Quality is (not) job one

Aug 11, 2016

Chad ClinehensThe marketing of ‘quality’ is ubiquitous in the A/E industry, but oftentimes, the difference between perception and reality can undermine a firm’s brand equity. Many firms are dealing with record high workloads. That translates into tight deadlines, long hours, and, unfortunately, problems with quality. We see increasing data that suggests quality, or lack thereof, is becoming more of an issue for A/E firms. What this means is that quality is not Job One. Firms are just simply getting the work done. The threat this poses to your firm is obvious and includes long-term damage to your brand. The effects will become more evident when the market cools down and your clients are able to be choosier with their distribution of work. To better illustrate the significance of this problem, we need to zoom out and review the definition of brand equity. Brand equity is the net sum of your brand assets minus your brand liabilities. So think of brand equity like your net worth. A brand has high equity and is valuable when it has lots of assets and few, if any, liabilities. The major brand asset categories are:
  • Brand name awareness. Strength of a brand’s presence in the client’s mind.
  • Perceived quality. The client’s perception of the overall quality or superiority of a product or service with respect to its intended purpose, relative to alternatives.
  • Brand associations. Extent to which a particular brand calls to mind the attributes of a general product or service category. An example is asking for a “Kleenex” instead of a tissue.
  • Brand loyalty. Brand loyalty is when clients become committed to your firm (brand) and make repeat purchases over time.
Your professional services company has a strong brand when your firm’s name is at the top of the list, your clients perceive a high level of quality from your firm’s services, and you enjoy a high repeat client rate. Of course, problems in any of the asset categories can be a liability as well, especially for perceived quality. Among all brand associations, only perceived quality has been shown by research to drive financial performance. Perceived quality is often a major strategic thrust of a business and is often heavily promoted by A/E firms. Perceived quality in professional service firms can drive other aspects of how a brand is perceived. Most A/E firms promote quality and talk about innovation when neither matches up with the perception of their clients. That is why we use the term “perceived quality” as opposed to just quality. Quality is subjective. When we talk in terms of perceived quality, it forces us to look through the lens of our clients and face reality. For firm leaders, this is about bringing marketing, sales, and project management into alignment, and closing the gap of our beliefs versus reality. Unfortunately, these groups are separated from each other in many A/E firms. Here are a few things to consider implementing to improve perceived quality in your firm:
  • Connect marketing and sales with project management. Marketing staff needs to be more plugged into projects and clients. And likewise, project management needs to be more plugged into marketing, messaging, and branding. The first opportunity to fumble here is not following through on perceived promises made during proposals and interviews. Develop a list of all of the things you said you would do in the business development process and give that list to the project manager before they write up the scope and fee estimate. This assures that all of those services have a cost associated with them, and offers the client the opportunity to pay for them or not. Additionally, invite your marketing and BD staff to meetings where projects and upcoming work are discussed.
  • Implement a continuous client feedback system. The goal here is to get real feedback that you can use to improve your services and close the gap on what is believed to be the quality of your service versus the reality. Firms are not doing a good job of getting feedback, and even when they do, too many are not using the info. Part of the reason for this is that firms like to check the client feedback box and then get back to work. Feedback without action is a waste of resources. View client feedback as a two-way street. Consider having your PMs send out regular reports to clients outlining the work completed so far, any needed resources, and what is next. It is a tremendous communication builder, and considering communication problems are the number one cause of quality problems, this practice should improve real quality and thus the perceived quality.
  • Make quality Job One. This does not mean that everything else comes second. It means that everything else supports a true commitment to quality control. That means that during a tight market like the one we are in now, we are hiring people to keep the workload at reasonable levels and the quality high. If you are trying to hire and are having trouble, then ask yourself why. Do you need to outsource your recruiting? Do you need to improve your pay and benefits? Do you need to consider an acquisition? A serious commitment to making quality Job One means that someone in the firm is making this their mission and they are addressing any problems that get in the way.
To conclude, stop talking about how great your quality is and actually measure it. And then, no matter how good it is, make improvements to close the gap even further. If quality is good, look at threats down the road. Are your people working so hard that you are going to lose them, thus threatening quality? Put a high-level person in your firm in charge of monitoring quality, a most important feature of your business. Research shows that perceived quality of your firm’s services can drive financial performance, one way or the other. The next time you talk about branding and someone in your firm rolls their eyes, break out the definition of brand equity and give them the mathematical perspective on this and tie it into project management. That should get their attention. Become the firm that walks the walk when it comes to quality. Trust me, it will differentiate you from your competitors, many of which talk about it, but provide average service. Chad Clinehens is Zweig Group’s executive vice president. Contact him at cclinehens@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1156 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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.