What it Really Takes to Make a Client Happy

Sep 26, 2005

Architects, engineers, and planners are always talking about what they will do to keep their clients happy. In marketing meetings, repeat business statistics of 80% or better are bandied about with pride, and chests are puffed out when the principals talk about their many satisfied clients. That all sounds great, and it may be true. But the fact is that many times, clients are working with particular design or planning firms, not because they want to, but because they have to. The clients are stuck. They have too much invested in the relationship with their services provider. They are saying things to each other such as: It would be too hard to switch horses in the middle of a building program.” As bad as the architects are, can you imagine what it would be like educating another firm on what we are all about? Every time we think about using another firm it just seems too risky. The boss wants me to work with these people in spite of how lousy they are. So, clients keep working with companies that they don’t think are that good, and the design and planning firms fool themselves into believing that the clients are working with them because they ARE good. If you have a sneaking suspicion that this describes many of your firm’s client relationships, I have some suggestions for you on how to make things better. Here they are: Continuously ask your clients how they feel about your services, and share this information with the entire staff. This is done in some firms but very few. I am talking about an ongoing process to poll clients on what they think of what they got from your firm. This takes personal interviews and someone who is good at taking notes. Share the unedited results with all employees once a month. There’s always a lot to be learned from both the good news and the bad. Develop case histories on how to keep clients happy and how to make clients unhappy, and use these for staff training. These cases should be based on real examples of serving clients at your own firm. No hypothetical situations here— change the names if necessary to protect the not-so-innocent— but be sure to share these stories in your staff training. What’s more important— teaching them how to do a full-wall schedule?? This is some of the most critical training you can provide your people if you want to turn them into well-rounded consultants. Emphasize the importance of rapid-fire client communications when it comes to keeping clients happy. I have been preaching this for the last several years, and I am going to continue to do so as long as I keep seeing so many instances where people in this business clearly don’t understand how important it is. Return your phone calls promptly. Process your e-mails continuously. Respond to complaints, questions, and inquiries from everyone inside and outside of the firm NOW. This goes farther when it comes to making clients happy than almost anything else you can do. Reward those employees who go above and beyond the call of duty to give exceptional client service and penalize employees who don’t do what is within their power to keep a client happy. You simply cannot dole out all your salary dollars based on who got registered or who has a Master’s Degree or who has been there so long. The people who show daily that they make clients really happy are worth more than those who don’t do this. You know who they are. Treat the good ones much differently than the bad. As for the bad, why are they working there? How much damage does someone need to do before you move them out the door? You know who these people are, too! Hire smart people at every position level. The fact is that dumb people will never understand what they need to do and why it’s important. You can talk ‘til you are blue in the face and not get anywhere with them on this subject. Dumb people will make bad decisions that anger clients. It’s inevitable! Make sure your best clients get your best people, prices, and service, instead of taking them for granted. Too many times the NEW clients get the best service, and the long-term loyal clients get taken for granted. This is another problem that I see over and over in A/E/P firms, and it’s baffling to me. WHY do we put the new people on our biggest client jobs and use our big clients as trainers? It’s just not right. And if you really want to keep clients happy you will stop doing this. Constantly sell your clients on the value you bring to the table. I saw a presentation once where an A/E firm showed their client that the $6 million the client spent on their services saved the client $100 million. That was powerful stuff, and no one in the room could fail to be impressed. This firm, incidentally, went on to do as much as $25 million a year in business with this particular client in the years following. You must never forget to keep RESELLING your clients on what you do IF you want to keep them. Originally published 09/26/2005

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.