So, without hammering their firm’s profitability, how can QS firms get to understand their clients’ expectations? And how do they adapt their ways of working to satisfy them? What if those expectations are unreasonable?
All clients have different expectations. Some may need basic advice, others may want a greater degree of ‘hand-holding’. The spectrum between these two is broad and without knowing what degree of relationship the client is looking for, it is easy to assume that what has worked with other clients will work for this one and therefore risk an inappropriate approach. But how can firms uncover such information?
Uncovering client expectations
Managing client expectations successfully depends on a QS firm understanding, influencing, setting and agreeing those expectations at every stage of the relationship. These stages include:
- While selling to the client
- In the firm’s final negotiations with them
- At the start of the work
- At regular stages in the execution of the work
- At the end of each project
In finding out how they are meeting the client’s service and technical criteria, QS firms should ask for feedback. The more successful firms do so with genuine interest and in such a way that the client feels comfortable to say what they really think.
As well as their main point of contact, these firms ask all the people who are influenced by their work. They also ask fairly regularly and not just when they think the client will say nice things about them. QS firms therefore need to make it as easy as possible for their clients to give constructive criticism.
A client satisfaction survey and one client review every year, is unlikely to achieve all this information.
Getting in touch with your ‘soft’ side
Many QS firms are good at agreeing the ‘technical deliverables’ of an assignment. Frustration on both sides is often caused by a failure to agree the ‘soft stuff’, for example:
- How the two sides are going to work together
- How they will communicate
- Who the client should speak to if they get nervous about progress
- How meetings should be run
- What the personal agendas are of the people inside and outside the team
- How information should be presented
If the client’s expectations are unreasonable – or a QS firm is unable to meet them – and they know what they are at the very start of an assignment, then there is a chance of influencing them. Whether the client will listen will depend on the level of trust the firm has developed in the relationship.
If the expectations are unreasonable and cannot be influenced, to maintain credibility the QS firm may need to walk away from this particular work. This is painful but much less damaging in the long-term than a client dissatisfied with delivery.
Client review meetings
Client review meetings are incredibly valuable in understanding and meeting client expectations. These meetings should not be seen as simply an opportunity to discuss progress on a project – they can be much more. They should enable QSs to:
- Understand what the client likes about what they do
- Find out how specific pieces of work are going from the client’s perspective.
- Understand what the client is not happy about.
- Agree what the client could do to help them to deliver more effectively.
- Find out what was going on in the client organisation – current issues, people movements etc – so that they are better able to defend their position against competitors.
- Explore the future (as the client sees it) so that the firm is able to discuss their expertise, which could help the client achieve their future plans.
- Meet more people on the client’s side and bring in more people from the firm, thereby increasing the contact surface to strengthen the relationship between the 2 organisations.
- Make the client aware of the benefits the firm is bringing to the organisation.
- Generate referrals into other parts of that organisation and into other organisations
- Show they care.
Delivering to client expectations
In the attainment of client contentment, understanding client expectations is just the first step. QS firms obviously also need to deliver successfully to satisfy them. Clients are not made unhappy on purpose.
Most examples of dissatisfaction occur as a result of misguided attempts to keep the client happy. The main cause of these is a tendency to over-promise on a project and then under-deliver in the performance. They get in place the right client manager with the right client team to manage the relationship and execute the work.
People in the firm are selected for this purpose according to their ‘fit’ with the client – whether it is because of their expertise, experience, personality and/or interests. Once in place, the client team is given the responsibility of managing, protecting and developing the client relationship.
Key client plans are fundamental to this and the teams formulate them around simple SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, responsibility-assigned and timed) objectives, which are based on the client’s expectations.
These plans live and breathe, as opposed to gathering dust on a shelf. Information is openly communicated within the team and the firm and best practice or successes in key client management are encouraged, praised and shared.
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