reviewed (all from the 2010-2015 period when economic growth was less than 3%):
  • "The solution [for low growth] is to focus more intensely on customers by building a customer-centric organizational model." (Gallup)
  • "A corporate culture centered on customers is the factor most likely to yield financial results." (American Management Association)
  • "Our analysis shows that no leadership competency matters more [for growth] than customer impact, meaning a deep understanding of customer needs." (McKinsey)
  • "Strong client focus was identified as CEOs' top strategic priority." (KPMG)
  • "Firms with a clear plan for client focus grow 3x faster." (Hinge)
But within A/E industry in which I labor, there was evidence of firms moving in the opposite direction: "I feel like our engineering service providers have abandoned us since we're not spending money on capital projects," lamented one public works director whom I interviewed. Another told me, "Just because we don't have the budget doesn't mean we don't have needs. I'd appreciate any help trying to figure out how to do more with less."

The unfortunate reality is that many of us give attention to clients only as long as they're paying us to. Witness the common lack of follow-up with clients after our work is done (sometimes even while our designs are still being constructed!). At a practical level, this is somewhat understandable. Often it's all we can do to keep up with the demands of serving clients with active projects. But it does tend to make claims of how much we care about our clients seem overstated.

Yet with the likelihood of another recession on the horizon, we are presented with another opportunity to demonstrate where we really stand with our clients. Whether they continue to have work for us or not, here are some suggestions for staying close to clients during these uncertain times:

Show personal concern beyond project matters. This is always good advice, but is particularly important in times of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we have faced and it impacts all of us at many levels. With most people working from home, it's become increasingly difficult to separate our personal and professional lives. Plus this is a life-threatening situation for many. In this context, it seems terribly inappropriate to limit client conversations to business only. But how deeply you probe into personal matters should be calibrated according to the nature of the relationship.

Discuss how this situation impacts both the project and the working relationship. I'm hearing that people have quickly adjusted to remote work, and that things are generally going smoothly with clients. That's good, but don't presume too much. I advocate reviewing expectations about how you'll continue to work together in this ever-evolving situation. Pay special attention to communication—how often, by what means, what time of day, etc. This is the area where I hear the most complaints from clients even under normal circumstances.

Be sensitive to changing priorities. Stay abreast of what factors are driving the client's agenda. Chances are they will be in flux in the coming months. Don't assume that priorities will remain fixed on the projects you're working on. On the other hand, new opportunities for you to help may arise from changing priorities. But you could miss them if you limit inquiry only to your current work. Which leads to my next point...

Understand the client's current needs, whatever they are. Again, this is advice for all times, but it takes on special importance these days. It's natural for us to be most interested in the work we're currently performing or other issues that are within our realm of expertise. Yet we sometimes miss important context when we are uncurious about the client's concerns not directly related to the services we provide. Your clients may have pressing needs that you're unaware of if you don't explore outside your usual scope of services. That makes you less helpful as an adviser, and could forestall a chance to at least provide useful information or make a referral to someone who could meet their needs.

Be proactive in helping define how any project changes or stoppages will be handled. As disruptive as these events might be for your firm, you'll build goodwill for the long term by acting in the client's interest. Ask the client about what specific challenges they're facing and what changes might be coming. Then offer to work with them in transitioning (as needed) the projects you're involved in as optimal a manner as possible, whether this would require pausing work or revising scopes and schedules. Your firm's perspective can be very valuable in this regard, but that doesn't mean the client might not involve you if you don't take the initiative.

Consider ways to offer your help at little to no cost. I'm starting to hear of client requests for reduced fees. It may well come to that, as was not uncommon during the Great Recession. But my preference is to instead offer help through what might be called "strategic investments" in clients, where you provide free or deeply discounted consulting or other support in areas of considerable value to the client. What's the difference? One action further contributes to the commoditization of your services, the other reinforces the role of trusted advisor. One is a concession, the other a gift. Of course, you must have something of real value to offer—even for free—for this to work. And you may be forced to eventually reduce some fees anyway.

Keep the client informed of how your firm is responding to this challenge. No doubt, your firm contacted clients weeks ago announcing steps you were taking to keep employees safe and still keep the work going. But since this is a dynamic situation, it's wise to keep clients abreast of how your firm's response continues to evolve. In particular, you want to inform your client of any internal changes that will or could potentially affect them. Besides the practical benefits of such communication, it also contributes to the sense of this shared experience we are having, which can help bring parties closer together.

Be diligent in collecting and sharing valuable content. Talking with clients isn't the only way to communicate you care. Sharing content and resources that address client interests and concerns is a good way to stay in front of clients between conversations. Doing this consistently depends on developing the habit of regularly collecting and sharing such content. I'm a content hoarder, constantly on the lookout for information and insights that might be on interest to my clients—and, of course, I create content myself. You can share content with individual clients via email or to a broader audience through social media.

Finally, take this opportunity to nurture your capacity for empathy. One of my favorite article titles of all time came from the CNET website years ago: "Eureka! Engineers Aren't Empathetic Because They Can't Be." The article shared news of a study that discovered the human brain seemingly cannot effectively engage in analytical thought and empathy at the same time—undoubtedly a convenient excuse for technical professionals who sometimes lack empathy. Assuming the study is true, this suggests that most of us need to consciously switch between thinking about project work and thinking about clients. In practice, that may involve putting down the pencil and picking up the phone.