In tough times like those we are in right now (and they could get a lot worse), it’s easy for people to lose perspective. Little problems get blown up beyond their importance. Fear takes over. And some companies absolutely become frozen and unable to act at precisely the time when they need to be most willing to do things differently.
If you have ever done any automobile or motorcycle racing, or even just high-speed driving or riding, one thing you learn (and learn fast) is to keep your head up and your eyes scanning way out in front for potential hazards. The worst thing you can do is look down at the road right in front of you. If you see something, then you will probably hit it. This is called “target fixation.” If you look way out ahead and spot the problem before you’re upon it, you can avoid it. So your perspective is critical.
It’s much the same with all problems. Get too close and you can’t really do anything about them. The farther away you step back, the greater the chance that you will react properly. You’ll have some perspective.
As for the implications of this idea for A/E/P and environmental consulting firms, there are plenty. Here are a few of them:
Be in constant communication with your clients. This is almost a cliché today. But if you’re serious about this idea, it may require making some changes in your company. Everyone says they want to do it, but few firms devote any resources to making it real. E-mail communiqués with links back to your web site can be helpful. Polls on your web site, along with the results. Threaded discussion groups. Direct mail. Surveys. Continuous client satisfaction monitoring via telephone. The firm that makes client communication a priority, not just lip music spouting from the marketing and business development people, employs these and many other techniques!
Have a way to transfer the knowledge of client needs effectively. If, for example, you are organized around service lines or geographic lines, truly getting close to the customer might be difficult. There is no one focal point for all of the customer’s needs. And there may not be any knowledge transfer of “best practices” across similar types of clients. Organizing around client type (market sector) may make getting close to the customer more likely. The same people will be working for the same types of organizations over the long haul, and they will be in a much better position to anticipate problems and share their unique knowledge with the other people who serve those types of clients (their immediate co-workers). This also implies having a “client manager,” a person whom the client always deals with regardless of project type or service need.
Regularly solicit input from the workers who are actually doing the stuff you are getting paid by clients to do. Without talking to these people, you will never know what it really takes to do a job or what should be done to make things more efficient or improve quality. It’s one thing to count the beans or manage the process of getting the work done, but it’s another to actually do it. You cannot ignore the lessons learned by those who do. Too many companies do not allow these people any particular forum to express their ideas and opinions, and therefore miss out on the opportunity to get their perspectives.
Consider hiring someone out of a client’s organization or organization type. Doing this gives you an insider’s perspective on how clients work and what their real priorities are. This person need not be the one in charge of the firm’s work for a particular market, although they usually are hired in at that level. It’s possible just to have someone like this on board in a staff capacity. You may find that you need someone from a client’s organization or organization type in every single market your firm serves.
Originally published 11/5/2001.