Any business— be that A/E/P or otherwise— survives and prospers to the extent it meets the needs of its clients. That is so incredibly fundamental it borders on the obvious— yet firms falter (and occasionally even fail) because they don’t meet client needs. This is true now more than ever as clients have less work to do and more possible providers to do it than ever before. In order to meet client needs, you cannot make any assumptions. You have to ASK. That is very hard for educated, experienced, grown-up design and environmental professionals to do. They feel silly asking about what needs the client currently has and asking about what kind of work the client may have coming up. These same people are also scared to death of asking a client how happy they are with what the firm did for them. I think this fear of asking a question is somewhat akin to asking for directions. Many of us (humans) are genetically hardwired not to do that as it is a sign of weakness— the “other tribe” might kill us if they think we don’t know where we are. Or perhaps many of us were traumatized by a tyrannical teacher at some point— someone who didn’t like our asking “stupid” questions. Either way, we need to ask. We cannot meet client needs without asking. We cannot count on them to always contact us when they have a need for our services. They won’t do it! Nor can we count on them to always tell us on their own what’s wrong…If we are serious about meeting the needs of our clients, the other thing we need to do is ACT when we find out what those needs are. I will never forget being at a Wal-Mart managers’ meeting at their headquarters office in Bentonville one Saturday about three years ago. The CEO was talking about customer service and the question came up on whether or not store checkers asked every single customer if they “found everything they wanted.” The answer came back that it was only occurring some 25% to 30% of the time. Then someone in the audience raised the follow-up question about what happens when a customer says they didn’t find all they wanted. Does the checker shut the line down and go look for it? Do they have a red phone to call back to someone to find the item and bring it to the checkout line? While clearly these were good questions that deserved some thought, that’s not the point of my article. The point of my article is when an A/E/P or environmental firm learns what a client’s needs are, what do they do with the information? Again, my experience is not enough. Too many times when we hear clients say they need a particular service— one that we don’t currently offer— the rationalization that occurs inside the firm justifies why it would be a bad idea to provide that service. The fact that a current client says they want it or need it is not treated like a priority of the business. It should be!The same rationalization for no change also occurs when clients describe dissatisfaction with the firm’s current services. We too often blame the client for being difficult to work with or unreasonable instead of taking their criticism to heart and changing things such that their complaint will never be justified again. This attitude will no doubt lead to the poorhouse. Instead, we need to change what we are doing! Change the people, the processes, the dysfunctional attitudes— whatever we must change to make sure we keep the clients happy or make them happy again if we have made them unhappy. So if we want to meet client needs now, in this market, we have to ask a lot of questions and listen carefully to what we hear. Then we need to act on what we’re learning in terms of adding new services or working in new ways— in short, do whatever it takes! This attitude has to start at the top and go all the way down to the lowest-level employee in the firm. If you can make this happen, my guess is you’ll be a very successful firm— good economy or bad.Originally published 3/16/2009
About Zweig Group
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.
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