I think everyone that manages a consultancy knows that high customer satisfaction leads to longer term, stickier customers who generate consistent, high margin revenue with little to no marginal selling costs; creates a better working environment for consultancy staff; and generally make life more pleasant. I have nothing to add to why customer satisfaction is important nor do I want to give you another pre-baked list of how to achieve high customer satisfaction. Rather, I’d like to ask you a simple question:
Do you like your clients?
Let’s face it, folks: over the long term, you can’t hide who you are or how you feel so if you and yours really don’t like a client, they aren’t going to be happy and the client is going to go unsatisfied. It may not be intentional, but over time you’ll pay less attention to them, provide them less priority in scheduling, return their phone calls and emails just a tad slower and, eventually, they’ll get the message and go elsewhere.
I’ve had a ton of really, really great clients. The best ones are the ones to whom I somehow connected personally, contributed to their personal success, and shared their mission and core values. I think of these clients as the great loves of my professional life. I feel great affection towards every one of them and, if called, would drop almost anything to help them (in fact, during 9/11/2001, I did just that for one of them).
I’ve also had a few about whom I just felt neutral. I went it, did good, professional quality work, but got out and didn’t keep in touch. In some cases, I felt I was just being treated as a vendor rather than an advisor and so my opinion didn’t matter very much; in others, I just didn’t connect with the culture or my sponsor. Others…well, who knows. I think of these as the casual dates that were nice, but didn’t go anywhere. If they called, I’d be friendly, professional and help if I had time.
Then, I’ve had a very few clients that I just flat out didn’t like. And you know what…at the end of the project, they didn’t like me either. In one situation, I found the client’s internal culture to be too blame ridden to manage; in another, I had a massive personality clash with the executive sponsor (I’m certain she’s a good person, but I seemed to bring out the worst in her). In one, the client insulted me in the first meeting in front of the entire project team (I can be a little sensitive to insults at times). I think of these as my dates from hell. If they called I’d ignore it, but frankly I know they’ll never call.
Its easy to imagine who would rate me highest on customer satisfaction. So, all you need to increase client sat is to do business with people you like – that should work, right? Economically, most of us can’t afford to be that choosy, so what can we do instead?
About the only answer I’ve found is to develop a better understanding of the client’s mind set and behaviors so their actions can be understood in the context of same. Some ways you can do this are:
1. During the sales cycle, spend some good, quality time asking them about the make up of their project team, how they manage their people, and how decisions are made. This gives you some early insight into how they will work with you and how they’ll make decisions. Pass this information along to your team before your first full project meeting.
2. Observe their culture and try to match your team to it. That means that you need insight into both your client’s and team’s mind sets. As an example (pulled right from my life), don’t send a anti-hunting, big city girl to West Point, MS to work with a company that sells hunting gear. I know that seems obvious, but when you make hundreds of staffing decisions a day, you can easily make that kind of small (yet costly) mistake.
3. Spend time with your client outside of the project. In every one of my great clients, I always managed to spend time with them talking about their business, their goals, what we could do better, and, in some cases, just themselves. As a result, I gained a deeper appreciation for what drove them and they got to see that I really cared about them and their success. That came in handy when we had to deal with any conflict inside the project.
The purpose behind all these suggestions is to develop a personal understanding of your client company and their people so you better understand their behaviors, mind sets and attitudes. It may not help you like them better, but if you understand them at least you can manage to it.
Over the last several years, I’ve noticed something interesting that supports what some of the best business writers (like Jim Collins) have discussed for years: companies with clear missions work better.
In the context of this blog, “better” means works more smoothly and effectively with partners.
I’ll site a very specific example for this posting:
Upward Unlimited (www.upward.org) is a business and ministry located in South Carolina. Their business is providing services and products to churches that wish to run sports leagues. Their mission, though, is related to them as a ministry and is:
“To introduce children to Jesus Christ by creating opportunities to serve through sports.”
That’s about as perfect an expression of mission as it gets. Its tight, clear, specific and easy to understand. But is it effective? Put another way, does the organization align behind it? Yes it is, and yes they do.
What I find fascinating about Upward is that in every meeting, and in every discussion, this mission is pre-eminent in their comments, thoughts and actions and every decision they make is geared towards “how does this help us serve our mission”. As a Microsoft partner serving some of their IT needs, their selection process of us as a vendor was based on how we would serve this mission. Our first meeting after the selection was primarily designed to help us understand that the mission isn’t part of the company – it is the company. Our planning meetings with them (which occur quarterly) focus on how to improve their ability to focus on the mission through effective use of information technology.
This clearly expressed mission, and high degree of alignment around it, improves our partnership because every recommendation we make and every proposed project we suggest is evaluated first by us, then by Upward, on the basis of how well it serves the mission – not how it serves the ego of the CIO, or the comp plan of the CFO, or the personality of the VP of Sales.
One last point specific to Upward: their faith-based mission helps alignment because it creates a common set of values and vocabulary. However, its their focus on the mission that creates their success. This is possible to achieve for any company not just faith-based organizations.
As a partner, how can you best work with this kind of mission driven client?
- Initially (during the sales or evaluation cycle), take the time to understand the culture and the alignment around mission. More importantly, make certain alignment exists between your culture and their mission.
- Evaluate your work (proposed and completed) based on its ability to support the mission
- Make certain any team members that work with the client are informed and clear about the client’s mission, can articulate it, and can express how their work aligns with it
- Finally, spend planning time with the client (that may be non-billable) in order to refresh yourselves at the fountain of the client’s culture.
Love to hear your opinions on this and your experience with other highly aligned clients.