Monday, June 17, 2013

Your Best Marketing is a Happy Client

Take a proactive approach to avoiding client service problems. Negative interactions with clients happen, and you need to address these situations quickly, so that projects are not derailed and relationships strained.

Many negative client encounters revolve around service failures when your firm did not meet, or is not meeting, expectations. “Failure” may sound strong, but not meeting expectations is clearly failure. What are some common causes of these client service mishaps?

• Lapse in quality – One of the biggest frustrations with internal work is poor quality. If you get mad, how might an external person react? Clients pay you a lot of money to be the experts and to do the work they can’t accomplish. They don’t want to find and correct our mistakes.

• Poor communication – Every project and personal interaction requires good communication, written or verbal. Breakdowns can occur when communication is untimely, inaccurate, conflicting, unclear, or otherwise ineffective. Clients want to know what’s going on. It gives them a sense of comfort and control.

• Cost overruns – This may sound obvious, but is worth stating. When a budget is exceeded, the owner will be upset. Consider how you felt the last time you had work done on your house or your car repaired, and the final cost was more than you expected.

• Multiple stakeholders – Often your client—the person or entity paying the invoice—has to satisfy others’ interests. Whether it’s an end user of the facility, an interest group in support or opposition of the project, or her boss, additional people create a matrix of expectations to meet.

• Changing out project staff – Even when everything else goes well, a change in staffing can cause a misstep on the project. New people create budget pressures, and add complexity to communications. The worst situation is caused by changing the PM.

Recovery from failure is essential. You know what to do. Set up an urgent meeting to get stakeholders aligned, clarify expectations, or adjust schedules and budget. But rather than focusing on recovery, just don’t let there be any failures in the first place. Prevention is the cure. More than just doing the opposite of the things listed above, following are some helpful hints and processes to consider implementing.

• Conduct a kickoff meeting, and invite your client – An internal kickoff meeting is essential. Agenda topics should include communications protocol, assignments and budget (allocating hours), and schedule milestones. Invite your client to participate in the meeting, or a portion of the meeting. Even a phone conference can be a step in the right direction.

• Use client feedback and report cards – Many firms have a formal system to obtain feedback. Advocate that your project is included in the process. And make sure you don’t only get feedback at the conclusion of the project.

• Promote executive engagement – Sometimes the project team is too close to the work to get the real issues out on the table, or not senior enough to get to higher levels in the client organization to make a mark for your firm. Consider getting executives involved in your client interactions.

• Institute project reviews – Try conducting a formal sit-down with your client on a periodic basis to review all aspects of your firm’s work—financial performance, schedule of deliverables, adequacy of resources, and quality of work.

• Practice good QC hygiene – Every firm I have worked for has established quality control procedures. Follow your process, use peer review, check calculations and drawings, and prevent quality lapses.

The best marketing tool is doing good work. And clients may not be inclined to rehire your firm if you have service failures. Be diligent about recognizing when you are going down the road of missed expectations, and follow good practices to stay on track with your operations.

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