The little things that anger clients

Jul 06, 2009

It’s pretty well accepted by most firm owners that if you want to be successful in the A/E/P or environmental business, you MUST keep the good clients you have. No one’s marketing is so good that they can afford to get all new clients every year. That said, my experience is that when firms do lose a good client, it is often over small things— many of which were under their control— and some of which they may not even be aware of. These little offenses can anger the client and make them seek other providers. I have either witnessed or experienced many of these myself. Here are some examples of things A/E and environmental firms do that make clients mad and that you should be sure to avoid: Incoming phone calls that are routed to the secretary vs. who the caller asked for. This is so annoying yet so frequently done— by a live person on the reception desk, too! You call into a design or environmental firm and ask to speak with “Bill Jones.” The next thing you hear is Bill Jones’ administrative assistant “Debbie” picking up the phone— or worse— you get Debbie’s voicemail and there’s no mention of Bill Jones so you don’t even know if you got someone related to him. This practice angers clients. If they want to speak with someone’s secretary, they will call that person directly. Office phones that aren’t manned even during stated “regular” office hours. I cannot stand it when I call an A/E firm’s office during the lunch hour or at 4:55 p.m. and it’s already on the “night message.” It’s especially annoying when the night message specifies the hours the firm is open and you are calling during those hours, yet clearly no one is going to answer it. By the way, when there is a directory option for callers to dial by name, many phones will not allow that. My BlackBerry, for example (“BBs” are the preferred PDA by most CEOs, by the way), has a regular keyboard, not one with three letters on each number. I cannot dial by name! “Out of office” messages as automatic replies to e-mails. These made a lot of sense back in the pre-PDA era but make no sense today. If someone works in a design or environmental firm and has all e-mail on their PDA why does the person sending that individual an e-mail need to know they are at a conference in Denver for the next three days. “Just return the damned e-mail” is what they are thinking— “your travels don’t impress me!” People in the firm who don’t return calls or e-mails requesting information. When you are a client and you need certain information from your design or environmental consultants you need it now! So why do some people in our business think it’s OK to wait days or longer to respond?? Some people never seem to check their e-mail or voicemail. That is reason enough for me not to do business with them! People whose voicemail boxes are full and don’t allow you to leave a message. If there were ever a sign you could post that says, “A lot of clients are unhappy with me,” this would be it. Why else is your VM box full? This will upset a client fast. People in the design or environmental firm who tell a client they cannot get their job done because of work for another client. When you are a client of a service provider— especially when you are a particularly good client— you DO NOT CARE that they have other projects! All you care about is YOUR project. Nothing makes me madder faster than hearing this excuse for non-performance from someone I am paying a lot of money to! Too much glory sought. The client wants to be the star of the project, not the design services provider. When all promotion materials or published interviews related to a project don’t mention the client they will no doubt be angered. And this is so easily avoided! A very minor extra results in extra charge. Whenever a service provider lets a nickel get so big it hides the dime sitting behind it they are almost certain to offend or anger the client. You have got to warn your PMs and principals about this one. A minor expense that seems high. For example, a one-day trip to see a client results in a $198 meal charge on the bill. Why so high? Some clients will focus in on things like this and right or wrong become convinced that they are being robbed by their design or environmental consultants. Mispronouncing the client’s name. I may be more sensitive to this than some, being called “Z-wig,” “Zweeg,” “Zwig,” and a lot of other things that are incorrect (my name is pronounced with a long I, as in “Budweiser.”) But I remember the TV commercial where a young man is being interviewed who keeps calling his interviewer “Mr. Dumbass” when the guy’s name is “Dumas.” Teach your people how to pronounce your clients’ names! Wrong client organization name used in a report, letter, or proposal. Wow— is this bad! It makes it look as if the design or environmental firm just copied and pasted something together in a hurry (guess what— that’s probably what DID happen!). We’ve lost a client over this one ourselves in the past. Don’t do it! A bill is marked “past due” that the client already paid. This will really upset a client, especially those who take pride in being prompt payers. Sending someone to a meeting who clearly is uninformed and cannot contribute. Many firms do this for a variety of reasons but it is a terrible practice and one that often does more harm than good. Reschedule the meeting but don’t send someone who cannot contribute. It will just make you and your firm look bad! All of these things are within your control. See how your firm stacks up relative to this list and if these are all too familiar occurrences, make some changes before you lose a good client who will prove difficult and costly to replace! Originally published 7/6/2009

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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.