Taking Research Seriously

Sep 24, 2007

Bob Cunningham was the 57-year-old CEO of C-6 Architects and Engineers in Seattle, Washington. He became CEO of the company in 1992. Cunningham took great pride in witnessing the firm’s growth from 30 people when he joined it nearly 30 years ago as a mere project manager to more than 400 staffers today. Whenever asked to account for the firm’s incredible success, he would always attribute it to the fact that “at C-6, we listen to our clients.” Yet the real truth was that C-6 did NOT listen to its clients very well at all— and the firm was starting to suffer as a result. More and more frequently, Cunningham was hearing stories of long-time, regular clients dropping C-6 for another service provider. It also seemed like more of the big projects that they were going after with new clients, ones that C-6 had “in the bag,” were being awarded to competitors. And then there were an increasing number of complaints coming in about service issues. The bottom line was the backlog was slipping, and Cunningham and his fellow principals knew that they had to act. It was time C-6 started acting like a “real company” of its size and invested some money in buying professionally-conducted research from a provider outside of the firm. Here’s what Cunningham and his fellow principals did: They did a study of each market they served. They found out who the big buyers of A/E services were, what firms they were buying specific services from, how much clients were buying, and what their anticipated needs were in the coming years. They got a very good sense of what markets were growing and which were declining, and where to concentrate resources. They also learned a lot about what types of talent they should be trying to recruit. These market studies proved invaluable in designing an organizational structure and marketing and production process customized for each client type the firm served. They did an extensive client perception survey. Here they found out what current, past, and potential clients really thought about C-6. Individual telephone interviews and e-mail surveys helped C-6 learn what clients thought C-6 did well, what services the firm provided, and how they stacked up to specific competitors. It was an eye-opener for Cunningham and his fellow principals to hear who they thought were some of their best clients say some pretty hurtful things about them— including their perception that C-6 principals were not involved deeply enough in their projects, that they were inaccessible, and that they didn’t really care about them. They also heard that their employees had an inability to assume responsibility for anything and that their projects were not well coordinated between disciplines. They did a “fresh-eyes study” of other markets they could go into and services they could provide. They took the lid off what they did and where they did it and had some very open-minded discussion and research performed to examine long-term trends that could provide opportunities for them. As a result, several new initiatives were undertaken to get into new businesses that C-6 was not already into. Of course, these weren’t the only steps C-6 took to turn things around. Cunningham made sure that every single employee had a business card and outgoing e-mail signature that included their cell phone number so clients could reach the people they needed to talk with. He also made sure that they had a special “client concern” hotline and e-mail address so service problems would come straight to him. Each project manager was required to issue a job status report on every project he or she ran weekly, and the client and entire project team were on the distribution list. He reshuffled some of their managers and got his people into the jobs they were best qualified to do. They allocated a certain amount of money to new ventures, one of which (an office in Latvia) really looked like it was going to take off. And he made sure that ongoing research was a part of C-6’s annual business planning process. The results were that, within a year, backlog stabilized. In the years that followed, C-6 got back on a growth track, and when Cunningham retired, the firm had nearly 700 employees working in 12 offices in the States and elsewhere. Originally published 9/24/2007

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