By Ralph Dandrea, Frederick Beer, Jonathan Coupal and Sean Flaherty
Service organizations usually don’t become successful, and stay successful, by accident. More likely, its leaders have recognized what works and have assimilated those factors into its mission, vision and values. Success is not based simply upon knowing what you’re doing and getting it done—It’s really about making the client happy. So, even when we are accomplishing exactly what we promised, if the client isn’t convinced that we are delivering something of value, then what we believe doesn’t matter. We must demonstrate the value that we are consistently creating at all points along the way in a project if we want our clients to feel as good about our work as we do. That is delivering value.
Value is delivered when it is first created, then successfully demonstrated.
If we don’t actively and consistently demonstrate the value of our services, we let the client make up their own story. It is a failure on our part if we don’t make sure that they see our efforts. If we’re not delivering anything, how can we blame them for feeling anxious about us? In the services business, and especially in the software industry, much of the value we create could go on without clients knowing about it—As long as nothing goes wrong, we’re doing an excellent job in many cases–but we have to let them know about it. If we’re responsible for a client’s server that goes down in the middle of the night and we discover that their website has been hacked, we know that our team of heroes fought the bad guys. But unless we inform the client that we locked down his site, restored the data and got them safely back up and running before they go to work the next morning, they’d be oblivious to both the threat and the very real value we provided. We would have created value, but we didn’t demonstrate it.
Demonstration comes from communicating and showing that we created value. That means we could call the client in the morning and apprise them of the resolved situation. Or we could give them a report at the end of the month detailing the potential problems we averted for them. It doesn’t have to be immediate. We don’t have to call up the client every time something happens and tell them what we did. But it does have to be regularly demonstrated in order for clients to see the benefits of our services materializing. Otherwise, we’re definitely going to have a different level of appreciation internally for the value we create than our clients do, and that’s just flat-out bad for business.
Luckily, there are steps we can take to align our clients with the facts about how well we are performing.
Five Ways to Create Value
In analyzing all the ways that a company can create value, we’ve identified five key themes:
1. Clarity of vision and path.
The first thing we can do to create value is to help clients gain clarity about what they want, why they want it and what it’s going to take to get them there. Once everyone is aligned with the same big-picture vision, we can all make better decisions about the details.
Clarity also simplifies the process. Because we have a clear scope of the project, it reduces the risk of wasting time and effort, and we avoid all types of problems for the client. For example, at ITX, our strategy sessions are designed to help our clients achieve this precision of vision. We have learned that when someone comes to us and says, “I want a website,” more often than not, that’s all they know. We get them to focus on their reasons: Why do you want a website? What do you expect it to do for you? What features do you want and why? How will it create value for your clients? Many organizations just feel that they must have a website in order to compete, but they have no idea how ITX can facilitate that unless we hone in on their specific needs and wants. Once we actively help them to create clarity of vision and path for themselves, then we can bring it fully to fruition. But we don’t stop there. The reality is that we have to maintain clarity throughout the entire relationship, not just at the outset. Inevitably, even with great preparation, confusion about some aspect of a project will arise. Strive to eliminate any such “cloudiness” whenever it appears and consistently return the client back to clarity.
2. A steady diet of high-quality deliverables.
When we’re excited about something enough to plunk down good money on it, we anxiously await its arrival. Our clients are no different. They believed when they hired us that our organization was the best option for fulfilling their needs, and it would be foolish to think that now all we have to do is complete the work. If we wait until the project is complete to deliver anything, then we’ve wasted countless opportunities to deliver value and allay anxiety during that timeframe. It’s not just about delivering a final product that will wow clients; it’s about wowing clients many times before then so that they are already in a great state of mind about us when we present a fantastic end result.
If it will take three months to create the website of the client’s dreams, provide a steady diet of high-quality deliverables along the way so that they can share in the excitement of the progress. As soon as you get the first piece done, present it to the client and showcase it in a way that will be well received, like a diamond in the rough. Show them what you’re working on and let them know what you’ll be doing next. Clients want to see the progress. If you were having a house built, wouldn’t you like to see it going up? It’s unlikely that you’d give a contractor all of your specifications, then sit tight for months, only to look at the house one time…when it was completed. More likely, you’d want to see the progress, one, because it’s exciting and, two, because it reassures you that the project is conforming to your vision. If our clients can’t get their projects all at once, they want to see it happening.
In software, we have an advantage over building a house in that we can fully complete each section of a project independently of the other sections. In keeping with the above analogy, we can deliver a succession of complete rooms, including trim and even furnishings, which allows us to deliver value incrementally throughout the project.
This steady diet also adds to the benefits we created by providing clarity of vision and path: If we unveil our product a little at a time as we go along, we will discover any deviations from the client’s vision right away. We can make corrections to the foundation before we spend another two months building upon it, only to tear some of it down and start over. Offering regular deliverables ensures that there are no surprises at the end of the project.
Since our clients have been collaborating on and approving each piece of the process the entire time, we’ll get the applause when we finish it to their specifications. If we wait until the end to show it to them and just say, “Here it is!,” we face the very real possibility that they’ll instead experience an “ewww factor” in reaction to anything different than they expected. It may seem like a small thing to us, but even the difference between teal and aqua can be so disconcerting to a client that for a moment they don’t realize just how much we got right—better than right! That doesn’t feel good for anybody.
Finally, it’s important to realize that finishing things is the only way to create value. Starting something creates no value whatsoever, neither does working on something. Only when it is completed does the value of that something manifest. For the client, all the interim tasks between the time you start a project to the time you actually deliver it are not realized value, unless you polish and present those pieces. Then it becomes real.
3. Effective stewardship of client resources.
Anything a service provider can do to save clients time and money delivers value. When a client contracts us for a service and presents all of his ideas, we can identify what won’t work and what will be a waste of time and money as experts in our field. We can also communicate effectively by not asking open-ended questions when a yes/no question will do. Instead of showing up at meetings and winging it, we can come prepared with samples, information and next steps. Instead of bringing the client a problem, we can bring a clear problem definition with a proposed solution. These are just a few of many ways that we can offer effective stewardship of our clients’ resources.
4. A smooth journey.
A smooth journey refers to the “trip” on which we take our clients throughout a project or interaction. I like to use the example of an airline when I write about the client experience because as a frequent flyer, I really value a smooth journey. When I travel, I want my airline to make it easy for me, and as enjoyable as possible, not just get me from Point A to Point B. It’s the same thing for clients. We want working with us to be the easiest alternative for them. We can do that in the same ways that the best airlines do: by controlling client anxiety, communicating well and often, being responsive to concerns and making the journey pleasurable. A smooth journey is all about the different amenities, what we offer along the way. When we keep our clients’ comfort in mind, they are more likely to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. The five ways to create value are the amenities in a service business.
A smooth journey is also about having a professional process through which clients can be guided. Our aim is to build confidence and trust with our clients, and having a professional presentation matters. For example, if you arrive at your new doctor’s office, and he is confused, or looks like he just woke up, or he can’t find your file, you’re not going to be confident in his diagnosis, even if that diagnosis is correct. As a service organization, how we present ourselves is just as important as what we do. Therefore, we want to be clear about our process—what we do and how we do it. We can’t be scratching our heads in front of customers while we try to figure things out. It is critical that we have a process upon which to rely, and that process includes when and how to escalate a situation that is beyond our scope.
5. Making the client look good.
All humans have a need to look good. We want to look good to our clients, and our clients want to look good to their superiors and their clients. As an example, let’s say we have a customer who is fighting an internal battle at his company about spending money on software development. He knows what his department needs, but he’s getting flack for it. In this case, he has to justify the efficient expenditure of his company’s resources. We can regularly arm him with information and deliverables that support the use of our services, which he can then present to his superiors and peers.
As another example, perhaps we have a client who will be selling whatever we’re building for them to their own customers. When we’re doing this kind of business-to-business work, it’s our goal to give our clients a source of pride from the finished product. It’s something else that they can show their clients that speaks to the success of their brand. Our products make our clients look good, and that’s delivering value. It also makes our company look good because when a client is proud about a project he had a hand in creating with us, he’s going to talk about it. At the same time, we understand that demonstrating our value in subtle ways all the time means that we don’t have to gratuitously brag about it. The evidence will speak for itself.
These are the five principle ways that we can deliver value for our clients. It’s not enough to give a client one great deliverable when a project is finished; we also want to deliver these five sources of value along the way. It bears repeating that value is delivered when it is first created, then successfully demonstrated. If you don’t demonstrate the value that you create, then from the client’s perspective, it’s as if you never created it. Every day, look for ways to deliver value in as many of the five ways as you can.
Call a specific client to mind and ask yourself the following questions to determine if you could be delivering more value: Do both of you have clarity of vision and path? Is there any way you can make either of those more clear? Is it possible for you to finish something for that client today and to show him that you finished it? Are you asking the client to do something that wastes his time? Have you been asking him wide-open questions that he has to answer with several paragraphs instead of with a simple yes/no answer? Can you handle anything yourself that you’re asking the client to do? How else can you make his journey smoother? In what ways can you make him feel pride about the project you’re working on together? The answers to these questions will help you to deliver value.
What We Can Do Better
Don’t let preventable obstacles stand in the way of delivering maximum value. Instead, use these five strategies to make the most out of your efforts:
1) Focus on Outcomes.
We might be tempted to substitute other things, such as intention or action, for outcome. Since making our clients successful is our desired outcome, we can’t settle for the positive feelings we get from clicking off items on our to-do list. That is not the goal. Notice that each of the five ways to create value in the services business is an outcome. We’ve created clarity of vision, provided solid examples of our progress, saved the client time and money, given clients an experience that they enjoyed and built up their pride. That’s a heck of a package deal. But if we intend to give clients a smooth journey without delivering one, for example, how much value does that create? None at all. Only when we actually deliver an outcome have we created value.
Focusing on outcomes is a really important concept, but unfortunately, our society tends to equate effort with outcomes, when they aren’t necessarily correlated at all. For example, if you have two salespeople, and one delivers a million dollars a year in sales working one hour a day, and another delivers $500,000 of sales a year working 18-hour days, which salesperson would you rather keep? The answer to the question is…effort is irrelevant.
2) Be Complete about Communication.
Communication is complete when it is received and understood. For example, if a client is waiting anxiously for a piece of a project, he would find it valuable to know as soon as it is done. If we send an email without making sure the client is aware of the progress, we haven’t been complete with our communication, and that leaves the possibility that our efforts didn’t provide any value. When we don’t hear back from a client, we could just go home for the weekend and say, “Well, I did my best,” or we can send an email and leave a message, then follow up to make sure the communication is received. Trying to communicate is not good enough because it’s just an intention. Actual communication is the outcome we want. When we know that the client has received our communication and understands it, we’ve delivered value.
3) Consider the client’s reality.
If a client is anxious or dissatisfied, that is his reality. We can’t just say to ourselves “Well, I tried really hard” and think that we’ve done enough for him if he is uncomfortable with it. It only matters what our clients think, because that is their reality, and it is our job to make our relationships with them a positive experience.
4) Be Honest with Yourself.
Unfortunately, measuring ourselves by outcomes feels harsh. If we took five minutes at the end of each day and thought about the actual value we created, we might feel less than pleased with ourselves. It’s a lot easier to feel good about putting in eight hours of work, regardless of what we accomplished, than to admit we’ve only completed a fraction of what we intended.
5) Provide a total experience.
Create a total experience for clients by involving as many of the senses as possible in your communications. If we do this effectively, they get a true understanding of the project’s value. Letting them see a deliverable with their own eyes on a computer screen while they sit alone in their office will not be as powerful as walking them through something on the phone or demonstrating it in person. Also, consider mixing it up when it comes to communicating with clients. Don’t rely solely on email or any single method. Find out what works for that particular client and use that method. A great way to find out what works for someone is to pay attention to the way that they communicate with you. For example, if someone always emails you, chances are that they like email; if they usually call you, it would appear that they prefer to communicate by phone.
Overall, we demonstrate value by making sure that clients comprehend what we’ve created and have experienced it fully themselves. We add to the efficacy of this experience by engaging as many of their senses as possible.
Being Cause in the Matter
When we hold ourselves accountable only for our actions, we are not cause in the matter. We are only cause in the matter when we hold ourselves accountable for outcomes. For example, if we want to be cause in the matter of delivering value for our clients, we will do whatever it takes to deliver that value. We will hold ourselves to higher standards than just committing to finishing a to-do list. Even if it’s a giant list of accomplishments, focusing on those actions heedless of the big picture will guarantee that we are not cause in the matter. We will not be delivering value if we did the wrong actions, instead of the ones that produce that outcome. Can you think of an instance where you did not make yourself cause in the matter? What could you have done differently to hold yourself responsible for the outcome? It’s up to our clients to judge whether we’ve done enough because their satisfaction is the only workable outcome. If they’re not satisfied, we have no business. We can’t substitute intentions or actions for the outcome; we must focus on being cause in the matter, which means that we accept nothing less than the outcome.
For example, if a client calls in because his password needs to be reset so he can access a system, you could simply reset his password, but that’s not being cause in the matter. To be cause in the matter, you would hold yourself accountable for the client’s success by resetting the password and staying on the line while he makes sure he can access his account. Then, if that didn’t work, you would try something else. Compare the experience of the client who has to call back because the reset didn’t solve the problem with the experience of the client who was walked through the process until the problem was resolved.
Remembering that value is only delivered when it is first created and then successfully demonstrated leads us to provide consistent, high-quality deliverables that clients can fully experience. We’ve done an excellent job when we’ve communicated with clients to ensure that they understand exactly what they’ve received and are ecstatic about it. Don’t wait to see if your success will happen by accident; drive it by implementing the five ways to create value and utilizing the five strategies to boost the efficacy of your delivery.
© Ralph Dandrea 2012. All rights reserved.