It’s real popular for A/E and environmental firms to proclaim that they are “client-centered.” Sounds good, right? Give the clients what they want….But not many firms really do what is necessary to make this statement more than lip service. Here’s some of what I am talking about:Organizational structure: How can you say you are client-centered and then have your entire organization designed around services or geographies? It doesn’t work. You should have some elements (if not all elements) of your line organization structure devoted to market sectors (designed around client types). This is the only way vertical knowledge (depth) of the client and clients of that type can be built. Otherwise, lessons learned are lost as the information dissipates through the technical groups or offices. The client-based structure also clears the way for higher future profits as both production and marketing efficiencies start to build over time. And even if you can’t lay out the entire organization this way (sometimes a hybrid with a few stand- alone services makes sense), you can probably do some or most of it along client lines. It just works better!Telephone communications: How can you claim to be client-centered when it is so hard to reach you? Many principals today do not have direct-dial phone numbers, and if they do, they don’t share them with the world. Fewer still always pick up the phone unless they know who’s calling, which makes matters even worse as far as client callers are concerned.First, the caller has to talk to the receptionist. If the caller frequently calls the firm, then he or she feels obligated to go through the normal chit-chat or fears being labeled someone who is rude or brusque. Next, the caller waits while the receptionist tries to reach the person the caller is calling. Then if he or she doesn’t pick up, the secretary for the person who was unable to come to the phone picks up. Once again, the caller is forced into being courteous and considerate and into having yet another conversation he or she doesn’t want to have with someone. None of this bodes well for the client who wants to reach the person he or she wants to speak with. Everyone should have direct-dial numbers, cell phone numbers and direct-dial numbers should appear on business cards, and people need to check to be sure no one gets dead-ended in the system. Ongoing communication processes: How can any A/E or environmental firm that doesn’t make sure clients are regularly asked for their opinions on how they are doing claim to be client-centered? It’s like saying to your spouse, “I care about what you think and how you feel,” and then never once asking them a question and listening to their response. Most marriages like that don’t last too long!Any firm that claims to be client-centered must have processes in place for ongoing client satisfaction monitoring. I like it when the feedback is sought out continuously and then posted firm-wide for all to see. Other things any firm can do include inviting clients in (either individually or in groups) for meetings and allowing employees to ask them questions. Also, firm principals should make a point to get out and see the firm’s most important clients at some point throughout the year under the auspices of having a real interest in pleasing those clients. While there are so many things a design or environmental firm could do to connote client centeredness, most still don’t (or won’t) do any of these things. Isn’t it time, in this tough economy when the competition is getting stiffer by the minute, to pay attention to this issue? And if not now, when will the timing be better? Originally published 05/12/2003.
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