When conducting strategic business planning with an AEC firm, I always ask, “What makes your firm different than your competitors? Why would a client work with you instead of another, similar firm?” Often, firm leaders say that their technical expertise or experience in a certain market makes them stand out.
To test these assumptions, we ask the firm’s clients directly why they chose to work with that firm, and then compare the results to what the AEC firm said. Commonly, clients respond that, on a technical level, many AEC firms are about the same. As such, it’s the people, the experience, and the relationship that makes them favor one firm over another — not technical skill. Instead of being a distinguishing feature, technical skill is more of an assumed baseline capability. This common disconnect highlights how critical it is for a firm to connect deeply with its client base to understand exactly why clients continue to work with your firm or want to work with you in the first place — it may not be for the reasons you hang your hat on.
One way to bridge this gap and gain total clarity on what your clients value the most — and more importantly, to make sure your firm is delivering on that — is to implement a client perception study. This is one of the best tools available to strengthen client relationships and increase retention. This is not a post-project evaluation, but a formal client outreach, where clients have the opportunity to comment on the overall relationship, experience, and how your firm brings them value. Not having this information is simply dangerous and increases the risk of losing the clients you value so much.
A client perception study contributes to client retention and enhanced satisfaction in the following ways:
It demonstrates a true commitment to your relationship with the client. The simple fact that your firm takes this kind of formalized initiative to make sure you are providing the best service, experience, and value possible sends a powerful message to clients. It tells them you are willing to invest time and resources to ensure that you are doing the absolute best you can for them and to truly understand their needs.
It gives you actionable information to improve the client experience. Information gathered through a client perception study provides insight about your firm from many angles — some high level, some tactical — that are impacting the client experience. For example, you may hear that your firm is struggling with turnover, a symptom of needing additional technical staff or of the clients’ desire for consistency on their project teams. You might hear, for example, that your firm is perceived as a provider for the health care market or as having a focus on master planning, which highlights a marketing issue if you also serve other markets or provide different services. Such feedback impacts your ability to meet and connect with clients’ needs. The good news is that it provides clear direction for new strategies and actions to address those issues and improve the client experience.
Smaller, quick fixes can also come to light that are specific to an individual client and their preferences. For example, you may learn what format they prefer for reports or how they want you to label invoices. Sure, they are small items, but addressing them is a gesture that shows your firm is ready and willing to do what you can to give a great experience and serve the client’s specific needs.
It lets you engage clients on another level. Client perception studies allow you to have conversations with clients and connect with them on a higher level and in a more strategic way. Asking questions about where their business is headed and how that changes their relationship with consultants, for example, gives you a different kind of information than a project-focused review. Use this information to strengthen relationships for the long term.
It creates an opportunity for ongoing dialogue with current and past clients. With day-to-day project demands, it’s easy for firms to forget to maintain a dialogue with clients about issues outside of the project at hand. It’s even easier to forget to keep up with those you aren’t currently working with. A client perception study creates the opportunity to step back and hear from those you are working with (and those you aren’t) what issues they are facing and how your firm can best help them.
These days, when you especially treasure each client relationship and precious project, what firm wouldn’t want to optimize the client experience, strengthen relationships, and ultimately enhance retention to secure a flow of work in the long run? However, most firms only scratch the surface when it comes to client feedback and miss out on opportunities to make that information highly meaningful. Following are some common mistakes firms make when gathering feedback from clients, and how to fix them:
Ask only about project performance — Feedback on project performance is critical. It’s important to know what areas of a project are going well or where attention is needed so a small issue doesn’t become a big one. However, why not also ask clients higher-level questions and broaden their evaluation to their entire experience with and perception of your firm? For example, who do they consider to be your competition? Do they think your firm is among the best out there? Would they recommend your firm to others? This kind of insight provides clear direction for elements of a marketing plan, especially if your clients’ answers differ from your understanding. For example, if clients think your competition is different than you do or they don’t think your firm is a top player, then your strategic marketing plan should address these things. Other potential questions to ask clients: Would you still work with us if your main contact was no longer here? What is your preferred method of communication? Do we deliver value for the fees we charge? What are your upcoming organizational priorities?
Gather only informal feedback — Yes, firms should continually gather feedback through dialogue with clients. But one-off discussions between project managers and clients are rarely shared or leveraged. There is significant value to creating a formal process, where feedback is recorded and can be analyzed. A client perception study is clearly one way to do this. This is typically guided by a standard list of questions. The feedback is evaluated overall, or by client groups, to identify any differences. A bonus: If you gather especially positive commentary, you might be able to use it as a testimonial.
Rely on standard forms and surveys — Many firms rely on forms to gather information from clients. This has a number of drawbacks, especially since poorly designed forms are commonly used. For example, outdated forms, poorly photocopied forms where the text is barely visible, and inadequate space to respond to in-depth questions won’t compel clients to take time out of their day to complete the survey. In fact, such forms send the wrong signals to clients: How much do you really value their feedback if you can’t even take the time to make the form look professional?
Instead of forms, consider using telephone calls or in-person meetings, which allow follow-up questions to gather richer information, help build relationships with clients, and reflect more positively on your firm.
Reach out exclusively to your best clients — Firms tend to gather most feedback from their best clients. But the firms that are giving you a large piece of business are probably doing so because your firm does a great job for them. Instead, focus on learning why other firms aren’t working much with you or aren’t planning on working with you. Make sure your efforts reach out to a variety of clients — those with big and small projects and both new and established relationships.
Forget about people you aren’t working with — Firms should also be concerned with the perception of those they aren’t working with at all. Specifically, what do firms that you’d like to work with really think about you? This information is critical for strategic marketing and business planning. For example, if you really want to work with health care providers and your study reveals that no potential clients know you offer relevant services, than awareness-building activities need to be a key part of your marketing efforts.
Use someone too close to the client to ask for feedback — Who conducts the interview can influence the feedback you receive. For example, if the project manager is the interviewer, recognize that a client may be uncomfortable being brutally honest about their satisfaction with their projects or the individuals they worked with. Or if the marketing staff is conducting the conversations, clients may think it is a selling tactic. It’s best to have an independent party involved so the client is able to be open, especially if they didn’t have such a great experience. Consider hiring an outside firm to conduct your annual client perception study.
Gather the information and then stop — Another huge mistake is spending the time to gather and review client feedback and then not sharing it. Survey insights should be shared throughout the firm and leveraged for strategic marketing and business planning purposes.
Firms using project feedback forms and informal communication to stay connected with clients should continue doing that. But consider the above strategies as ways to make the information you get more valuable and to paint a better picture of what outsiders really think about and want from your firm.
11 steps for completing a client perception study1) Determine why you are conducting a client perception study.
2) Identify internal participants.
3) Choose a champion to lead the effort.
4) Determine questions to ask based on study objectives.
5) Establish a schedule for completion.
6) Select the clients you want to hear from.
7) Request participation from clients and conduct interviews.
8) Document study results.
9) Share results internally and discuss findings.
10) Create action plans to leverage the results.
11) Review the success of the initiative and identify process improvements for future studies.
Tricks of the trade
Client perception studies can yield powerful results, but only if designed and implemented well. As you work to implement a client perception study, keep in mind the following best practices:
Client ‘hot buttons’
Following are clients’ common “hot buttons” relative to AEC firms they work with:
If you suspect that your clients may be concerned about any of these issues, include some specific questions about them in your client perception study.
Susan Dell Orto, a consultant with ZweigWhite, specializes in strategic business planning with a focus on marketing and human resource strategy. For more information about client perception studies, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-368-6014.