Changing Client Relationships

Stu’s News
with Trina’s Tips


Changing Client Working Relationships

Traditionally, professionals meet with a client, do some listening to project goals and concerns, then go back to the office to work on the project.  Later, we’ll return with some initial solutions, have meetings with clients to get their feedback, then head back to the office to make adjustments based on the feedback and to continue forward, towards completion of the project.  It’s an evolving, heuristic cycle.

That entire style of work seems to be changing … if not with all, then at least with many clients … ongoing repeat clients of the type that firms most value.

The world is changing … probably at a faster and less predictable rate than we’ve seen before.  Well, it’s changing for clients, as well.  In order to stay in tune with our clients, we need to work in a more collaborative way – essentially thinking of them as an integral member of the project team – and in a more continuous way, with shorter intervals between meetings, so that dialogue is virtually continuous.  Two problems we’ve seen more and more …

  1. Leaders in many firms believe they know what the clients are thinking.  Leaders of firms, almost by definition, will have “strong egos.”  They believe others – staff and clients alike – look to them for answers, so they have to be prepared to respond authoritatively.  Many feel that “I really don’t know” is not a responsible answer for a leader.

    That same “assumption of knowledgeability” seems to inhibit many leaders from sitting down with a client and being genuinely open to listening to their perceptions … about future market trends, future needs, issues they’re facing, preferences for working relationships, and areas of need that lie outside of the firm’s range of expertise.

  2. Many firms expect their project managers and project principals to know, without question, how their clients are feeling about ongoing projects.  While all technical aspects of quality control are automatically done by third parties, quality control of client satisfaction is often left to people who are working on a project …

Our people know how their clients are feeling.”

In some instances, a principal-in-charge (under some variety of titles) is supposed to act as a third party and conduct regular and formal client feedback.  But – they are often busy and are assured by the project team that everything is going along smoothly.  So they often do not conduct regular feedback interviews.  Plus …

No one from senior management monitors the principals-in-charge to be certain they conduct the feedback they’re supposed to conduct, and that the client gives the team high satisfaction scores.  Then …

A long-term repeat client awards their next project to another firm!  And in this tight economy, many other good firms are waiting in the wings to show your long-term clients what they can do.  And they’re eager to please!  So, two recommendations …

1.    Flexibility.

Have a senior person in your firm sit down with each and every client, once or even twice a year, and use the “Market Interview” questions to stay in tune with clients’ changing perceptions and expectations.  Be especially mindful of question #4 …

“What kind of help will be most important to you
in dealing with issues with which you’re wrestling?”

Your client may need more help getting a bond issue passed or gaining community acceptance than in securing the “right” architectural or engineering services.  We need to put our professional training aside and think more as “problem solvers” intending to identify the mix of expertise that the client will need.  We can always hire or acquire or team with someone to add unique skills we don’t currently provide.  One architect in the mature K-12 market wins new projects fairly consistently because of a unique process that gets over 90% of the clients’ bond issues passed.

2.    Fool-Proof Quality Control.

Set up a system for ensuring client satisfaction every step of the way.  Every firm rushes in with senior people when they get wind of an unhappy client.  Firms spend all sorts of money winning a project and then trying to salvage hurt relationships, but not enough energy ensuring that clients don’t get unhappy in the first place.  On each and every project, ask yourself three questions …

  • Who is going to do the client satisfaction interviews, and when?
  • Who is going to be sure that those people do what they’re supposed to do?  (Even talented and dedicated senior people can get busy.)
  • And who is going to ensure that corrective actions – based on the interview response – are taken, and are taken promptly?  (If you gather client feedback and then don’t act on it, it’s actually worse than if you never gathered the feedback in the first place.  You’re saying, behaviorally, that you really don’t care.  There’s no remedy for that.)

Trina’s been doing an increased number of client feedback interviews for an increasing number of firms.  In one, recently, the client – a senior administrator of a major federal agency – gave the firm a very high score, said the firm has taken better care of them than he’s ever experienced, and that he’ll find ways to give the firm a lot more work, sole source … for the agency’s sake.  The rewards are worth the effort!