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Value: the A/E/C industry’s biggest blind spot?

The Friedman File readers know the importance I place on asking clients and prospects probing questions — whether it’s to:

  • Learn more about their organization and role, their greatest challenges, and trends and drivers impacting their success
  • Determine how they define and measure value from a firm like yours
  • Identify who they view as your most potent competitors and why
  • Assess how you’re performing on a project
  • Better understand why you won or lost a recent project pursuit

In this issue, I want to focus on a key area — eliciting client feedback to enable your firm to assess the value you bring to the table. As a strategy consultant to the A/E/C industry, I see far too many firms struggle with determining and articulating their differentiators, benefits (not features!), and value. All too often, expensive off-sites are held where principals, marketing staff, and others pontificate these topics without the benefit of external data points. This is mind-boggling! If one of our primary challenges is establishing our value to command the fees we warrant (plus avoiding commoditization in some markets), then we must understand what our clients value and how they measure it.

One exciting development for Friedman & Partners in 2014 is the strategic partnership we’ve formed with Client Feedback Tool (CFT). One of our niches is conducting “deep dives” (typically by phone; sometimes in person) with our clients’ strategic, high-revenue-yielding clients (as well as prospects). CFT’s patented automated survey vehicle complements our deep dives and facilitates obtaining feedback from all of your clients throughout the project delivery process.

Ryan Suydam, Co-Founder and Director of Operations for CFT, shared with me the following story that speaks volumes:

For the last decade, I’ve helped A/E/C firms around the world develop class-leading feedback programs. I recently had the opportunity to be the client, responding to a survey sent by a vendor. It was an eye-opening experience.

We moved offices in March, and part of the process was acquiring new furniture. With my connections in the A/E/C space, I found the most highly recommended dealer, and forged ahead. I was shocked when the project manager dropped the ball repeatedly – she was unresponsive, made multiple mistakes, and made the move a near-disaster. In the end, the last pieces of furniture didn’t arrive until seven weeks after we moved. My experience did not match the reputation of the dealer.

On the first of May, I received a survey from the dealer asking about my experience. Thrilled (I love feedback!), I jumped on the chance. The survey was actually quite well written, concise, and afforded me ample opportunity to voice my diplomatically stated concerns. I was done in four minutes, and went about my life.

On the second of June, I received a phone call from their General Manager (whom I’d never met), thanking me for the feedback. But, all he could say was ‘I’m sorry your project didn’t turn out as you expected.’

Let that sink in for a moment.

The dealer had taken the time to set up a feedback process. They had integrated it with their billing system to send surveys the first of each month to all closed projects. They had automated a report to the GM on the first of each month with the results. The GM himself followed up on every response. They even had a good survey and great questions. In so many ways they were doing the right things.

But the final result was ‘I’m sorry your project didn’t end well.’

Ryan’s vignette is a great example of the challenges and nuances overlooked in the design of a feedback strategy. At the end of the day (or the end of the project), the net result was the same for the client. The feedback didn’t actually work to create a measurably improved outcome for anyone. There was no change.

Certainly an apology and acknowledgement after the fact prevents further brand damage, but the real opportunity is to consider ways to make feedback an effective tool to drive dramatically improved project outcomes. Improved outcomes translate directly into improved value.

Here are five ways to test your client feedback strategy to see if it’s truly driving value:

  1. Client responses change your process. Client responses should have the ability to impact how you serve them. If you can’t take action to a question answered, don’t ask!
  2. The request benefits the client. The client receiving the feedback request must see the value (to them) of responding.
  3. It’s not an autopsy. Requests made during the project while there is still an opportunity for their responses to be acted upon drive participation from your clients, and give you time to take action when it matters most.
  4. It can be acted upon. Your client is responding to the person who can act on their feedback. No one else can fix the project other than the people working on it. Keep them involved.
  5. It is not a time waster. Don’t throw away questions on “knowable” information. “Was the project on schedule?” That question is one you should already know the answer to and asking makes you sound like you don’t know something you really should. Focus on areas that will benefit the client and that your firm can influence.

Here’s how to put these tactics to work in your firm, so that you get to say to happy clients: “Thank you for allowing us to make this project a success.”

  1. Understand what the client experience means to your business. How does it differentiate you? What does it cost when the experience fails? What value will be created (for you AND your clients) through improved client experiences?
  2. Develop a “client-first” feedback strategy that puts the needs and interests of the clients as priority. Understand when to ask, who should ask, and what to ask – all in a way that benefits the client.
  3. Get buy-in from key executive leadership, operations/project delivery, marketing, and administrative support. Make sure everyone understands and is committed to the feedback strategy.
  4. Encourage PMs to engage the client in a conversation and adjust responsiveness (if necessary) or provide alternate contact points for urgent questions. The result: a client that’s thrilled with your responsiveness.
  5. Commit to taking action on results as they are collected. Implement an accountability system to make sure feedback is being collected and corrective action occurs when the feedback warrants that.
  6. Communicate the plan to your clients. Refine as needed to meet their specific needs. Keep the system flexible enough to handle your different client types. Identify where electronic feedback is appropriate, and where you may need to employ “deep dives” to gather more detailed feedback.

Once the system is implemented, use the results for targeted improvements across the organization. It won’t take long to see a marked improvement everywhere. Opportunities will reveal themselves every week. Profits up. Stress down. Repeat business. Employees engaged. Clients happy. Value clearly communicated. Sleep at night. Nirvana. Let me know your thoughts (rich@friedmanpartners.com; 508-276-1101).

 

About the Author:

Rich Friedman, President of Friedman & Partners, has worked in and consulted for the A/E/C and environmental consulting industries for more than 25 years. Starting out in the trenches as an environmental consultant and business developer for Stone & Webster Engineering in Boston, Rich expanded his reach as the partner in charge of marketing and business development research, consulting and training for ZweigWhite. He also managed a variety of other projects involving strategic planning, mergers and acquisitions, and executive search. Since launching Friedman & Partners, he has worked with firms at all levels, from small niche consultants to large ENR 500 organizations. He’s also conducted hundreds of seminars and workshops for firms, design and environmental industry professional associations and venues, including AIA, SMPS, ACEC, AGC, NSPE, Build Boston/ArchitectureBoston Expo (ABX), WTS and Chief Executive Network.