Bad Service? Try Your Own Firm

Mar 03, 2008

I was at Lowe’s the other day buying a Jacuzzi tub for a 1925 bungalow we are redoing from top to bottom to resell. While the plumbing guy ran off to get my tub, I went hunting for a Roman tub faucet for the thing. I had just landed in front of a very, very long line of faucets— I would guess between 200 and 300 of ‘em— when two guys in Lowe’s garb approached me. The junior one of the two asked me if he could help. I said, “Sure. Do you have any Roman tub faucets?” He said, “What?” I repeated my question. The other guy (an assistant manager of some sort) said, “If it’s not out there, we don’t have it.” This struck me the wrong way. I told the fellow that I hadn’t looked through ALL of their faucets and if I wanted to do that, I wouldn’t be asking him for help. Then the other guy said, “We can order anything you want.” I told him I didn’t want to order anything and that if they didn’t want to help me, don’t ask. The one who first asked me if I needed some help told me they were trained to ask that question of all customers. Then they looked at me like I was from Mars and walked away! Normally, I do pretty well at Lowe’s. I buy a ton of stuff there every week, and I know a lot of people over there who are great. These two dimwits really set me off, though, as they personify everything I hate about poorly-run businesses. It got me thinking about how a good company like Lowe’s can have people who act so dumb and upset good customers like me. And I started wondering how many A/E/P and environmental firms are doing the same thing to their good clients that Lowe’s did to me. What am I talking about? I am talking about what your people do that unintentionally angers clients and sometimes loses them for you. A bad receptionist or switchboard operator is a typical weak spot. People who don’t know how to be courteous, who don’t know how to find help for those who need it, and those who are unable to remember how someone’s name is pronounced. No amount of training is going to work for someone who lacks intellect and common sense. You simply need the right person on the frontline. Maybe you have to pay a decent rate to get such a person and treat them with respect. A bad project manager is another common weak spot. The PM has to be someone who can empathize with the client. He or she must be flexible, appropriate, and diplomatic at all times. Get the wrong person out there with a client having a bad day, and watch out. Use the best technical people as PMs without regard to their communication and other soft skills, and you are probably going to have some serious problems. Don’t make this common mistake. And if you do (make this mistake), rectify it fast. Again, no amount of training will be able to ensure this never happens. A bad principal is another problem. We all know them when we see them, but why are they in that role in the first place? The right principal with a good client relationship can smooth over a lot of ruffled feathers. But the wrong principal does not tune in when things are going awry, and does not act quickly enough to defuse a bad situation. There’s no room in any company for incompetent leaders, especially in a business like architecture, engineering, planning, or environmental consulting, one that sells the time of the top people. Clear ‘em out, reassign them— do something. You cannot let these situations linger. The bottom line is it’s almost always the people who upset and lose clients. Rarely is it software, or equipment, or something else that makes a client so upset that they won’t work with you. Take a close look at the folks you have in every role that could put them in front of a client, good or bad. If you suspect there could be a problem, there WILL be one. Act now instead of later when it’s too late! Originally published 3/3/2008

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.