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Off My Meds: Why I Hate Being A Consulting Manager

I’m off my meds, seriously raging and thought that you, my faithful readers, should bear the brunt of my imbalance and anger.

I love this industry. And I really love 99% of clients with whom I’ve worked. But, once you go high enough up, you HAVE to deal with unhappy clients as a major part of your job. Oh, you may think “but if you did your job right, they’d be happy”. Bullshit. This job is like selling someone new construction real estate than telling them they have to help you pour the foundation and nail up shingles. You can’t do it without the client being right there with you, but too often they are not then they blame you for it. Look, I totally get it if we oversold the product capabilities. If our staff trained poorly, didn’t show up with the expected degree of professionalism or didn’t fully understand the business requirements, we SHOULD be held responsible. If we were just assholes, fine, hold me accountable and ask me to be better.

But, please, tell me: exactly how goddamn responsible for the world’s problems am I supposed to be? Why is it my fault when the client:

  • Doesn’t spend time, any time, on the system during the implementation and then complains the training was insufficient.
  • Doesn’t make timely design decisions, then complains about cost overruns.
  • Doesn’t take time away from their day job and then gets angry with project staff when they call it out.
  • Assumes some random field should be on a report (which is invariably critical to their business), then asks for it at NC because “Any accounting system does that”. Did you spend any time during the pilot looking at this “critical” feature? And, remember that sign off your partner put in front of you after the Pilot? Yeah, didn’t think so.
  • Signs change requests for modifications, then refuses to pay them because “that was covered in the sales cycle”. Yeah, no shit, it was. Hence the CR being deployed when the final design was complete.
  • Assumes the words “Time and Materials” always, constantly, and forever mean “Fixed Fee”
  • Bitches about rates. Do you have any idea how much money our industry invests in keeping people up to date? And guess what, our industry’s labor rates are barely higher than a Ford dealer charges for doing an oil change.

To top it all off, we then get assholes likes this guy who lend credence to the asinine argument that its ALWAYS the consultants fault no matter what.

If you read my blog, then you know I have a core value around partnership (not around clean language, clearly, but no one is perfect), not just when easy, but thoroughly, constantly and always. But partnership is a natively bi-lateral relationship: both parties have to take it seriously. So, when we do and the client doesn’t, why blame us? Take a look at the problem in the mirror first.

Sheesh. Makes me want to chase my real ambition: being a plus sized model for fly fishing apparel.

Peace out. See you at #Conv13.

Managing Without Authority

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Andy Vabulas (CEO of IBIs and All Around Great Guy) sent me a link to a pretty interesting article written by the good folks at MPMM, a software company specializing in project  management software.

What piqued my interest was the idea of managing without authority.  This is something we have to deal with EVERY day as consultants.  The take on it below is related to project management, but is equally applied to any influenced based relationship, much like ours with our consulting clients.

 

How To Manage Project Staff That Do Not Report To You

 

One of the frustrating parts of being a project manager is that it can be difficult to manage the project when you have no formal management authority over the members of your team. From an organizational perspective, if the people do not report to you as a functional manager, then you are probably operating in some type of matrix structure. The matrix makes the most efficient use of people resources, but it can also be very challenging on the part of project managers.

How do you hold team members accountable for their deadlines without this authority?

Proactively Manage Project Resources Without Authority

If team members are missing their deadlines you must first try to determine the cause. For example, if it is due to a lack of skills, this should be addressed through training or replacement resources. If it is because they do not fully understand the expectations you have, then you may have some changes to make as well.

Although the team members do not report to you functionally, their work on the project should still be input into their overall performance review.  You can try to hold people accountable by making sure they understand that you will be providing performance feedback into their review. This should also be reiterated and agreed to by the functional managers

From a process management side, there are project management techniques and processes that should be utilized. First of all, if the availability and performance of the team is in doubt, you should raise this early as a project risk. As part of risk management, you need to put a proactive plan in place to make sure that this risk is addressed. When people miss their deadlines and your deadline is in jeopardy, you may need to raise an issue and perform issues management. During issues management, you again look for the cause of the problem and try to resolve it.

In addition, make sure your team members are communicating proactively with you. In many cases, it is not the fact that people miss their deadlines that gets you frustrated; it is that the team member does not tell you ahead of time. If the team member communicates proactively, you can see the problem beforehand while you still some ability to help. If he just misses the date and does not communicate, then he is not managing expectations as should be done. By the same token, the project manager needs to communicate proactively as well. Communicate well with your team and make sure they understand dates and expectations. Also communicate proactively with the functional managers and make sure they know when there are resource sharing issues or people performance issues.

Matrix management involves a complex and delicate balancing act between project managers and people managers. The project manager usually has limited people management authority in these situations. Even so, it is possible to complete your projects successfully. There are many project management processes and techniques that can help. Utilize them to raise risks and issues when needed. Also, make sure you utilize the project sponsor. The sponsor can help you generate urgency and focus, and can also have an impact on the functional managers to make sure that you have the resources you need to be successful.

Easy Incremental Revenue

December 16, 2012 1 comment

I have a simple method for getting incremental revenue out of ERP users, touch them. No, not in a creepy, restraining order kind of way. Go visit with them. Yep, that’s all it takes. There is something about face to face interaction that makes people ask questions, explain problems and look for solutions. It is almost universal that when I walk into a client, they need more than I’m able to give them in a single visit. It comes out in the form of “We’re having a problem with…” or “Do you know of a solution to…”

 

This is one of the reasons why partners do so much business at events like Convergence. Users that would never pick the phone and ask for help will show up with a laundry list of requests. Of course, you don’t have to wait for an event, you can throw your own event around something like the GP 2013 launch. You can also just go and visit them with nothing to sell. Show off the free Professional Service Tools or the free Support Debugging Tool. Give a little value before you get. That’s the definition of real partnership.

 

This works really well if you have folks on the bench too. Call up clients and give them a free consulting hour on anything, Smartlists, Excel Reports, you name it. If the ROI isn’t at least 8 hours of billable time, the consultant is doing something wrong.

 

As the old AT&T slogan went, “reach out and touch someone.”

Categories: Managing Clients

When to Fire Your Client

April 17, 2012 1 comment

Dwight is of course free to disagree with me on this post. It’s his site after all, but then again, he gave me the keys…

I read a lot of things outside of my specialty because I learn things from people smarter than me and let’s face it, there are lots of those around. This time it was Search Engine Journal of all places. Yes, Search Engine Journal is nerdy even for accountants.

But…

They’ve got an incredibly coherent article on When to Fire Your Client. There are times when you’ll take cash flow, even if it’s from folks who ultimately cost you money. 2008-2010 was like that for a lot of firms. Then there are times where you need to recommend some clients to your toughest competitor so that you can get unstuck and grow the business. Let the competition crow about the win, even as the life is slowly being sucked out of their organization.

Anyway…

Their five key indicators that it’s time to fire your client are:

  1. They Stop Respecting You
  2. They Don’t Value Your Time
  3. Questioning Your Time
  4. You are working for pennies
  5. Where did the ROI go?

If you hit three out of five they recommend that it’s time to take a hard look. Item 1 is the roughest from my point of view. There’s nothing like wondering why folks asked you to come down if they are going to hold up a counterpoint to every one of your recommendations.

Read the full article for the details behind the recommendations at Search Engine Journal.

Categories: Managing Clients

Project on the Rocks: Ain’t No Big Surprise

May 16, 2011 1 comment

In the article “Blowup” contained in  Malcom Gladwell’s book "What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures”, he  discusses the failure of complex systems. His point is that we engage in a ritual of disaster (around nuclear power plants, air traffic control systems, shuttle launches) where we study all the myriad and minute pieces of evidence we compile from the disaster, we develop theories on why it occurred, then we make new rules/procedures/laws to prevent the same disaster from occurring.  The underlying principle is that we can learn from our mistakes and prevent future disasters – put another way, we identify an anomalous event or situation that we believe caused the disaster, we make certain we recognize it in the future and we go away knowing we will be permanently safe.

But what if we aren’t?  What if the systems are just so complex that these trigger mechanisms aren’t anomalous but are inherent to the systems. What if any complex system will fail, time and time again, and you just can’t prevent it? 

Keep that thought in mind.  Now think about the largest ERP, CRM or infrastructure project you are running.  Are these less complex?  You have 10’s and in some cases 100’s of people, working on individual tasks, all of which are interconnected in inputs, outputs and completion dates.  Not all of them report to you.  Not all of them are doing this full time.  Not all of them share your same motivation or primary interest.  Not all of them really care.  And not a one of them will take the blame if the project goes bad – that particular little nugget of concern is held by only three people – the sponsor (who will blame the next two guys), the P&L owner from the consulting operation (me) and the project manager (many of you).

It’s really more surprising when these projects succeed then when they fail.

Do we give up?  No, of course not.  I am paid the medium sized buck to manage exactly this kind of risk.  But I am beginning to rethink how I manage it.  Specifically, I am trying to be less hierarchal and less rigid in the command and control process under the theory that decentralized process and decision making is less brittle and, therefore, more likely to deal with the inevitable failures more quickly and more flexibly.  By doing so, the problems are dealt with while still small as opposed to letting a string of connected issues develop into a huge mess.

Here are my thoughts:

1.  Reduce command and control:  Rather than having a highly structured organization with a single CandC PM, I’m thinking about much smaller working teams with defined deadlines and little task management.  Let them figure it out provided its documented and delivered, on budget and on time.

2.  Know that you will fail:  Don’t plan on perfection, plan on failure.  You will miss deadlines, and you will miss requirements.  Admit to it, acknowledge it early, make certain everyone knows about it, then adjust to it rapidly.  Put another way, don’t fight the failure – work within it.  Or, stop the Tae Kwan Do and move to Aikido.

3.  Don’t get all hyped over SureStep, PMI, SDLC, etc:  Use very simple pieces of it, make certain it works for the business, but don’t get religious over it.  It’s a roadmap of the interstate highway, not a treasure map to the fountain of youth.  Stop working the methodology and work the business problem.

4.  Hire thinkers, not skill sets: I’ve been promoting college hires for years now and have experienced tremendous success in making such hires.  That’s because we hire thinkers and teach them skills rather than hiring skills and try to get them to think.  Skills need command and control, written policies, methodologies.  Thinkers take care of customers.

Again, these are my thoughts and, in the spirit of TheDofR, I’d love to hear you thoughts as well.

Avoiding Signoff Hell

June 3, 2010 2 comments

This article is much more partner focused than my normal blog posts at DynamicAccounting.net so Dwight has graciously given me the opportunity to guest post here.

If there is one thing that project managers and consultants dread, it’s getting client signoffs. I don’t mean signoffs on sales documents. I mean signoffs on the completion milestones as the project progresses. Let’s face it, signoffs are a form of confrontation and most people hate confrontation. This leads to reluctance to ask for signoffs. Couple that with clients who withhold signoff in a bid hold partners hostage and end users scared to take responsibility for anything and it’s easy to end up in signoff hell.

Every partner has been through signoff hell and I think that we have found some ways to at least mitigate the problem for everyone. I make no claim to having created these processes, I’ve simply seen how well they work and tried to document and refine them. My experience is using these techniques with Dynamics GP implementations but there is no reason why they won’t work with other products. The process steps are:

1)      Figure out if there is a problem. – Use signature tripwires early in a project.

With a new client, how does a partner figure out if this client will have a problem with signoffs? The answer is to use tripwires. Early on, in the first phase of a project, build in several artificial signature points. Make them meaningless items that anyone would sign off on. Use something like reaffirming already confirmed dates, signoff that the kickoff meeting happened, etc. Whenever possible push these signatures lower in the client organization. This also builds confidence when asking for signoffs because a signoff is expected.

  • If multiple levels of people at the client organization sign off without a problem, you may be able to safely move to signoffs at major milestones.
  • If people balk at signing these innocuous documents, it’s time to increase the amount of signatures required on this project.

2)      Houston we have a signature problem. – Increase the volume and frequency of signatures.

The solution to the problem of obtaining client signatures is to get more of them, more often. I know that this sounds counter intuitive but it’s not. The core problem is that users see signoffs as scary events with potentially negative consequences. The key is to turn signoffs into a routine.

  • Communicate that for complete project documentation, there are going to be a lot of little items to be signed off on. Failure to provide timely signatures will impact the timeline and the cost. Communicate this often, especially in front of senior management.
  • Get every little thing signed. After a while, management gets tired of the roadblocks and they get tired of hearing about it in the status meeting. In this way, the client figures out how to make signatures happen.
  • Workout with management who can provide alternative signatures to deal with signature bottlenecks from vacation or business travel.
  • Steer documents that could be signed by several people to the one(s) most likely to sign.
  • Don’t skip the big milestone signatures either. These are much easier to get signed with a pile of signed sub-steps behind the document. This signature also provides some protection should a partner miss getting a sub-step signed.

Partners will have to push a little. Some people refuse to take responsibility no matter what but they start to look pretty silly pushing minor signatures up to their manager over and over.  Usually, a manager at the client fixes this for a specific problem user.

3)      What if they still won’t sign? – Ask what the items and concerns preventing signature are.

When the client still won’t sign a particular document, it’s time to dig deeper. Clients often have very good reasons not to sign documents. The concern may be open items, completeness or understanding of a process. The key is to understand what it will take the client to sign.

  • Ask the client, what items or concerns are keeping them from signing the document. This forces a clarification of the issue. The key is to get direct answers not vague generalities.
  • Address those items if possible right then and there and get a signature.
  • If addressing the open items immediately is not possible, split the document to be signed into two documents, one for signature and one for the open items. This keeps progress moving while providing peace of mind that a critical item won’t be missed. It also forces documentation of the specific issues or missing elements. This provides a commitment to sign once these items are addressed.
  • Alternatively, ask them to sign and note any exceptions. This doesn’t provide the same level of comfort as two documents but it does force documentation of the specific issues to be addressed.

Part of this process is to get problem items to move to the surface quickly. Some of these items may need to be escalated to the client or the partner’s management. It’s easier to resolve difficult items when they are found earlier and frequent signatures requirements force these items to the top.

4)      What not to do. – Don’t manipulate.

All of this advice assumes a competent, professional partner working hard to implement ERP software. This is not a license to bully or manipulate clients

  • Bullying users to sign a document is unethical, don’t do it. The point of this document is to help build a culture at the client that is comfortable overcoming fear and moving forward with the process. Bulldozing through the process and bullying people to sign will not provide the desired result.
  • Don’t manipulate clients by sliding in a difficult document with a pile of easy to sign documents. An ERP implementation should be an open process. Slipping documents past customers won’t work for long.
  • Don’t end run an approver. If there is a primary approver for a document and they are available, don’t use an alternate approve just because they are more likely to sign. Also, don’t go over an approver’s head to get a signature. Ultimately, you may need to go to a manager to overcome a user who is blocking the approval process, but that is different conversation. You are not trying to raise the approval up a level; you are trying to keep the process moving forward.

The best part of this approach is that it works just fine with Microsoft’s Sure Step project management approach. Getting a signature on each Sure Step document is a great place to start. You may need even more granular signatures depending on the project and the client. There is relief from signoff hell and it’s not as hard as people think.

Categories: Managing Clients

Objective Measures: Client Satisfaction

May 11, 2010 2 comments

As the second part in this series, I’d like to discuss how to objectively measure client satisfaction.  We’ll do this in 4 parts:  Why We Do It, Ways to Measure It, and the Way I like to Do it, and What to Expect.

Why

I’ve posted before about the cost of new client acquisition.  Given that new clients cost you more to get, keeping the clients you have is, in essence, higher margin revenue since you typically don’t have the associated selling costs.  However, its hard to keep clients if you don’t know you are keeping them happy.  Hence, objectively measuring customer sat helps you determine if you are merely doing good enough or if you are truly delighting your client.  So, you measure to know and you need to know to keep.

Ways to Measure

Start with what questions you care about.  Put another way, if you could sit down with the client in person, what questions would you want them to answer?  Is it about on-time delivery, excellence in project management, quality of deliverables, overall excellence?  Or is it simply “Are you delighted?”.

Next, what’s the scale against which the answer is made?  Do you want free form text so they write what they want or do you want a 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) measure?  The first often give you great data, the second is far easier to analyze and parse.  You can use a combination – that way the free text gives the client a more open forum to express issues outside of the context of the measured questions.   If in doubt, go with the 5 or 10 point scale and a single Other Comments field – its easier for everyone to understand.

Next, the platform.  You can use products like SurveyMonkey, Zoomerang, Eloqua, or ConstantContact to automate the data collection process.  The first and second are single purpose and pretty cheap.  The last two are marketing automation tools that will help you tie the results into marketing data.  If you are just starting, try just using email to reach out the client, and then move up to automated surveys later.

Next, track and report the results.  Report to your team, your clients and use it in marketing.  Store the history and watch the trend.  Most importantly, set the benchmark (and no, its not 100% satisfaction – that isn’t cost effective) and manage the result to the benchmark.

Last, how to start:  pick a small sample of clients, tell them what you are doing, and ask them to participate.  Start small, and work in progressively through your entire org.

Way I Recommend

This isn’t the way my company does it today, but here’s what I recommend:

  • Ask one question -   “Are you completely satisfied with our work and would you recommend us to our other business associates?”  If the answer is a yes, score it as a 5.  If the answer is a no, schedule an in person follow up to discuss the details.
  • Ask this question after every major project and after the completion of any discrete piece of work.  For example, if you are conducting a 3,000 seat Exchange rollout, do it after the project is over and you get sign off.  If a customer calls with a request to create 3 new FRx reports (the Dynamics financial report writer), call when they are done.  You can do mid-project surveys, but I prefer to handle that via project management rather than survey.
  • Ask the question to both the person(s) that controlled the project, the person(s) who derived business benefit from the project and the project sponsor(s).  Typically, this would be the client’s project manager and the CIO/CFO.  At a minimum, you must survey the folks that hired you, worked with you and paid the bills ON THAT PROJECT.
  • The person asking the question CANNOT be the project manager or anyone from the consulting or sales staff that was involved in the project.  It should be an independent party, but not a clerical staffer.  Alternatively, you can automate it (see above) – we do to good result.
  • Prepare a standard follow up document but ALWAYS do the discussion in person and include the account owner from your company. The standard follow up document should have at a minimum one question related to timely delivery, quality of the deliverable, quality of project mgt, accuracy of sales expectations, accuracy of invoicing and accounting, knowledge of the consulting staff and overall impressions (ex:  On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being Very Poor, 5 being Excellent").  This give you the scoring mechanism for anything less than a 5.
  • Take the result back to the office and MAKE CHANGES BASED ON THE FEEDBACK.  If you don’t you’ve wasted your time and made the client believe you really don’t care what they think.
  • Once the change is made, call the client and tell them what you did based on their feedback.  Set a follow-up meeting in no less than 3 – 6 mos (assuming you’ve done work with them again) to review and see if you’ve improved.
  • Lastly, tie comp plans, all the way to the consultant level, to customer sat scores.  This is a pretty complex issue which I don’t have room to explore in this post, but may in a later post.

Two critically important things to remember:

  1. Don’t do any of this unless you are willing to talk to the “no” people AND make changes
  2. You have to do the follow up in person.  Phone if you have to, but in person makes all the difference.  Done right, you can actually sell additional work in the meeting.

What to Expect

First, your initial response rate, unless you bug them, is going to suck.  We regularly get 85% response rates, but it takes nearly a .5 FTE during our survey cycle to get to that (we typically survey around 100 customers each time. 

Second, expect surprises.  We found out our invoicing inaccuracies, which weren’t many, caused significant sat issues.  This lead to a really good improvement process around our use of Dynamics GP (which is still ongoing), which made us better for our clients AND more internally automated.

Third, expect them to keep dredging up the past.  Even though you are surveying on the last piece of work or the project you did, they’ll tend to rank you based on the overall experience with you.  Done well, the above is a good way to get them to admit success – don’t forget the personal contact.

In closing, I can’t stress this enough:  this process is about helping you to improve so you can serve your clients better so you can bill more time at lower cost to you.  It must be done as personally as possible, and must be done with a commitment to change.  If you aren’t ready to change and communicate that change to the client, don’t do it. 

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