Letters to the Editor

September 2006 » Letters
Letters to the editor for September 2006

Dealing with client representatives

I would like to respond to John Bachner’s "Open letter from a client representative" from the May 2006 issue of CE News. [He] clearly missed the mark on this one. The client is the one who is acting unprofessionally.

I agree [that] we should be excited about every project we get and we should convey that enthusiasm to our clients. I disagree when the author of the letter wants me to be his best friend. The same people who complain about us not spending the time (and money) to develop a relationship with them are the same ones who complain about our fees being so high. If I were to receive a letter such as that, from a self-centered egotist, I would gladly say goodbye to his business; and I doubt that my future would go with him.

Clients like that often need you to hold their hand through the entire project and can be notoriously difficult and expensive to work for. Project budgets run wild because of constant changes. We are often asked to do tasks that are outside the scope of our agreement. They are constantly calling asking for favors, and are insulted when presented with a change order. After all, "Friends don’t charge friends for extras."

Most of my clients are business professionals and are intelligent and astute enough to know that they are hiring my firm to design roads and bridges, not to stroke their egos. They hire us because we know what we are doing and we are a good value for the services we provide; it is a good business decision. We provide that service, in part, by communicating with our clients and keeping them constantly informed of the progress on the project. A large part of our marketing budget is spent meeting face-to-face with past, current, and potential clients to discuss how we can fill their needs. That communication does not include getting personally involved with them. If I spend 20 minutes of a half-hour meeting talking about his golf game or his daughter’s braces, I have wasted a precious opportunity to get to know what his business needs are. By talking about his business, I can suggest solutions to issues and problems that perhaps never even occurred to him.

As a professional, I will provide the best service for my clients. I will listen to their needs and develop the project to fit their needs, and surpass their desires to the best of my abilities. I will provide the best possible value for them by controlling the cost of the project. As a businessman, I will do everything possible to keep the project within my own budget and I will control overhead costs so that I make a profit. THAT is Professionalism.

John Ritchie, S.E., P.E.
Robert H. Anderson & Associates, Inc.

John P. Bachner responds:

I wish I could respond to your thoughtfulness by saying, "On second thought, you’re right and I’m wrong." Regrettably, I cannot say that.

First, a professional does not have to "be excited about every project." Some projects are exciting to the client representative and the professional. Some are exciting only to the client representative. And some are just totally boring, but they pay the bills. The professional should respond professionally in all cases, and should show enthusiasm for all projects that excite the client representative. In essence, says the client representative, "Please don’t rain on my parade." That’s reasonable.

Second, in no case does the author of the letter say that the professional and he must become best friends. However, the client representative complains that, after several fairly large projects together over a multiyear period, the professional has made no effort at all to learn a little bit about the client rep as a person. Over many (way too many!) years, I have heard engineers say, "We fix problems." That is precisely the kind of attitude that gets them into trouble. Successful professionals do not fix problems; they satisfy peoples’ needs.

This particular client representative—given his unique needs—has complained that the engineer has confused distance and coolness with professionalism. The client rep wants Marcus Welby, P.E., and the professional who fills that role will have a client for life, not to mention low risk, better scopes, and numerous referrals. (I am sure that the client representative has pictures of his family displayed in his office, because that’s the kind of person he is. Astute professionals—astute people in business—need to pick up on those cues.)

Third, I fail to understand how you determined that the letter’s author is "a self-centered egotist." All he’s saying is that he is a "people person" and would like to be treated better. (As it so happens, the article is based on conversations I have had with numerous client representatives.) In fact, it takes precious little time to enhance a relationship developed through business, if one knows how. You evidently have client representatives who feel it appropriate to beat down your fees. While your experience may be "The closer we get, the cheaper you want me to be," my experience—and the experience of hundreds of engineers I know personally—is, "The better our relationship, the less I worry about short-term pennies and the more I appreciate long-term dollars." And as for the notion "Friends don’t ask friends for extras"—wow, with friends like that, who needs enemies! Of course you should be paid for extras, and clients who are unwilling to do so should be jettisoned.

Fourth, while you are an engineering professional, the fact is that you also are in business, and the failure to deal with that dual role has been a major problem for engineers over the years. Astute business people understand that the other folks they deal with are, first and foremost, people. Spend 20 minutes discussing his daughter’s braces? Of course not. Spend 30 seconds saying, "You mentioned last time that your daughter was getting her braces off. How did her teeth come out? My daughter’s getting braces next week." That discussion would probably chew up about three minutes, but would indicate clearly to the client representative, "I pay attention to what you say. I am interested in your opinion about this personal item that’s important to me. You are important to me." If you believe such give-and-take is not worthwhile, you need to rethink your position. Professionals do not get sued because they make mistakes. They get sued because of other persons’ attitudes toward them. (Remember the title of my column: Risky Business.)

Fifth, you state, "As a professional, I will provide the best service for my clients. I will listen to their needs and develop the project to fit their needs and surpass their desires to the best of my abilities." Clients do not have personal needs; they are organizations. Client representatives do have personal needs, and if you fail to address them you cannot possibly provide "the best service."

Lastly, you state, "As a businessman, I will do everything possible to keep the project within my own budget and I will control overhead costs so that I make a profit. THAT is Professionalism." With all due respect, that is not professionalism. That’s a good business practice. But, in truth, there are many good business practices, and you need to embrace as many of them as you can. Keeping the project within budget has nothing to do with effective risk management. Just one claim can result in the loss of five years’ of profits.

John P. Bachner

John P. Bachner is the executive vice president of ASFE, a not-forprofit trade association that provides programs, services, and materials to help geoprofessional, environmental, and civil engineering firms prosper through professionalism. Visit ASFE’s website at www.asfe.org.

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