Creating differentiation

positively impacting client relationships--a project manager's introduction to behavioral differentiation

Abstract

Too often project managers think that just because a project is managed well in principle, it automatically equates to a satisfied client and the opportunity to execute the next project for that client. Experienced project managers (PMs) have learned the hard way that despite delivering a technically perfect project, the client may still feel less than satisfied and occasionally even angry. PMs must constantly create a positive relationship with the client, continually positioning their organizations to get either the next opportunity or the “golden referral.” By employing a systematic approach to building trust and credibility, project managers create strong client relationships. Proactive, client-focused project management fosters higher levels of client satisfaction, leading to continued opportunities and revenues as well as new business.

Introduction

Calculating the Level of Client Trust

Many PMs feel challenged when it comes to understanding how much clients trust them before, during and after a project. Professionally, the focus is on excellence in execution. Trust and value vary so much over time and can seem very hard to decode. The result? Many PMs don't pay enough attention to the issue.

But what if PMs could employ a systematic, reliable way to calculate a client's trust? What kind of impact would that have on on-going and future project work? It is possible to determine how much a client trusts you. And you do not need a background in psych to have an actionable understanding of how to create behavioral differentiation and build client trust and value. You can look at these traits as a simple equation of constants, with assignable value factors:

Trust Equation

Exhibit 1: Trust Equation

R = Reliability, C = Credibility, I = Intimacy, S = Self-focus, and T = Trust.

The assignable value range for each constant is between 1 and 100, with 100 representing someone with the highest levels of this attribute and 1 representing a very low level of an attribute. (Maister, Green & Galford, 2000)

Example 1: The Family Doctor

Using your personal physician as an example, the assignable values might look like this:

R = 70   Your doctor has an established practice and privileges at your area hospital.

C = 80   Your doctor possesses both a M.D. and a medical license.

I = 55    Your doctor has an about-average bedside manner.

S = 66   Your doctor sees ‘self’ as a high value, i.e., M.D. means “I am great.”

So, in this example:

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On the 1 to 100 rating scale, your MD only gets a trust level of just about 3.1. Not a very high score. What lowered the score was physician's high self-focus, even though other attributes are also fairly high.

Example 2: The Iconic Leader

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Who might such a high scorer be? (*300 is a perfect score.)

In this instance, we were thinking of a figure like Mother Teresa who enjoyed a very high reputation for reliability (worked 40+ years with destitute people in India), was very credible (she was a nun), off the scale for intimacy (won Nobel Peace Prize for caring for the sick in Calcutta), and had very low self-focus (a very self-effacing personality). Result: An individual with a near-perfect level of trust.

While it may seem odd to place a figure like Mother Teresa into a discussion of project management in a business context, it may make a bit more sense when you consider the Trust Equation in the light of the accompanying real-world project management scenario:

Please read, “Scenario of a Typical Project Manager/Client Contact — A Cautionary Story of Behavioral Differentiation and Trust for PMs” located in the Appendix.

Explanations for why clients do not respond well to effective project delivery tend to be based on the often-held notion that clients set unreasonable and even irrational expectations — expectations that are often attributed to sales or marketing people over-promising and under-delivering. But, as a firm's leader for delivery, the project manager sets the tone and frames the context for future opportunities with a client. The PM is the first person to hear of problems and is the team member with the most direct and sustained client contact. The PM is, in fact, at the forefront of trust building with the client.

Client Expectations of Project Management

What is the normal range of client expectations for project management? Like with anything else over time, clients develop a set of expectations for project management. Key terms like “on time” or “Just In Time” (JIT) are common descriptors of what customers have come to expect. Other phrases such as “QC” or Six Sigma have the same connotations. Many clients believe that if they never hear from the PM (except to learn that a key milestone has been successfully completed), that things are going along swimmingly.

What happens in real life, however, is that clients’ expectations are not met every time and they end up hearing a litany of explanations as to why there is a problem. This too, then, becomes part of clients’ “normal” expectations for project management: There will be problems. The PM will report these. The project will suffer. It will cost more. How do you get beyond this?

In short, as a PM, you have a suite of specific, measurable behaviors that will move you beyond the normal range of client behavioral expectations and actually help make you and your organization more attractive to the client. The PM who has a systematic approach and can employ it to build greater levels of trust and credibility will produce continuing and new business opportunities and revenues.

The Bell Curve: Our published research (Winning Behavior and The Behavioral Advantage books) confirm the behaviors customers normally experience from sellers fall into the middle hump of the curve and do not differentiate. Behaviors at each extreme, however, are one or more standard deviations from the norm and will have a differentiated impact on customers, either positively or negatively

Exhibit 2: The Bell Curve: Our published research (Winning Behavior and The Behavioral Advantage books) confirm the behaviors customers normally experience from sellers fall into the middle hump of the curve and do not differentiate. Behaviors at each extreme, however, are one or more standard deviations from the norm and will have a differentiated impact on customers, either positively or negatively.

Typical Project Manager/client Relationships

The Client/Account Manager/Project Manager Triad

In every project management context, there is a triadic relationship: the client, the account manager and the project manager. But with the client comes an array of perceptions about the project. In terms of trust and value, as a golden rule (he who has the gold makes the rules), the client is the only part of this triad that really matters. Like it or not, perception is reality, and in this case the client's perceptions actually define the trust and value “reality” of the project.

The Client's Take on Positive and Negative Behaviors

In terms of client perceptions, what can make a big difference is your understanding of behavioral differentiation as a source of project management excellence:

The behaviors must be unique to you. Your competitors either do not behave the same way or are not as skilled as you are at these behaviors, and your client perceives the difference.

The customer must value these behaviors. Your differentiated behaviors must somehow enhance the client's experience with you.

The behaviors must reflect your value proposition. They should be related to what you are charged with delivering or otherwise be emblematic of the client's experience of you and your products or services.

If, however, a company doesn't have core products and services that clients value as much as those offered by its competitors, the company's behavior alone will not sustain the business. So why bother, right?

Think about your first-tier competitors:

Do they have good products, services, or offerings?

Are their products/services competitively priced?

Do they have strong, effective, professional experts, and project managers?

Are they able to deliver good, well-managed projects?

If they really are your top competitors, there's a good chance that the answer to all of these questions will be “yes.”

For clients, you and your competitors are essentially undifferentiated. All of you have good products and services, delivered by smart and professional people, which are well executed in terms of project management. How do clients choose? As David Maister has noted:

“Most typically, after exhausting my abilities as a client to make technical distinctions, I am still left with a choice of reputable firms with good references, all eminently capable of solving my problem. I am no longer asking ‘Can you do it?’ but rather ‘Do I want to work with you?’ I am no longer interested in the institutional characteristics of your firm, but am now trying to form a judgment about you.” (Maister, 1993)

The only other way clients select a firm (or a project manager) is by looking at how it behaves, observing whether that behavior is a good match for them. Again, you are faced with the clients’ perceptions.

Relationship Gaps

Gap Review

Typically, the gap between the client's perception of the project and that of the PM comes down to ideals vs. processes. The chart below highlights the distinctions:

Ideals vs. Task Processes

Exhibit 3: Ideals vs. Task Processes

No client ever embraces a project because of the project's components; clients always want to know how the components will serve them. As this chart suggests, every client is really thinking about his or her “dream project,” not the tangible thing under development.

Generic vs Ideal Project and Project Criteria: These two target plots outline how a client's ‘idealized’ project drives and determines a project's technical criteria

Exhibits 4 and 5 Generic vs Ideal Project and Project Criteria: These two target plots outline how a client's ‘idealized’ project drives and determines a project's technical criteria.

“Customers never buy the generic project. They buy a cluster of expectations about what the project will do for them.”

– Theodore Levitt, The Marketing Imagination

For the owner/client, projects are always driven by the “dream” or ideal project; this is what actually informs the strategic goals, expectations and finally even the project's technical criteria.

These differences in frames of reference are so large that it may seem overwhelming to bridge the gaps. But the PM can take some simple steps to narrow the differences:

  • Ensure that you zipper relationships between your team and the client's team,
  • Hone your own client-facing skills to ensure effective people-management skills, and
  • Get to know, understand, and use the four types of behavioral differentiation.

Zippered Relationships

Going back to the Scenario of a Typical Project Manager/Client Contact: Geoff decided to “go it alone” with the project parties. Had he built a network of ties among the various people in the port's project leadership and also among the key people in each of the contracting parties, the outcome might well have been very different.

Every project engages multiple clients at tiered levels — each with a different stake in the outcome and a different set of emotional needs associated with them. Successful project management requires managing these client relationships with all of the clients, engaging each client in a network of relationships that will drive both execution and sustainability.

Client-facing Skills

Employing a structured model to benchmark and foster collaboration can significantly enhance a PM's

Exhibit 6: Collaboration Model Employing a structured model to benchmark and foster collaboration can significantly enhance a PM's

Most professional PMs are by nature detail-oriented. They tend to be able to handle minutia without losing their good humor. So, too often PMs turn into the micro-managers. Had Geoff allowed his subordinates to handle many more of the routine matters, he could have focused more on PM tasks. More importantly, he could have also exerted additional energy on collaborating with all of the “client” groups.

Many technical PMs may well respond to this suggestion with something akin to, “I am a PM dealing with tasks that involve engineering, designing, technology, and the like. The challenges I deal with are tangible and fact-based. Facts don't change. So whatever others may say, it won't change the project reality.”

Is that so? Consider the image to the left. What does it show? A factual scan says “an upside down picture of a smiling young woman.” However, if you turn the image 180°, then what do you see?

img

Behavioral Differentiation as a Tool for Creating Positive Client Relationships

Once you begin really listening to clients, you can adjust your behaviors in ways that differentiate you and your firm. The key comes down to making behavioral differentiation a project management routine. Any behavior can have either a positive or negative effect on the client. Behaviors that build and foster preference for you are positive, whereas any other behavior may negatively impact your relationship with your clients.

The Four Types of Behavioral Differentiation

Research for Winning Behavior and The Behavioral Advantage found four key types of behaviors as being most vital to creating effective, customer-valued behaviors that serve to optimize the client relationship and to foster preference for a firm or for an individual such as a PM

Exhibit 7: The Behavioral Differentiation Model: Research for Winning Behavior and The Behavioral Advantage found four key types of behaviors as being most vital to creating effective, customer-valued behaviors that serve to optimize the client relationship and to foster preference for a firm or for an individual such as a PM.

So how do you focus on ‘right behaviors’? Our research, publications, and experience have shown that it is possible to classify behaviors into four types, each of which—when well executed—can foster positive differentiation for you and your organization. This four-type structure allows any PM to quickly identify a behavior and then link it to this model and to what clients trust and value in terms of project management behaviors.

Operational Behaviors

When your PM work actions exceed expectations, you have differentiated in terms of operational behavior. Example: Had Geoff learned of his firm's error on a key piece of the project and then took responsibility, he would have behaviorally increased his level of trust and credibility with everyone.

Exceptional Behaviors

When you perform in some extraordinary way, you have engaged in exceptional behavioral differentiation. Example: As the port moved to award the work, Geoff might have personally reached out and extended a hand of welcome — a small but exceptional gesture that would have created a positive climate.

Symbolic Behaviors

You ensure that you consistently live up to a higher standard of performance based your industry reputation. Example: Geoff might have invited the group to do a physical walk-through of the site as a way of launching the project and showing that both he and his outfit were engaged project partners.

Interpersonal Behaviors

First, last, and always place your interactions with your client ahead of tasks, processes, or systems. Example: Had Geoff tried to learn something interpersonal about each of his work partners, he might have drawn them into his vision for the project. He certainly needed to share his own passion and enthusiasm for the project.

To fully implement behavioral differentiation, you can use a proven five-step process:

Step 1: Do behavioral benchmarking. Research and understand what the companies, who are best in class in behavioral differentiation, do to achieve that distinction.

Step 2: Identify and prioritize your customer touch points. Focus first on those touch points where you can have the greatest behavioral impact on clients and where changes in behavior could make a big difference.

Step 3: Analyze your current behavior at critical touch points. Engage in face-to-face discussions with clients and ask them how they think you are doing, which of your behaviors they like or dislike, and what you could be doing better.

Step 4: Identify potential positive differentiating behaviors. Having good interpersonal skills, a service orientation, and excellent customer service practices help, but a number of the positively differentiating behaviors are related to communication, responsiveness, commitment, and proactive problem solving.

Step 5: Prioritize the behaviors and develop a change strategy. Focus on a few changes at a time. Prioritize the behaviors you want to change, and then focus on the high-impact areas first.

Exceeding Client Expectations Through Project Management

The notion that PMs need not possess behavioral and interpersonal skills is no longer viable. The PM is on the front lines of client interactions and the predictor of whether a firm will enjoy long-standing, sustainable, and repeat projects with key clients.

The client/account manager/project manager triad can have another kind of connection where PM behaviors have addressed:

  • Personal trust: interpersonal behavioral differentiation,
  • Needs satisfaction: operational and exceptional behavioral differentiation, and
  • Institutional trust: symbolic behavioral differentiation.
Building Trust Triad.: Our field experience and research have shown that needs satisfaction alone will not create sustainable levels of trust. Customers require suppliers to also Following these guidelines, the PM will not simply be managing a one-off project develop meaningful levels of personal trust and institutional trust as well

Exhibit 87: Building Trust Triad.: Our field experience and research have shown that needs satisfaction alone will not create sustainable levels of trust. Customers require suppliers to also Following these guidelines, the PM will not simply be managing a one-off project develop meaningful levels of personal trust and institutional trust as well

Following these guidelines, the PM will not simply be managing a one-off project that may leave the key stakeholders feeling dissatisfied. Instead, a PM will be redefining project management in terms behaviors instead of tasks — a true transformation to the profession of project management.

Appendix

Scenario of a Typical Project Manager/Client Contact
A Cautionary Story of Behavioral Differentiation and Trust for PMs

Geoff was one of his firm's leading PMs and had been given a plum assignment to oversee a multi-year project developing the largest port-authority marina that had been built in-country in more than a century. The client, a quasi-governmental agency, was charged with the management of revenue-generating port operations for the regional government. The project was not only a prime development with many unique and challenging technical features, it also had a high political and social profile. If delivered well, the project would raise the credibility and value of Geoff's firm to new levels.

Geoff got the job because he was considered to be the best. Educated as an engineer at one of the world's most prestigious schools, he had designed and managed multiple projects all over the globe. His expertise was renowned and he was highly respected by his peers and across the industry. Going in, he looked like a perfect fit.

Because the project was both high-dollar and high profile, all of the major firms with the requisite expertise bid the work and the competition between these heavy hitters was fierce. Geoff managed to help the port leaders navigate the selection process fairly well, and the selected contractors were linked to Geoff's firm and Geoff was given the job of overseeing the construction management for the entire project.

Scope and expertise meant that the final bid awards were given to two firms: one for the landside portions of the project and a second for the waterside. The port looked to Geoff (and his firm) as the project management supervisor for both. Both of the builders seemed to agree to the arrangement, and things seemed to be going extraordinarily well for Geoff and his firm.

As the project was nearing completion two years later, Geoff found it nearly impossible to coordinate meetings between the two construction firms and the port. The near-complete project had met all of the requirements, had come in on-time and even under the projected budgets, but none of the participating parties could even stand to attend joint meetings with one other, and the owner (the port) had openly expressed frustration and disappointment with Geoff and his firm.

Within months of the near-completion of this project, a similar marina project came up for development in the same general region. Just one week before that project was opened for preliminary proposals, one of the two construction firm leads called the principal of Geoff's firm to sneeringly ask if they were going to the bid meeting next week, knowing full well that neither Geoff nor his principal had been informed by either of the construction contractors about this new opportunity — an opportunity that should have been theirs for the taking. Both Geoff and his company felt betrayed and ill-used.

So what had happened in the intervening period to give Geoff and his firm such a black eye? Why were all of the parties so dissatisfied? Geoff was baffled; so was the principal of his firm. To understand the “why” in this situation, let's look at a few behavioral factors that created the problem:

Geoff's initial project management meeting with the port and the construction leads was characterized as an “all business” event. Geoff laid down processes and outlined procedures — perfectly charting out the project's master plan and providing specific, actionable, and reasonable criteria for sharing the work and the progress. Problem: Geoff never bothered to engage in any personal introductions of the parties, he did not share anything professional or personal about himself or his enthusiasm for the project. His plan was seamless, but the people were left totally out.

Geoff insisted that he be the conduit of project information for the port. In fact, he indicated after the first several project review sessions that he preferred that port representatives not attend the project meetings. Problem: While an efficient way to manage reporting to the owner, it cut all of the parties out of direct and personal connection with one another. Eventually, they began going behind Geoff's back to communicate with each other — cutting Geoff out altogether. He had set the perception of being an autocrat.

He split project planning and review sessions between the landside and waterside builders. Since both contractors had bid on doing the whole project, and since the owner had opted to award each of them only part of the contract, Geoff thought there might be residual competitive issues between them. Problem: Not only did this approach isolate the two construction firms, it actually hurt project deliveries. More important, neither of the construction firms felt able to freely share with each other simple personal communications. In the end both also made an end-run around Geoff and began meeting on their own, which created a large brouhaha when Geoff became aware of their private sessions.

When his own firm made a critical error that damaged port utilities, Geoff found a loophole that would limit his firm's liability. When questioned by the port and the construction partners, he essentially blamed a third party. Problem: Geoff showed that he was prepared to sacrifice anyone to keep his own hands clean, even though if he had been willing to take this as his error, he would have changed his image with all of the parties.

Finally, and at the port's insistence, he agreed to share meetings among all of the partners. But by that time, the interpersonal communications climate was so sour that these meetings became tense, terse, and even angry sessions. Problem: Geoff believed that the feelings of the parties were not relevant to the project results. He continually insisted, “When the project is done, the port will love it.” In the end, the client accepted the results without objections; however, they did not love it, nor did they love Geoff or his firm.

If we run the numbers on Geoff's Trust Equation for this project, they might look like this:

img

Geoff had a solid professional rep (R=70), he was professionally recognized (C=70), he completely ignored other people (I =15), and he was highly self-focused on the project tasks (S=80).

As a result, his level of trust with all of the project groups was only 1.9375! No wonder he and his firm were not invited forward to partner with the other firms.

References

Bacon, Terry and David Pugh. Winning Behavior: What the Smartest, Most Successful Companies Do Differently AMACOM, New York, 2003.

Bacon, Terry and David Pugh, The Behavioral Advantage: What the Smartest, Most Successful Companies Do Differently to Win in the B2B Arena. AMACOM, New York, 2004.

Levitt, Theodore, The Marketing Imagination, The Free Press, New York, 1993, pp 79-81.

Maister, David H., Charles H. Green, and Robert M, Galford, The Trusted Advisor, Free Press, New York, 2000, pp. 69-71.

Maister, David H. Managing the Professional Service Firm, The Free Press, New York, 1993. P. 112.

©2009 Noah Rabinowitz
Originally published as part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceeding – Orlando, Florida

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