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FMI Quarterly/September 2013/September 1, 2013

Ten Commandments of Superior Customer Service

businesscharacters53_interview_imageWhy should you care about customer service? Beyond the obvious benefit of making your life easier, it likely will result in more repeat business with your customers and enhance your career development. In addition, providing superior customer service might make you more productive, both on and off the job. While you may believe that you thrive on stress and have the right job to prove it, the intangible effects of stress on your life and health may be having considerable negative impacts, even outside of the workplace.

Here are a few ideas to help you think about how you interact with your customers and others on the project, daily.

Win the war, not the battle.
Look for long-term solutions to short-term conflicts and disagreements. You know how satisfying it is to win an argument with other people on the job site. They have been on your backside since the start of the project, and you finally have the upper hand on this issue. While it is not a big deal, it gives you a chance to put them in their place and show that when you are on the job site, you are in charge. It feels so good! But what about the long-term consequences of those 10 seconds of enjoyment?

Take a few minutes to think about whether it is really worth it to rub someone’s nose in the fact that he or she is wrong on any issue. Think about whom you have just beaten. If it is the customer representative, then he or she has the ultimate upper hand. After all, the rep controls the purse strings and you will ultimately have to look to him or her to get paid. He or she might not sabotage the project overtly, but may choose to lose your invoice for a month or two. That could disrupt your cash flow and make it difficult to explain to your boss on why your job is in the red.

You might think you can beat up on subcontractors or suppliers since they technically work for you. However, think about all of the ways they can hinder the progress on the project. Maybe not with a flagrant work stoppage, but by shifting their resources to another job or just not being as proactive in making your material deliveries show up on time when you need them to keep the job moving. Being a poor winner yields hidden costs that are driven higher by vindictive losers.

Educate the customer.
Is the customer always right? Maybe not, but he or she is always the customer. We have an obligation to help the customer understand the long-term impact of requests that might seem trivial, but will result in larger schedule and coordination problems. In fact, is that not why they hired you in the first place? So that you can use your superior know-how in completing the project on time and under budget? If customers knew all of the answers to those everyday construction problems, then they would not need you, would they? If you are constantly seeking ways to keep your customers informed, maybe they will not look for problems that really do not exist.

Deliver bad news early.
Even though it might be difficult to confront a problem today, sweeping it under the rug will not make it go away … and it will get worse! We always seem to perceive that we can fix a problem tomorrow that happens to crop up today. Most owners will develop more respect for you if you are proactive and identify an unforeseen challenge on the project before they hear about it through the job-site rumor mill … and they will hear about it! But do not just send an email that the curtain wall panels will not fit the opening. Do your homework to develop alternative solutions and then make an appointment and meet with the owner representative face to face. You will be more effective in your presentation of the issues and will be able to read his or her response more accurately.

Be assertive … but at the right time.
It is not necessary to be aggressive all the time, but it is important to do your homework and take a stand to establish that you are knowledgeable and representing the client’s best interests. Starting the project on day one by building a professional relationship with the customer will pay off with long-term dividends when inevitable conflicts arise on the jobsite. This is especially important when you are managing relationships with other project team members, such as architects, subcontractors and suppliers. Maintaining a positive working environment will keep the project flowing and avoid delays that will derail the ultimate completion on schedule. One day you might need a favor from a key subcontractor when you experience a disruption in the late stages of the project. Being assertive calmly and without anger is a skill worth developing.

Create a sense of urgency among all of the project team members from the start of the job.
It is too late to rally the troops, build consensus and solve the problem if you do none of this until a crisis erupts. Engage your project team partners even before mobilization to ensure that everyone on the site is thinking about the next phase of the schedule. Anticipate obstacles that can hinder progress on the job and seek potential solutions from all of your partners, even those who may not seem to be involved at this stage of the project. You may be surprised at how creative construction people can be at all levels, from field operations to the estimating and engineering functions. They are inherent problem-solvers and, given the opportunity, might just give you a clever option to keep things on track to make the schedule. Most people love to share their ideas and their knowledge; give them plenty of opportunity.

Be firm, but fair.
Operate in an open, consistent environment. Make decisions from an informed position and stick to them. Our industry has developed a reputation as unethical and unreliable, if not downright dishonest and criminal. Do not perpetuate this image by changing your position with other team members just because it is more convenient for you at the time. Make a decision and stick with it, even if you have to weather some pain in the short term. That is not to say that you cannot change your mind if you learn new information or if conditions change that invalidate your original assumptions. Be flexible when it makes sense and it is the right thing to do.

Take responsibility for minimizing the overall risk to the project.
Even though the specifications might prove you were “right” about a mistake, the negative impact on the success of the project will inflict a cost on everyone. For example, you know about a glitch in the drawings that will inevitably trip up the architect and/or one of the subcontractors on the project. However, you just wait until you can spring it on them to make them look bad. It is not to your advantage to look better by comparison. Do not be tempted by this grade school stunt. It will ultimately make everyone look bad when the total project team performance suffers, and it will usually give you an enemy for life. None of us needs more enemies.

Be a project leader, not a project witness.
Be proactive in leading the resources on the job. Communicate regularly with the customer, subcontractors, vendors and others who can affect the progress of the project, either positively or negatively. For example, keeping government inspectors informed of the next phase of the project might help you avoid a delay in getting that phase approved so you can maintain the momentum of the project team. This is especially important in difficult economic times when agencies are short of qualified technical experts who either can make the decision to approve your work or stop you dead in your tracks.

Treat others with respect.
Ask people to help you develop solutions to common problems so they have a stake in creating an equitable outcome. You are constantly negotiating resolutions to everyday problems, large and small, that could potentially disrupt the flow of the job. People tend to respond more positively to those who present a professional demeanor and elicit respect from others. Perpetuating the traditional adversarial climate of the construction industry will not get you very far in achieving your career aspirations.

Take the long view.
This is the Tenth Commandment for achieving superior customer service. In developing a successful career in the rough and tumble world of the construction industry, you will be hard-pressed to do that alone. Think about all of the issues and problems that you must resolve on a daily basis and determine which of them directly affect your ultimate goal: getting the project done so you can satisfy the customer. Maybe the short-term need is to get paid for the work that you are doing on this contract, but your career focus is more long-term. You want to be better-positioned to get not only that next job with this particular client but also to get years of positive referrals from the customer in hand.

There is little downside in taking the high road and demonstrating to others that you will not participate in games that divert energy from supporting the overall goals of getting the project done.


Ken Wilson is a director at FMI Corporation. He can be reached at 919.785.9238 or via email at kwilson@fminet.com.

 

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