Canadian Consulting Engineer

What Do Your Clients Really Think?

You’ve won the job and delivered everything the contract specified, on time and on budget. Your client is thrilled — or at least you think they are. But how can you measure client satisfaction with the same precision that you...

March 1, 2014   By Tara Landes, Bellrock

You’ve won the job and delivered everything the contract specified, on time and on budget. Your client is thrilled — or at least you think they are. But how can you measure client satisfaction with the same precision that you measure load tolerances and environmental impacts?

Regular performance evaluations with your clients are a great way to find out what they think of you. Depending on what sector you focus on and the scope of work you’ve completed, a beer after work or a couple of phone calls to touch base may be enough to secure more business with your client. But for larger contracts and more complex offerings, a deeper client retention strategy is required.

There are two different strategies and they are used best in concert: client review meetings and client surveys.

The do-it-yourself approach – client review meetings

A regularly scheduled meeting between you and your client is an opportunity to review each other’s performance and to develop your working relationship even further.

On the client side, the participants in a review meeting might be the decision maker, the procurement person, and facility user. With smaller clients, all of these positions might be filled by one person. On the supplier side, the participants may be the engineer or consultant, a project manager or even a senior executive, depending on the circumstances. How frequent should these review meetings be? For some sectors, such as oil and gas or transportation, annual meetings are best, but for sectors like land development they can be even less frequent. Frequency is less important than consistency.

Companies that do not have a formalized client review process are often shocked when they lose business and discover that clients are now working with a competitor. These engineers speak of strong client relationships, claiming that they already “know everything about their clients.” But then they resist asking their clients specific questions to evaluate their performance, fearful that they are “wasting the client’s time.” Regrettably, they miss the incongruity between these two assertions.

On the client side, those who do not insist on formal reviews with their consulting engineers find it difficult to provide feedback, get substandard service and pricing, and tend to drift away when a new, potentially stronger alternative presents itself. So be proactive, and ask your clients for a review meeting.

Meeting overview

The meeting takes an hour or two and should broadly cover these topics in turn.

Ideal Supplier. “Describe a great working relationship you’ve had.” Open the meeting by asking the client about their ideal. This takes pressure off them to address your performance specifically. If your first question is, “How did we do on the last project?” you will make them uncomfortable and you’re less likely to get an honest response. By helping them relax, you’ll get a chance to jot down a few key points to consider for your next offering. If they give you generic answers such as, “I like good communication,” or “fees under budget are the best,” ask them to think of their favourite project and draw out what was so great about it. Questions like, “How did you find your partners? What made it work? How quickly did they respond to requests? Were there any bumps? How were they handled?” will give them the space they need to give you the information you’re looking for.

Not So Ideal. “Tell me about a project that didn’t go so well.” The same principles apply; you want to put them at ease by asking about their relationships generally, not about their relationship with you specifically. However, if they go directly to talking about your offering, you must listen.

Their Evaluation of You. “How are you finding working with us?” Remember, you want this feedback so you can improve the relationship. Writing down what they’re saying will disrupt your urge to be defensive and will make them feel heard. If they are having trouble giving you feedback, there are three killer questions you can ask to prime the pump. “What is the one thing we should keep doing?” “What is one thing we should stop doing?” “What could we do differently?”

Their Future. “What are your company’s goals for the next few years?” Ask open-ended questions about the importance and urgency of their corporate goals. For example, are they planning to go into a new market? What is their expected timeline? What is the value of accomplishing those goals, and how important is it to achieve them? Does something have to happen right away, or are these long-term plans? Once you have explored the company’s direction, ask how they envision your part in it.

Roadblocks to the Future. “What challenges do you anticipate along the way?” Explore the work involved to reach the company’s goals. What will it cost in time, money or personnel to achieve them? Probe for more information, using open questions to understand the obstacles they’re anticipating.

Competitive Intelligence. “Here are some examples of what others are doing to reach similar goals.” You now have the opportunity to deliver significant value for the time they’ve spent with you. Avoid telling them what they should do, and suggest to them what they could do. Explain what other companies are doing, and see if they opt in to a similar solution that you can provide.

Company Update. Describe any new offerings your company has, or old ones that they had not considered. If you believe they are already taking full advantage of your services, tell them about other offerings anyway. Maybe they know of another company or branch that would be a good fit for your services.

Summary. To close the meeting, summarize what you discussed. Highlight any action steps that arose from the conversation to make sure all agree on the next steps and timeline.

The third party approach: client surveys

A third party unbiased client survey is a low cost way to formalize and systematize your client feedback process. Because it is outsourced, no-one is ever “too busy on other work” to complete the exercise. Clients are heard, and new opportunities are uncovered. A good survey company will synthesize your clients’ feedback, interpret the survey results for you, and provide recommendations that you can act on to improve your offerings for customers.

At minimum, the survey should provide a deep understanding of your clients’ purchasing drivers, degree of satisfaction with your service and your staff, awareness of your range of offerings, and recommendations for what you can do differently to improve their experience. It should also provide a benchmark, so you can measure the impact of changes to your offerings, staff, or processes.

But knowledge is just table stakes. Once you know, it’s time for action.

Why bother talking?

Politics evolve, markets shift, technology advances, customers grow older — the only thing you know for sure is that your engineering practice has to adapt, easily and often, if you want to keep happy clients who value your work. The well publicized stories of Nokia and BlackBerry illustrate that even the mighty can fall, and your engineering firm is not immune. But Apple is still thriving today. Why? They have a deep understanding of what their customers value, and a nimbleness that enables them to change to meet their clients’ demands.

Your clients may be happy today, but what systems and processes can you adopt to ensure you keep them happy in the future? Assuming you haven’t created and filled a “Mind Reader” position on your organizational chart yet, you must ask your clients what they want, ask them again, and then ask them again in a different way. Do it routinel
y, frequently and systematically, and the time investment easily pays for itself.

In case you are concerned about wasting the client’s time, remember that clients (like all human beings) generally appreciate being listened to. Those who don’t will opt not to participate, which identifies exactly how unimportant you are to them — and tells you there’s an issue that needs immediate attention.cce

Tara Landes is the president of Bellrock, a management consulting firm that specializes in engineering companies and is based in Vancouver. E-mail tlandes@bellrock.ca, www.bellrock.ca


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