Remember the “pop quizzes” from school? Wasn’t it a great feeling when you knew all the answers? And wasn’t it pretty horrible when you were caught off guard and didn’t have the answers?
While most of us thought we left this stage of our lives back with blackboards and No. 2 pencils, here in the A/E industry, we are constantly tested on our ability to execute. Whenever a client asks about hiring your organization for a project, it’s a test — and you are expected to pass. One way to pass the test — to differentiate yourself from the competition — is to develop client intimacy.
Client intimacy is a skill that often goes underappreciated — and a Kleinfelder engineer recently discovered this in an unconventional way at a client meeting. As representatives from several A/E firms sat down, the client quietly passed a piece of paper to the group — a pop quiz based on the history and culture of their organization.
While still in a state of shock, the Kleinfelder engineer quickly began answering questions. First up, the year the company was formed, followed by the company’s five core values, divisions, number of stores and locations, the number of corporate offices the company had in the past, and the date the company started selling its mainstream product. There were also three “extra credit” points, including the number of employees, the first store location, and name of the company’s first CEO.
The pens of the other representatives tapped and squiggled nervously, but Kleinfelder’s engineer calmly wrote down everything he knew. When it came to scoring, the group learned that our engineer was the only person to ace the quiz.
“Intimate” might seem an odd word to use in business, but today’s hyper-connected society demands a closer client relationship than in years past. As this pop quiz revealed, Kleinfelder’s engineer passed the quiz simply because he had previously invested time to develop intimate knowledge of his client’s organization.
Client intimacy has drastically changed the A/E industry, which often forgets that an organization’s value is derived from the relationships it develops. However, developing a client-centric organization can be expensive, as it requires client managers to tailor and shape services to fit an increasingly fine definition of the client, looking at the long-term value of the relationship versus the short run.
Client-intimate companies are willing to invest resources now and realize long-term returns. Financially speaking, this is better for business. Various studies conducted by the Chartered Institute of Marketing and The Times of London, among others, have shown that it costs between four and 10 times more to acquire a new client than it does to keep an existing one.
Ultimately, knowing the client better than anyone else directly affects a firm’s opportunities, improves project hit-rate, and improves profitability. It also significantly increases a company’s ability to more easily resolve issues when they arise, which ultimately saves everyone time and money.
Do your homework
So how did the Kleinfelder engineer pass the quiz? He had made a practice of following some simple steps to improve client knowledge:
• Research, research, research — Before you can be completely client-focused, it is imperative to conduct quality, in-depth research on the client’s organization. While you research, keep one question in mind: What can I do to make the client’s life easier? The act of researching, combined with the “what can I do for them?” mantra, can unveil deeper, richer insights that are too easily chased away by the adrenaline of taking immediate action (like calling or emailing prematurely). In the early stages of client intimacy, the simple act of paying attention can provide a few degrees of adjustment that bring about the greatest insights.
• Read and understand the company’s mission, vision, and values — The client’s values guide their choices and keep them focused during times of turbulence; act accordingly.
• Review the company’s annual report, 10-K, and SEC filings (if public) — If your client is publicly traded, purchase one share of stock to receive important company information that you may not be privy to otherwise.
• Browse the Web for company information and articles about the company — Articles are a great way to learn about a client’s key innovations and insights, influencers, or important topics that the company wants to focus on in the near future.
• Participate in community events — Participate in community events that are important and meaningful to your clients. Not only are you giving back to the community, but it enables you to spend time in venues (a charity golf tournament, fundraiser, or public service event) with people from all levels of the client organization.
• Follow the company on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — You would be surprised how much inadvertent information is shared on social media. From an organization’s social media pages you can learn who is interacting with your client, who is influencing your contacts, what is important to the organization (trends, topics, charities, etc.), and become acquainted with others inside the organization.
• Learn about client representatives — No personal detail is too small. A/E professionals should know their clients’ hobbies, where they went to school, which professional organizations they belong to, and their favorite forms of charity. On top of that, you should know their preferences regarding frequency and best method of contact (phone, text, in person, email), and have all of their contact information handy. Having bits of intimate knowledge about clients allows us to communicate with them in a way that touches the core values of their lives.
• Ask the right questions in the right way — The right question can have a profound impact on a relationship. The right questions are essential for developing client relationships, as they can redirect a project and serve as a pointer, aiming the team in the right direction. Good questions are clear, linked to objectives, and identify competitive issues, decision criteria, challenges posed by current approaches, and obstacles to adopting new solutions. For instance, imagine we wanted to enable our clients to extend the life of their facilities’ assets. The questions could include: “Would you be interested in discussing the costs associated with pavement maintenance versus the cost of repairs and replacement?” or, “How might we help your facilities team establish a regular roofing inspection program?”
• Learn to listen — Listening is a learned skill that requires time, patience, and practice to master. Only by actively listening can you identify concerns and fully understand how to influence and achieve your desired outcome. Failure to actively listen only sends the message to the other person that they don’t matter. A common mistake is concentrating too much on formulating your next point instead of being engaged in the conversation. What is actively listening? Focus your complete attention on what the other person is saying and show that you care. Make eye contact, resist distractions, show interest, observe body language, and paraphrase key points. Focus on the content of the message and not on the delivery (well-articulated or poorly articulated). At the end of the discussion, conclude with a summary statement. In conversations that result in obligations or activities, summarizing not only will ensure accurate follow-through, but will feel perfectly natural, and shows that you cared about what the client had to say.
• Be courageously honest — To be effective in the A/E industry, professionals face day-to-day challenges that require them to take ownership of the client’s experience, ask hard questions, and say what others aren’t willing to say. Sustainable results involve bringing out the best in ourselves and others, which can be a painful experience. As A/E professionals, we need to be able to speak candidly about the reality of a project — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Although the moment may be tense, polite but blunt honestly often leads to a more intimate, trusting relationship.
• Don’t be lazy — Nothing replaces face-to-face meetings and relationship building. Don’t get lazy and rely on emails, text messages, and phone calls only. Take the time, when appropriate and feasible, to visit your clients. Hand-deliver updates, reports, and invoices. The key to client intimacy is being prepared. For every prospect you have in your pipeline right now, you should be ready to answer any question about their organization if your phone rings in the next five minutes and your prospect is on the line.
So, get out a piece of paper and your No. 2 pencil, and get started preparing some answers.
Joel G. Carson is senior vice president, Facilities Market manager, with Kleinfelder, Inc. in Omaha, Neb. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott K. Beadleston is Client Account manager with Kleinfelder, Inc. in Lenexa, Kan. He can be contacted at email@example.com.