“Quality” is an elusive thing. It’s like a moving target. One person’s definition of high quality could be completely different from another’s. For firms providing architecture, engineering, planning, or related services, it is really all about whether or not the client’s expectations are, at a minimum, met, and ideally, exceeded.
Every owner of every AEC firm says they either provide high quality services or aspire to. The problem is, it doesn’t always work out that way. Some firm principals spend the majority of their day dealing with complaints and unhappy clients. That isn’t “normal” and isn’t how things should be.
If that sounds too familiar to you, here are some thoughts on how you can improve that situation in your firm. None of these ideas is a magic bullet or panacea that will take care of all of your quality woes, but all of them, combined, will help. Here are my thoughts:
- Make sure you develop the right expectations on the part of your client. A big part of success in this business or any consulting business is managing expectations. As stated earlier, quality is all about meeting or exceeding client expectations. It may seem obvious but to do that, first you have to know what those expectations are. And if they seem unrealistic, it is your responsibility to educate the client. Ignore my advice at your own peril!
- Let everyone on the project team (and the firm, if necessary) know what that specific client’s expectations are. It’s not good enough to know the expectations and then make sure the client knows what they will get. You still have to let everyone who is working on the project know what the client expects. Most AEC firms do a horrible job at this. The principal and maybe the PM know what the client wants but everyone else working on the job operates from assumptions. This KILLS quality!
- Assign the “right” people to the project. Again, more easily said than done. But it takes some thought and some common sense, and maybe even some reshuffling of responsibilities across all of your projects to match up the people on your project team with the client they will be working for. It’s critical to the clients’ perception of your service quality to do so.
- Make sure you hire the right people in the first place so you have them there when you need them. If you don’t have the right kinds of people on staff there’s no chance you will get them on your project. Be picky! Insist on hiring people who not only have the requisite technical skills but also the soft skills needed for success in this business. Those include responsiveness, the ability to communicate successfully verbally and in writing, and a track record of working well as a part of a team. These things are extremely crucial to get high marks on quality of service from a client.
- Develop “appropriate” standards and then make sure they are applied. I say “appropriate” because one standard doesn’t apply to all clients and all project types and trying to do that when it can’t be done is the undoing of many QA/QC processes. People realize the standard isn’t appropriate and just give up on the entire process (bad). You also have to be sure – just from a liability perspective – that whatever standards you say you will follow you follow every time.
- Specialize! Specialization leads to higher quality because everyone can anticipate typical problems and has experience in overcoming them. Many design and technical professionals still fight specialization – particularly smaller firms – but it is to their detriment in terms of both profitability and quality.
- Celebrate quality successes. There’s data to show what a great project you did. Real evidence of success. The client has called or written gushing about the service you provided. Publicize these things! Share them throughout the firm. And include your subconsultants, too, if they deserve some of the credit. Feel good and enjoy your quality victories.
- Learn from quality failures. I have never been a big believer in the mantra of “fail early, fail often.” I would hope we can learn from our previous mistakes as well as those of others and not have to learn every single thing ourselves from scratch. I also think some quality errors (think Jack Gillum and the Kansas City Hyatt Regency disaster) can kill people. Mistakes are bad and to be avoided if possible – but if we can’t always be a success we do need to ask “what went wrong” and “how can we avoid that in the future.”
It seems like there are a million “issues” that can lead to quality problems. Conversely, there are many small things you can do to improve the quality of your firm’s offerings if you really want to!
Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.