Just talking about customer satisfaction is not good enough; you have to demonstrate client service at every step of the process, by every one of your people.
John Parolisi & Manny Katinas
BALFOUR BEATTY CONSTRUCTION
The construction industry is rife with contractors touting a client-focused approach to building projects. Customers hear it in selection interviews, see it on websites and learn about it in project meetings.
Yet, for many clients, the construction experience remains challenging and unnecessarily frustrating.
One company that is setting a new standard for client service is Balfour Beatty Construction. It is bringing client satisfaction to a new level, starting with its company vision.
John Parolisi, senior vice president of Strategic Planning & Marketing for Balfour Beatty, and Manny Katinas, client satisfaction manager, join us to share how they are making a difference for their customers, one project at a time.
FMI Quarterly: Tell us about Balfour Beatty Construction’s positioning objective.
Parolisi: Our vision is to differentiate ourselves so significantly that we change the industry. We developed this vision eight years ago when we came together as one company. Up until that point, we had operated as separate regionally based businesses. We developed our foundational Creed to define what we stood for and how we were going to build the company to succeed in the future.
The opening sentence of our Creed sets the whole thing up. We call it our preamble, and it says, “Ours is a service business in which each project is unique.” The reason that sentence is so important is too often people get hung up on we are “just” a construction company. In reality, however, we are a service business. Defining ourselves clearly upfront as a service business was part of institutionalizing change around what we believed we could provide to our clients.
The construction industry has a significant opportunity to change client expectations on what is a great client experience. Creating great client service starts with project delivery. We focus strongly on the client perspective and those of our other key stakeholders.
At the time we were formulating our client-service approach, we looked at industry websites and marketing information. We found out that the term “service” was touted by everyone. So the issue quickly became, “What are we delivering, on a project-by-project basis to create a superior client experience?” We researched companies that are great at customer service, regardless of the industry, and keyed in on the book “Discovering the Soul of Service” (1999) by Dr. Leonard L. Berry, a professor at Texas A&M University.
Berry researched best-in-class service companies across different industries, including companies like Chick-fil-A and The Container Store to understand what characteristics were different and what were the same. What he found was surprising. There were far more characteristics the same than were different in great service organizations. One key was that it all starts with company values.
Value-based companies are the ones that are able to deliver a superior client experience. Our values helped create our Mission Alignment Process® (MAP) to deliver “the best construction experience — every time”. In our industry, every project is unique, so you are never going to be able to define the entire customer experience with a standard operating procedure. It comes down to understanding employees, what they have inside themselves regarding client service, and the tools we provide them. That is what creates the best construction experience, something we call “The Signature Experience”.
When creating MAP, we knew it had to be experientially based and customizable for our clients. It also had to be a tool for our front-line project staff. It takes a lot of discretionary effort to deliver what is required for the clients when each project is unique. You cannot simply prescribe one approach that fits everyone. We knew we had to focus on a proactive process instead of concentrating on how we performed “after the fact”.
We wanted something to deliver a superior experience customized to each of our clients; that is why we call it the Mission Alignment Process®. It starts with understanding and actively listening to the client’s mission at the beginning of the project, which includes knowing why the company is building the building. It goes well beyond what is in the contract in terms of schedule or budget to understand what a client really wants out of the construction experience. The process focuses on how the experience should flow and how the client wants communications to take place.
By listening upfront and understanding the client’s criteria for success, we create a plan that allows our project teams to deliver consistently on those key needs. This includes periodically touching base to measure how we are doing compared to client expectations. If there are any gaps, we create an action plan around those gaps so we deliver a best-in-class experience as defined by the client itself.
FMI Quarterly: What originally launched Balfour Beatty on the vision of client service?
Parolisi: Our industry is so high stakes and every project is custom. The circumstances that surround the client experience will also be different from project to project. Given all of this, few industries have a greater opportunity to differentiate the experience than the commercial construction business.
“I credit MAP and its focus on client satisfaction as one of the most important factors in the success of our Military Housing business.”
—Jim Taylor, President, Balfour Beatty Construction Military Housing
One benefit of developing great client experiences in our industry is creating an environment of trust-based relationships and high communication, which are conducive to being able to deliver projects on time, on budget and with high-quality results. It simply creates the best project outcomes, and that is a dual benefit for our clients and company.
FMI Quarterly: What did Balfour Beatty see in the market eight years ago that made you think that this was part of the future for the organization?
Parolisi: We saw a number of different levels of focus on the client experience. Many people were talking about it, but there were not a lot of mechanisms in place or thoughtfulness around how to deliver superior service or superior experiences. So we added a bit more science around it in terms of defining it, listening to clients and our other stakeholders.
The other thing we created was a Brand Promise. Specifically, this tool provides our teams with a picture of what a superior client experience looks like in practice and how that picture looks slightly different depending on the audience we are serving. For example, a subcontractor’s needs are quite different from our client’s needs of us, but we must understand each viewpoint clearly in order to be able to succeed.
FMI Quarterly: Can you give me an example of what a customer might specifically experience with MAP on a project?
Parolisi: MAP starts with a kickoff session, where we spend time really understanding the client’s mission — first and foremost, what its key needs and success criteria are. This puts the contract somewhat to the side, but we gain an understanding of what the key needs are over the course of the project.
The client decides what is going to define the best experience for itself. It could be something as simple as the way it wants its weekly communications to take place. And it may change over the course of the project, which is fine. We spend a lot of time listening and then putting together a plan to work jointly with the client to ensure we are delivering. I think upfront the client sees us as someone who first starts with an incredible desire to listen and to shape our process based on what his or her needs are.
FMI Quarterly: How do you communicate your client focus to a prospective customer?
Parolisi: That is the most interesting piece to deliver. Anyone can say that he or she delivers a great client experience, but it is hard to be able to talk about it unless the customer has already experienced it. When we started off, we would say, “Here’s the process that we use.” But still, it’s just a process. Now that we have done this for six years, we have developed a database of all the projects and all we did to deliver on the client’s experience. Now we can describe the process better in our proposals.
If there is a health care project, we can describe what has been done over the last 20 health care projects. In general, we can articulate key needs and what has been put in place in order to address those unique needs. So we’ve actually institutionalized our learning about how to deliver superior experiences for specific types of projects. Clients would actually see that in the proposal process. Not just here’s our process, but also here’s what we’ve learned over the last six years, on more than 300 projects. And for repeat clients, not only will they have experienced and understood what we deliver, but also we can share what we have learned over the course of doing one, two or three of their projects.
FMI Quarterly: Manny, as client satisfaction manager at Balfour Beatty, what are your thoughts on communicating your client focus to customers?
Katinas: In health care, for example, we may have a history of 20 similar projects. In our proposal, we could go in, being very frank and open upfront and say, “In these 20 similar projects, these approaches worked very well. However, these few things didn’t go so well, and here’s how we addressed them, the corrective actions that we made and the things that we’ve learned from those issues and how we’re going to apply it to you, prospective client, going forward.”
FMI Quarterly: So do you have a body of knowledge by market sector on what the client experience needs to be?
Katinas: Absolutely. We’ve broken it down into our vertical segments across the country and across our divisions, so we have information, for example, on health care, hospitality, higher education, K-12, criminal justice, etc. I assist our proposal teams by finding the key issues that have come up on those projects in recent years and then help address those issues as we move forward with our project acquisition strategy. If we then are awarded the job, our kickoff MAP meeting is very proactive and we’re able to say to the client, “These are the things in this vertical market we’ve seen over the past few years, and here is how we’ve successfully addressed those issues to bring you greater benefit, from day one.” For example, if you are building a greenfield hospital on a nice, clean, flat site, there is really not much you have to worry about when it comes to noise. However, when you’re doing a major renovation of an existing hospital, you have to worry about things like power outages, planned service outages, traffic flow, noise requirements, different hours of operations, etc. So we come into a meeting and show the owner we know these things upfront and have a proactive strategy to mitigate any impact. This gives the client a much greater level of comfort that our experience brings him or her tangible benefit.
The same concept holds true for the hospitality sector. When we renovate a hotel, we know the business depends on customers who are trying to get a good night’s rest on the other side of our construction activity. So we are very sensitive about running operations that may in any way impact guest services or comfort.
I think it is also evident when our repeat customers say, “I hope we’re doing MAP on this project too.” I believe that is because they see MAP as a direct contributor to building a higher degree of open communication. That open communication translates to a culture of openness across our entire organization, which I think is one of the true benefits of the MAP process.
People have told us that MAP reflects a high-level commitment to service throughout the organization. I believe this is true because our projects are not billed for this service, nor does the client pay extra for it. It is a corporate commitment and an investment in how we choose to run our company. It is that important to us.
Parolisi: MAP is a tool for the project teams. This is a core part of our culture, and it is something that has helped them learn, over the course of several years now, what it takes in order to be able to craft customized experiences for our clients and deliver on them. They really see Manny as an ally helping them do that. Manny conducts project surveys to make sure we are delivering on the plan for the project. It is a tool for the project team, and that’s what makes this really powerful. It is not something that is a compliance exercise. We’ve made an investment to make sure we are supporting the front lines in delivering a signature client experience.
FMI Quarterly: How are you measuring the success of MAP?
Katinas: We have a scoring scale that we use. We tried to get away from the 10-point, car-dealer satisfaction scale where the salesperson says, “If I don’t get a 10, I get fired after I sell you your car.” We wanted the scale to be very specific to our projects and to the industry, to make it unique. We use a five-point scale where we assigned very specific verbiage to each number. We are shooting for 5s, which we define as leading the industry. The outcome we want is, if you’ve gone through the project with us, you’ve gone through the experience and we have done so well, Mr. Client, that you can rate us the best possible experience you’ve ever had. We want to be known as leading the industry, and that’s what it takes for us to earn a top score of 5.
We take our scores all the way down the line and evaluate them across projects, leadership, divisions and verticals and even into a composite company score. So we do have quantitative data where we can compare and understand the impact of the program and how we’re performing. But the interesting thing is on every single question, on every single survey, we also allow for free-form comments.
I do probably 90% of the surveys by telephone or live interviews. So instead of using a point-and-click type of tool, we really make it a low-tech and high-touch experience. I interview the customers, understand the thinking behind their scores, and put that into comment form for the team to review and understand what the client is really saying beyond the numbers. So if someone does give us a 4 — a less-than-perfect score — we understand what’s behind it and I can tell the team. Sometimes the client might say, “I never give a 5 — that would be like you’re walking on water.” Our people tell me that before they look at the numbers, they look at the comments.
FMI Quarterly: Do you tailor the MAP questions based on the projects?
Katinas: Absolutely. The hallmark of the program is that we start from scratch with a clean sheet on every project. We do have a few benchmark questions, three or four per survey, and we always ask an overall satisfaction question; but beyond that, it is a clean sheet of paper. I go into a meeting with the client and project team to understand what the issues are. Again, it is very low-tech and very high-touch. We have stayed away from third-party providers doing canned surveys for the construction industry and take a very personalized approach to it.
Parolisi: We try to make it easier by presenting key issues that clients have identified in the past for the particular type of project. We really would not understand and align with the client’s mission if we just said all the questions are going to be things we predetermined and they are generic from project to project. The surveys are generally short, about 10 questions. We don’t want to take up any more of the client’s time than we need to. We also allow the questions to vary. That is another thing we talk about in the kickoff and over the course of the project. We work with the client to understand when to survey the project, from phase to phase, and how to sum up the key issues. These are the questions by which we judge ourselves.
FMI Quarterly: What do you do internally to drive the MAP process into the corporate culture?
Parolisi: It is our service focus, and MAP is one of the tools that we utilize. One thing that we have done to drive it in the culture is being committed to it on every project and providing a full-time resource to support each one of our project teams. It is such a core part of our DNA now that when our leaders walk on a jobsite, one of the first things that they will ask is where things are on MAP. Many of our project sites even have MAP boards, where you will see key issues identified so it is very visible and discussed all the time. We are very open as a business about how we’re doing in terms of MAP.
Additionally, several years ago we created a training course called “Delivering Service Excellence”, or DSE for short. DSE focuses on how to think about service, active listening and crafting experiences for particular clients with unique needs. DSE is a tool our divisions use to train their project staff, particularly those getting close to running projects. It provides a broader context for MAP.
FMI Quarterly: Do you use the MAP process internally in your organization?
Katinas: Our Information Technology (IT) department runs a Help Desk that supports almost 2,400 employees across the country. The IT department came to me a while back and asked if it might adapt MAP to measure its own performance with internal customers. By utilizing the MAP framework, the department now has a useful metric, which demonstrates how it is performing with its client service focus.
In addition, our sister company, Balfour Beatty in the UK, has also started using this process. I was fortunate enough this past summer to go and do a refresher training course with our groups in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Manchester, England. So MAP is crossing the Atlantic to become part of our UK culture. We are very excited about that.
FMI Quarterly: What is the next step for the MAP?
Parolisi: First, we just continue delivering it consistently. We have tweaked it over time as we have learned more, but the key is the ongoing commitment. It is not a flavor of the month that we have focused on for a year or two; it is who we are. Second, we are looking into modified versions of the process depending on project type and duration. When we developed MAP, most of our projects were a year and a half or two years in duration. We have since acquired new businesses and organically built others that have shorter duration projects. We have been looking at adapting the process, looking more at the relationship level as opposed to an individual project level and/or some short-form versions of MAP.
We also have been looking at how to evolve MAP for more integrated project delivery situations, where we are partnering even more closely with the architect and the other players on the project. We are looking at creating different variations of MAP to be even more flexible to those different project types.
Katinas: Acquisitions and new companies that we have brought on board have picked up on MAP as a great advantage to have in their tool kit. When I visit a new office, it’s nice to hear, “Wow, this is something that can really make a difference from a service perspective as we go out into the marketplace.” I’m really encouraged by that.
“Customer experience” is a real-life differentiation platform for contractors. Too often, it is used as a buzz phrase to sell a project with little of the construction process changing as a result. Just talking about customer satisfaction is not good enough; you have to demonstrate client service at every step of the process, by every one of your people. Client service has to be much more than a marketing slogan to make an impact. Balfour Beatty is changing the landscape of client satisfaction in the construction industry. And its clients are taking note.
Clients have unprecedented levels of choices of good contractors to select. Use these three steps to get you selected for the project rather than quickly tossed on the “no” pile:
Step One: Engage your clients. Ask them what you need to do to stand out and be different. Clients are the best source of information on how you are performing now and how to set your company apart on client service.
Step Two: Define your vision:
- What is your philosophy of client service?
- How do you create a culture that consistently delivers client satisfaction?
- What knowledge, skills and abilities do your people need to be able to deliver the promise?
- How should you be measuring the progress made in satisfyi ng clients?
Step Three: Delight your people. Happy employees = happy clients. Give them the tools, training and resources they need to do a great job. Create processes to ensure that client service is delivered consistently. Reward and recognize them for their efforts.
Applying these three steps together will build a framework of client service that will have your clients coming back project after project. Equally important, you will be creating and retaining your top talent, which will pay dividends for years to come.
Cynthia Paul is a directing manager at FMI Corporation. She may be reached at 303.398.7206 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.