Business relationships

Client management: Value is in the eye of the client

- July 17, 2015 2 MIN READ

Have you ever felt that you know better than your clients? Chances are the answer is yes; after all, they’ve engaged your services because you offer an expertise that they lack, be it web design or digital marketing or business management skills.

Most of us who offer such services regularly negotiate the tricky territory that lies between what our clients think they want, and what we believe would be the best solution for their company. There’s a video I use in training sessions to remind my staff of this, and it’s not what you’d expect: an episode of Grand Designs, the British TV series in which the eloquent Kevin McCloud follows the development – and disasters – of individuals trying to build their dream homes.

The episode follows a Hertfordshire couple, Celia and Diana, who risked their life savings to build their dream home. The designer–builder team offered discounted rates for the opportunity to trial their new method of design and construction – a first of its kind computer-cut house, a system that allows the project to be completely bespoke.

At the start, both parties were excited: it looked like a win–win situation. However, as construction continued, Celia and Diana had complaints. The designers were adding items not in the original brief, because they thought they were good ideas – without input from the client, and at an increased cost. Communication was poor, with Celia and Diana not kept in the loop when problems arose, nor given the opportunity to be part of finding a solution. They felt pressured into expensive decisions. Eventually, they felt that the house was being designed for design’s sake, not for the functionality they wanted in their eventual home.

In the end, Celia and Diana got what they agreed was a great house. Some aspects of the house – such as the bespoke kitchen – they agreed were better than the original design they had requested. Others such as “shadow gaps” around doorways they felt they could have lived without, especially given the £10,000 price tag! Overall they were only reasonably happy about the process and the expense. But is ‘reasonably good’ good enough?

Here are the client management lessons the show offers us:

  • If, as experts in our fields, we think from the outset that our clients need to expand their vision – and their spend – it is our role to demonstrate to them the value that the extra dollars will provide. We also need to make sure that they understand the benefits going forward, so that, unlike Celia and Diana, they don’t feel they have paid for extras they didn’t actually want.
  • If problems arise, our first step is obviously to survey the potential solutions. The second, crucial step, which the designer–builders apparently missed, is to consult with the client so that they feel a part of the ongoing process and solution.
  • If, despite our efforts, we are unable to convince the client that our suggested solution is the best for their business, we need to take a step back and, if possible, provide the solution that the client wants. (Dealing with unrealistic clients is another matter altogether!)

While the client management issues that arose in this show are specific to the building industry, the lessons it offers apply to anyone who sells their expertise. Managing variations in a contract and out of scope work as it unfolds is an issue many of us will face: at that point the solutions we deliver must ultimately be seen to be of value by the client, not just by the consultant. If the client values the work you have done they are much more likely to pay your bill, to use your services again and (most importantly) recommend you to others.