The two don’t have to be at odds with each other. Make sure someone’s at least answering the phones so perks don’t impede responsiveness.
Coming off the high of our annual Hot Firm and A/E Industry Awards Conference at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, we are transitioning our focus toward end-of-year strategic planning for our clients. Likewise, my hope is that every firm leader reading this article does the same for their organization. I also hope you get help from an industry expert like ourselves as opposed to local “facilitators.” Comprehensive knowledge of this industry is critical to understanding your firm at a deep enough level to design a meaningful plan that is more than clichés and empty buzzwords.
I say all this to stress the importance of understanding the industry and what your peer firms are doing. Our planning process is intense in data collection and analysis. One part of that process is interviewing clients of the AEC firms that we are engaged with. One of the growing complaints we get from your clients is related to responsiveness.
They are specifically referencing the problems they are having with firms that have modified working hours. Programs like “Four 10s with Friday off,” or “Half Day Fridays,” or “Modified Summertime Hours” are commonly referenced by your clients.
Going back to the subject of awards, our largest program is the Best Firms to Work For. We survey more than 11,000 employees from hundreds of firms in the United States and Canada. One of the top perks earning points with your employees is modified work schedules like those referenced above. And therein lies the problem. There’s a growing conflict between employee retention and client service – two of the biggest challenges faced by AEC firms.
Even if your company does not have one of these modified work-hours programs, this emerging conflict still applies to you. As more millennials enter the workforce, they will dictate new policies and programs in your organization, many of which will provide a greater level of flexibility in some form. If your firm does have one of these programs, I would strongly encourage you to survey your clients using a third party to find out how your people are doing meeting their needs.
All of this speaks to the importance of an annual review and update of your strategic and business plans. Things are changing fast out there and we are seeing the data change from year to year faster than ever in nearly 30 years of studying this industry. Having a great place to work has more importance than ever. Being competitive and having a strong brand built around great client service and quality is also more important than ever. Makes sure you keep the big picture in focus at all times and do not let achieving excellence in one area cost you excellence in another.
Employee flexibility and excellent client service can coexist. And if you currently have or are considering a flextime program, here are a couple of things you can do to ensure that impeccable client service is maintained:
- Have your phones answered during all business hours. Unfortunately, you may have to designate a few positions in your firm that are exempt from the modified work-hours benefit. An alternative is that people could trade off so that they can at least participate part time. Phones not being answered is the number one complaint from your clients regarding modified hours policies.
- Project managers and client managers must be on-call. Related to the point above, your clients are complaining about not being able to reach their project contacts in your organization. Anyone in your firm with client contact must have the responsibility of being “on-call” during certain hours. At a minimum that is during regular business hours Monday through Friday. One benefit you can offer that will conveniently reinforce this is a 100 percent paid cell phone. That means completely paid for, including the data plan. It is a great benefit and enforces an accountability for being responsive to clients during and after regular business hours.
There are ways to accomplish all of your firm’s strategic initiatives while avoiding the conflicts outlined above. To do that, you have to look at every decision through every lens possible to identify the costs and tradeoffs. You may need some industry data or trends or surveys of your clients to effectively analyze your options and make the best decisions possible. The strategy, or lack thereof, is what separates the award winning firms from the average performing firms. Employee flexibility and excellent client service can coexist.
Chad Clinehens is Zweig Group’s executive vice president. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.