The customer is not always right

Sep 11, 1995

It is almost heresy in this day and age of “customer service” to say it, but in the A/E/P and environmental consulting business, the customer is not always right. In fact, many times the customer (or client) is wrong. And this popular orientation that “the client is always right” is helping to spawn a whole new cadre of spineless architects, engineers, and environmental consultants who will tolerate being told what to do by their clients— all in the name of client service. As a result, the real quality of the service they provide is being significantly compromised, their businesses are hard to manage, and they don’t make the income they theoretically should make as professionals. Why do I say this? For a wide variety or reasons, including: In many cases, the client doesn’t have the same breadth or depth of experience in dealing with the particular problem or situation as the consultant. This may be the first time the client has ever done a project like the one they are doing now. For example, one of the firms I worked in always had trouble on higher education projects. Typical of this type of project is to have a board or committee as the client, none of whom had ever built a new science building or library or student center before, and all of whom had different ideas about how it should be done. It takes a strong project manager/principal to get a fragmented group like this together and to get a complex, multi-million dollar construction project of this type actually built. This situation is made even more difficult when your job is the first time the client has ever done a project of any type, period. How can people with so little experience really know what they want? They can’t. You need to tell them what to do— and that makes architects, engineers, and environmental consultants uncomfortable. After all, they are “nice people,” people who know their limits, right? And “nice people” don’t do things like that, right? Wrong on both counts! Because of this lack of experience, the client may truly be ignorant of his or her options. Clients are often ill-equipped to discuss various aspects of a project— whether it’s deciding if continuous groundwater monitoring at a landfill is necessary, or if a two-story school should have a third story added or a new wing constructed, or if a new subdivision development should have condos or a convenience store at its entrance. Why? Because in many cases clients don’t know what their options are. This calls for a consultant (or consultants) who can quickly articulate the various possibilities, explain each possibility’s pros and cons, and then point the client in the direction that is best for them. It doesn’t call for a consultant who discourages spending money to look at or study these things due to a false sense of economy over the fee. One of our clients, a company that is involved with a significant building program for its client, has a process whereby all client change requests must be initiated in writing by the client. These changes are then studied for cost/benefit and the client makes a decision to move ahead (or not move ahead) on that basis. Not only does its client end up getting what’s really best, the A/E firm documents its need to get paid for extra services and ends up with tangible evidence of the real economic benefit of the change to their client. That’s pretty neat! The client may have a short-term cost savings mentality that will hamper his or her chances of having a successful project. These days, the bean counters too often decide what will be spent— not the people who will be using the facility or the folks with the problem that needs to be fixed. As a result, architects, engineers, and environmental consultants are insulated from those who have control over the purse strings. They can educate their “user” clients all they want, but it doesn’t do any good. The decision to go with the cheapest alternative is already a foregone conclusion. The way to help your clients do what is best for them over the long haul is to try to forge some sort of personal relationship with the financial or purchasing people so you can try to influence their thinking. And if this simply isn’t possible due to their location or lack of accessibility, it may be to your advantage to make this person (or people) part of the project communication stream, so they know everything going on in the job. This way, if the consultants have included them in all of their communications, they may be more willing to consider the consultants’ suggestions that require spending money now to get a bigger benefit later. The bottom line is that it’s easy to say the client is always right and to do what the client wants. But it’s only the best consultants who can convince their clients to do what’s really right. Once is all it takes to make a believer out of a client. If a consultant can convince a reluctant client to go along with a recommendation, and the decision proves to be a good one, the consultant will have a good client— one who listens, who pays his bills promptly, and who trusts the consultant— for life. Originally published 9/11/1995

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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.