Three questions for successful client relationships

Want to build strong relationships with your clients from the beginning? One that ensures all their goals and issues are addressed effectively to set you both up for success?

Then, client relationship management must be a top priority. This does not mean you “roll over” when pushed by a client. 

Of course, these are two obvious statements.  What is not obvious are the answers you need from your client to know how to accomplish this.  Obtaining accurate answers is part art and part science.  You don’t want just to know their overt needs, you want the one’s burning in their gut. The real and covert needs. 

I am going to share with you three critical questions that will reveal the answers you desire. These are not the only questions, but the most important.  And, you likely are not always asking these. But first, allow me to share a related story. 

“We Shred A & E Firms”

Woodchip production

I had developed a policy for pursuing business. When I identified that a prospective client had a history of conflict with consulting firms I made an automatic No-Go. 

One day I received an RFP from a former client. I had worked with them earlier in my career as a project engineer while I was with a different firm. I had accompanied the Project Manager to Board of Public Works meetings and saw the board shred him over ridiculous issues. With that vivid memory, I made the requisite No-Go decision. 

I contacted the Superintendent and told him that we did not have time to prepare a good proposal, thus we would not be submitting. He and I got along exceptionally well and we remained friendly over the years. The next day, he called me back and said, “What if I get you more time? I really want to work with you again?”

My white lie did not work. My emotions got the better of me and I submitted. We were selected.

At the kickoff meeting the town manager said, “Doug, we have shredded many engineering and architectural firms. What can you do to avoid the typical outcome?” I said, “I will work with your board and manage expectations.”

At the kick-off meeting one of the board members said, “This design and construction project must not have change orders.” I said, “Change orders will occur to deliver a good product since they’re part of the design and construction process. Some changes are improvements and some are to fix the designer’s mistakes.”

There, I put mistakes on the table.  Earlier in my career I sat next to my Project Principal and listened to him agree with several clients to “no change orders” and he paid for design errors as if the firm was guilty of low quality.  I saw this not only hurt project financials, it hurt the reputation of the firm and the individuals who worked on the project. It was wrong. 

I vowed never to chicken out and to discuss the role of change orders and “standard duty of care” with each client as part of the Project Kick-off Meeting.  I learned that by having the discussion early, clients came to understand that some change orders are going to occur and are even necessary to produce a better project. 

After a tough discussion, the board, while still challenging, understood that errors and omissions were normal and not poor design. The firm did not “eat” a single change order. The project was completed reasonably within budget and the client continued to give us business.

The client really just wanted to feel they got a quality design for a reasonable cost. I knew that and spent the time helping them to accurately understand what that meant. I changed their criteria of what it meant to secure a quality project instead of caving in. 

Its All About Knowing, Then Delivering To It

Even clients who are difficult will appreciate your resolve. They just want to know they are getting a fair deal. I had dozens of similar discussions with clients and twenty years later I am still professional friends with many.

To be profitable and have a good reputation does not mean “roll over.” Provide all of your project managers with these tools and they can repeat this kind of conversation. And, be wildly successful.

The Three Questions

Start with the following simple yet not always obvious questions.  

1. What are the performance metrics upon which we will be judged?

2. What is the outcome you desire for yourself and what will that do for you?

3. What are your and your organization’s “warts”?

These questions set the tone for all of your future dealings. And, although bumps in the road are unavoidable, a strong start helps you deal with them with less stress.  

I invite you to share your personal experiences with me as I use this information to help others to whom I am advising. As a former A/E/Environmental engineer, manager and principal, I now partner with professional services firms to ensure their success.

Doug Reed, P.E., Business Consultant at FosterGrowth.