BY WILLIAM ATKINSON
From the start, companies with a strong client focus will shine, especially when they're more in touch with customers' needs than clients are themselves.
Rather than rely solely on the latest customer management technology or flashy rewards programs and promotions, organizations must return to business basics by creating loyalty through visible relationships and clarity of message from pitch to product.
The global customer relationship management (CRM) services market is expected to grow 18.6 percent a year to reach $45.5 billion by 2006, according to Framingham, Mass., USA-based research firm IDC. But this technology alone won't boost the bottom line. Instead, firms who view their customer relations as a partnership have a better chance of success.
→ Focus on building customer relationships—not chasing the next piece of business.
→ Put yourself in your customer's shoes to accurately assess how well you're fulfilling expectations.
→ Think of the total customer experience—not just the project deliverable.
Although not as glitzy as the thought of new business, cost-effective customer retention strategies make good business sense. In fact, companies that adopt an integrated approach to loyalty can reduce value lost from customer migration by 20 to 30 percent, according to global business consulting firm McKinsey & Co., New York, N.Y., USA.
“Technology-based customer interactions, such as agent-based services or new channel devices, neither enhance customer relationships nor create strategic differentiation,” says Jeff Pappin, former managing director of KPMG Consulting Ventures-Europe, now BearingPoint, McLean, Va., USA. “Instead, they merely raise customer expectations set by current marketplace offerings and advertising hype. Experience has shown us that only normal human motivations and emotions can drive more transactions to boost profitability and expand relationships.”
Creating loyalty requires diligence that many companies find hard to deliver. Only 47 percent of customers say they plan and want to continue doing business with their current IT provider, for instance. This is “relatively low compared with other industries we've studied,” says Sean Clayton, group vice president for Indianapolis, Ind., USA-based Walker Information, a leader in customer satisfaction and loyalty research.
Regardless of the industry, the crucial time in building a customer relationship comes immediately. “While product quality is a key influencer of loyalty, it is the critical period after the sale—when the relationship can begin to flounder—that represents the greatest improvement opportunity,” Clayton says. Personnel with direct client contact must keep this in mind, assuring potential clients that a sale isn't just a one-night stand.
Keep Them Smiling
→ Rather than “jockeying” for future work, the most successful professionals actually focus most of their efforts on existing projects and let the results speak for themselves. “I hear a lot of consultants say that setting themselves up to get the next project is at least as important as delivering on the existing project,” says Sid Adelman, a principal with Sid Adelman & Associates, Sherman Oaks, Calif., USA. “I don't take this approach. Instead, I do the best I can on a project, which makes clients happy, so they call me again when they need more work.”
SET THE STANDARD
Customers often create requirements that aren't necessary or doable—it's up to you to know the difference. “You must identify and detail final requirements that make sense.” says Elden F. Jones II, PMP, principal with E&T Enterprises, Santee, Calif., USA, and chair of PMI's Configuration Management Specific Interest Group.
In initial business presentations, show your clients that you understand them and their individual needs. Organizations can gain a wealth of insight using CRM applications, but technology won't separate them from the crowd. Simple practices such as inserting colloquialisms into presentations, if culturally appropriate, can signify an organization's ability to relate to the client, according to Milton “Mickey” D. Rosenau Jr., principal with Rosenau Consulting Co., Bellaire, Texas, USA, and author of nine books on product development and project management. “Whenever possible, I like to meet with each executive one-on-one beforehand to find out where [he or she is] coming from.”
THE GOAL: When making a group presentation, you can judiciously use certain quotes that you gleaned from the individual meetings, as long as you ensure that these comments represent a consensus or at least don't portray differing opinions. “For example, after you make a specific point, you can add, ‘This is something Judy has been hammering on for a long time,’” Rosenau says. “This gets everyone's attention.”
During initial presentations and early interactions with the client, you must speak not only to the project itself but also to your organization's competency and relevance. “The biggest concern people have with me at first is that we are a small firm, so they wonder if we can do the job,” says Michael G. Barnes, president of MGB & Associates, Wilmington, N.C., USA, a project management consulting practice specializing in information technology outsourcing. “To overcome this, we explain that there are other associates we can bring in through networking in the event a project would otherwise be too large for us to handle.”
This strategy gives Barnes and other small- to medium-sized firms an edge over a larger, fixed-firm company, because he is able to offer this broader base of expertise and provide skills that tend to exceed those found in a single company.
Continually emphasizing an organization's project management savvy often is more than enough to assuage client concerns. TechProse, for example, an information technology consultancy in Lafayette, Calif., USA, has worked with some of the biggest companies in the Bay area, including Cisco Systems, Wells Fargo and Hewlett-Packard, by leveraging its project management expertise. Tech-Prose's Web site boasts of its expertise: “Without solid project management, there is too much dependence on luck to make a project succeed, and that is no way to run an engagement. Over the years, we have developed a standard approach to project management, and we have created processes to understand client expectations and manage to them.”
Another strategy: Actively involve the client's employees in your current project. For example, when demonstration opportunities exist during the course of a project, Adelman invites the executives in for a few minutes. Rather than conducting the demonstration himself, however, he arranges for the client's employees, who are working with him on the project, to conduct the demonstration. This not only shows the executives that he is committed to their organization, which helps win future work, but provides continued encouragement to the employees to keep doing their best work.
Don't just rely on feedback—assess your own performance through the customer's eyes. “You need to go beyond making sure you're just meeting a client's technical requirements,” says James M. Salter II, senior vice president, customer loyalty management, with Harris Interactive, Princeton. N.J., USA. “You need to find out what else is important to them in terms of getting the job done to their satisfaction.” Examples include service delivery, responsiveness and accuracy of detail.
Austin, Texas, USA-based interface design firm MONKEYmedia, for example, got a big surprise when executives asked their clients about performance. A relatively small office, MONKEYmedia maintained intimate contact with customers. “We thought we were open, responsive, respectful of clients’ opinions,” says former CEO Eric Gould Bear. “But what we were hearing about our communication and working style was inconsistent with that.”
Upon receiving some less-than-stellar feedback, Bear enlisted a consultant to help the company find gaps between staff and customer. One-on-one interviews illuminated several areas to improve, and MONKEYmedia conducted a telephone survey, allowing clients to comment on everything from the value of the technical solution to where the development process between client and company could improve.
While product quality is a key influencer of loyalty, it is the critical period after the sale that represents the greatest improvement opportunity.
Group Vice President, Walker Information, Indianapolis, Ind., USA
The result: Breakdowns in communication between executive sponsors and designers were amended, and staffers developed a new, well-defined orientation process for new customers. Bear now uses these lessons learned at his new position as Interaction Design Manager for Windows Hardware Innovation Group at Redmond, Wash., USA-based Microsoft.
We thought we were open, responsive, respectful of clients’ opinions, but what we were hearing about our communication and working style was inconsistent with that.
Eric Gould Bear,
Former CEO, MONKEYmedia, Austin, Texas, USA
→ Communicating customer feedback throughout the course of the project is imperative to ensuring consistent service. Remind clients of the items they identified as being important, and ask them how they perceive your success in meeting those expectations. While most of your communication with the client during a project will relate to how the project is going specifically, you must carve out some time to discuss “softer issues. “If and when a client communicates something other than complete satisfaction with your performance, create an action plan to address this, and share it with the client,” Salter says.
If and when a client communicates something other than complete satisfaction with your performance, create an action plan to address this, and share it with the client.
By conducting these occasional survey sessions, client-sensitive companies experience considerable ROI. They improve their processes, and clients feel like they have a bigger voice in their service. However, without consistent communication, such changes rarely occur without casualties.
Too often, companies find themselves sending mixed messages because there are no defined channels for communication. Deutsche Bank, Frankfurt, Germany, for example, chose a professional service company's competitor after it failed to collaborate across functions on tracking Deutsche Bank's issues. “Each team thought they knew what the customer wanted,” says consultant Bill Brendler, president of Brendler Associates Inc., Wimberley, Texas, USA. “As a consequence, they were at odds with each other about what the customer was saying they wanted. They did not have an accurate account of ‘one voice’ of the customer. Because the functions didn't collaborate, no one contact was accountable for establishing a solid relationship with Deutsche Bank.”
How a company views its association with customers can have a dramatic effect on business. Tietronix Software, a Houston, Texas, USA-based custom software provider, for instance, has worked with NASA for nearly five years. Stated upfront in the company's mission, Tietronix treats its customers as equals over the traditional provider-purchaser agreement.
In the end, creating loyalty may come down to such a simple relational definition. Beyond the flashy presentations, the corporate gifts and the high style of new business development, a company's success lies in how it frames its overall customer experience. The most customer-sensitive organizations instill the idea of collaboration among staff members at the most basic level.
“Words say it all, so take your time to choose wisely,” says Bill Cleary, a lead consultant with QA, London, U.K. “‘We’ is better than ‘I,’…to emphasize commitment to your client.” PM
William Atkinson is a Carterville, Ill., USA-based business writer. He has written for Global Energy Business, Fortune Small Business, Management Review and Nation's Business.
This article is copyrighted material and has been reproduced with the permission of Project Management Institute Inc. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited
PM NETWORK | NOVEMBER 2003 WWW.PMI.ORG