Quantitative data: Can it improve client relationships?

quantitative data_introHave you ever tried to measure the quality of your relationships?

When Interior Designers map out physical workspace for our clients, we observe their behavior as part of the design process. We look for reactions to our compiled data, and we take cues from their responses to better understand their needs. As a natural part of the process we start to develop a relationship. The interactions within that relationship are an integral part of the design process, because that’s where problems get resolved.

Our relationships with our clients influence the success of our projects a number of ways. Good relationships can yield less stress, better projects and future work. It’s a given that we measure financial health when we evaluate our project successes, but have you ever wondered if measuring your relationships with your clients, your peers, your suppliers and your consultants can affect your project profitability?

Tracking quantitative data is time-consuming.

Figuring out what to do with it takes even more time. We normally look at basic data — time spent and its cost, the cost of change and the cost of construction — to understand the value of the work when compared to the effort we put into it. This allows us to understand if the project was worth our effort and see where we could improve our future offerings for similar work.

It’s hard to measure the quality of your business relationships this way. A relationship is subjective, qualitative. Numbers just don’t seem to be the right way to look at relationships. But can the numbers be an indicator of the strength of your business relationships?

 

Sometimes it takes a business process to open your eyes.

Every six months my team gathers for a mandated business review for one of our major clients. We have been working with this client for more than seven years; I have been leading the account for a little over four years. Under my leadership we’ve gone through the business review process 6 times.

We know the drill.

Our contract with our client has a few specific Service Level Agreements that allow them to evaluate our performance across a variety of indicators. We track the SLA’s on a monthly basis, and twice a year we spit out some very interesting, performance-based quantitative data.

I have often wondered how the data is affected by the intangible things that influence us day by day; the qualitative, subjective data like the interactions that influence how we work, how we respond to each other’s behavior, how we share information, how we collaborate and how we treat each other.

The stuff that makes up our relationships.

Three years of data has yielded some very interesting things.

 

First things first. I got to know my team.

I call it my team — not from an ownership perspective, but from a team-member perspective. I am a leadership professional, but first and foremost I am part of the team. We have been working together for a long time, and we all call it my team. Sure, people come and go. We train others in the firm to work on this account — to respond to the ebb and flow of the workload — but the core team has been together for a long, long time.

When I joined the team in late 2010, everything was working fine.

It was at its most profitable; there was a ton of work. Some of it was very large, program work, which is fast-paced and lucrative when managed well. The team was working hard, but there was an underlying tension with the client and with their teams in the field. People complained about certain client representatives, and there was a palpable lack of partnership. So, I waded in to see what’s what.

Over the course of the past three years I learned as much as I could — about both the client and about my team — and I found ways to help our team change its perspective of the our relationship with our client.

In the early days, the business review process was peppered with hard language. We didn’t care about managing cost-saving opportunities. We didn’t work to eliminate repeated errors. We weren’t interested in pushing the envelope. Despite that, we were performing at an acceptable level, meeting deadlines and satisfying our contractual obligations. We were profitable. We continued to get work. We were producing. As hard as we had tried to improve our work processes there was still that underlying sense that the relationship was on edge.

It stemmed from a lack of trust.

We were two groups who knew how to do their jobs, but there was a lack of communication about the real issues plaguing the client. We were adversarial: That’s not my job, that’s your job. The kind of communication you get when two groups don’t trust each other to do their jobs.

It wasn’t all bad, but the trend was obvious once I dug into how the team was working across the account network.  They all cared about what they were doing, and they all wanted fewer headaches. For some reason, though, animosity prevailed between us and the client’s implementation team.

Instead of blaming the client, we decided to turn our design expertise upon ourselves. Could we design a better process? One that would maintain better performance? What we discovered was that our processes weren’t designed to enhance interaction, communication and collaboration. So we challenged ourselves to improve how we worked together — to see if it would have an impact on our performance. We didn’t make wholesale change; we modified a few simple things, and only slightly. Our goal was better, more direct communication, with the long-term hope for better interaction and collaboration.

qualitative and quantitative equal success

The 5 ways we tweaked our processes to enhance communication and collaboration.

 

We created better cohesion.

As part of our team’s internal processes we conduct an informal monthly “lessons learned” lunch meeting to discuss common account issues. We slowly modified them into team-building opportunities. We still address the issues, but now we also give a voice to the entire team.

We ask team members to present information, discuss issues and offer feedback on their parts of the project.  Bottom-up, side to side, all equal. It was amazing to watch team members start to share more, to look for more opportunities to improve — and not just at the monthly lunches. They shared more openly, day-to-day, in an increasingly constructive manner.

Giving them the opportunity to share and making them feel valued in the lunch sessions opened up the route to better communication within the team, every day.

 

We tightened up our project execution model.

 There is a certain repetitive nature to national account work.

Each project is unique, but each project follows a prescribed process. You would think that consistent, efficient workflow makes an account like this profitable, but that’s not the case. If everyone does their part as if in a production line, efficiency can be  maintained for a while but human nature inevitably creeps in and messes with the flow.

Everyone has a role to play, and everyone has unique abilities. We encourage our team to look for improvement opportunities across the entire project, not just in their specific roles. Newcomers realise very quickly that we share openly and help each other.

We continually look at our delivery process and look for those kaizen opportunities; those little changes that build on our efficiencies. Creating champions for each major component of the project workflow (design standards, production drawing templates, and project closeout) allows us to maintain good communication nationally in a timely manner. There’s no one person responsible for everything. We share the improvement of our processes equally, which builds the team’s cohesion, trust and internal accountability.

 

We share accountability.

We are all accountable to each other. Our team members understand their roles, and we share equally in the successes and failures. Someone who isn’t pulling enough weight is never alone. We rally the team, help out and follow up with that person to make sure there aren’t any further issues. If projects are lagging or showing signs of weakness, we focus on the area where we can make improvements and share the solutions with the team.

 

We created regular, informal touch-points with our client.

It’s always a nice surprise to hear from an old friend, isn’t it? That’s not unlike what we instill in our team. Be proactive, and look to anticipate issues before they arise. From an internal management perspective we don’t get together with our client as much as we should. Instead, we work at the grass-roots level, touching base with the teams in the field as often as necessary. The lines of communication are driven from the bottom to the top, not the other way around.

If I never hear from a team member in the field, that’s meant to be a good thing. But  that’s exactly the opposite of what we do. Those of us in leadership roles touch base with the clients on occasion to ensure there aren’t any issues brewing under the surface, but in the regular course of business, it’s our team members who reach out regularly to the clients to keep an open line of communication. Nothing beats a heads-up phone call to chat about an issue that came up on another project.

 

We discuss issues and address them in the moment/head on.

Shelving a contentious issue and moving on is easy. But the more you face problems head-on, the easier it gets. We have a no-bullshit policy when something goes off the rails. This has to be the biggest change that has happened with this team, and it ties together with our approach to accountability.

Nothing’s worse than sitting on a problem for days or not discussing it at all. Recurring issues can plague a fast-paced account like this, and if the same problem comes up over and over we have failed at communication, at being accountable to the team and worse, we have failed each other. So we address problems in a timely manner.

Embarrassment and fear of criticism can afflict the best of us at times, and the only way to combat them is to reinforce a culture of trust. The more we share our issues and deal with them head-on, the more we trust each other to be fair, objective and professional.

 

Here we are in 2014.

When I joined the team it was profitable. We were making our targets and then some, but the amount and type of the work we do is ever-changing.

The client made a major change in the program in 2011, which involved a whole new approach to delivering their services. We were producing work, developing new standards and managing the change as it rolled out across the network into the beginning of 2012. After 18 months of strenuous change management, testing and implementing the new standard — we were back in the flow. Since the middle of 2012 the amount of work has declined slightly, the type of projects has continued to change and the program has continued to evolve.

We have seen two minor shifts in business process in 2013 that have afforded us the opportunity to participate in the development of alternate design standards for our client.

And round and round it goes.

 

Where has all this change gotten us?

We’ve seen improvements in workflow and in the quality of the work we produce. There have been vast improvements in the business relationships we have with our client and their teams, which have been built on the trust we have worked so hard to gain. New opportunities have opened up in response to the changes we made to our processes —a real testament to our growth as a team.

In the end we have maintained good financial health and managed to keep the cost to the client below industry norms, all the while keeping up with their ever-evolving business practice. Our continued success is directly tied to our great team and our understanding of how to work well together.

The numbers don’t lie, and that’s how this whole thing got started. They can definitely show you where attention and effort is needed.

However, I have always maintained that people can’t be managed by numbers alone. We are not widgets in a factory, we are organic, ever-evolving, changing and responding to so many internal and external factors.

We have proven that with this account.

Quantitative data exposes trends that we can’t necessarily see on a day-to-day basis. But what became clear over the course of designing a better process for our team is that the data is easier to take when your relationships are sound. Everything sounds better in a collaborative atmosphere than it does in a cloud of mistrust.

In this case, replacing the negative language of the early business review meetings was an air of partnership.

  • How can we help each other get better?
  • How can we help each other improve?
  • What can we do to better support you?

Interesting questions.

Data is an important part of managing a business. You can see where there are gaps in your processes, where things are going well and where your efforts have paid off. It can help you determine new ways of doing things and show you concrete results over time, but numbers alone can’t help you manage your client relationships.

Only you can.

Do you think quantitative data is valuable when you’re trying to understanding how the intangible nature of human behavior influences the success of your work?

If you want an interesting example of how evaluating human behavior can influence design take a look at this link. It’s from Johannes Seemann, a business designer at IDEO involved in an initiative called human centered design. The article explores the ways quantitative data can be interpreted and help support design by first understanding the human side of the equation.

If you have some questions or want some further insights into our process improvements you can get in touch with me via email here, call me at  416-500-0374 or you can ask your questions below.

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