It’s nice to talk about service, but what are you doing about it?

December 09, 2012 |
Rob Cassidy

Who’s the most important person in your firm? The biggest stockholder? The tree-shaker who brings in the biggest contracts? The top designer, engineer, or construction professional? Answer: None of the above. The most important person in your firm isn’t in your firm. It’s your client.

How well does your firm treat its clients? How do you measure client satisfaction? How often do you assess it? The management consulting firm Morrissey Goodale ( has been asking clients of architecture and engineering firms questions like these every two years since 2008.

The 2102 Morrissey Goodale A/E Industry Customer Service Report Card offers this stern warning: “Firms that sit idly by without reassessing the way they do business will likely face declining revenue and backlog, eroding profits, and potentially, the loss of their businesses.”

According to the report, A/E firms actually are doing quite well on client service. (The report did not study construction companies, but its findings should be of value to contractors.) Sixty-two percent of client/owners rated their overall satisfaction with A/E industry customer services as “excellent,” up from 56% in 2010 and way, way up from an abysmal 16% in 2008.

A couple of key findings:

  • The most important aspects of customer service to clients: communications (43%), adherence to schedules (40%), and budgets (40%).
  • Client/owners rated A/E firms highest for “integrity” (93 out of 100) and the quality of project managers (89). The lowest mark was given for “budgetary capabilities” (85).

With regard to “integrity,” the Morrissey Goodale study advises firms not to overpromise; to stay on top of change orders, project budgets, and schedules; to eliminate surprises by “communicating frequently and honestly” with clients; and to manage client expectations from the outset by “telling them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear” (emphasis added).

Give your project managers sufficient training and administrative and technical support, say Morrissey Goodale. One reason respondents may have given such high marks to project managers is that they were seeing more experienced, capable professionals due to layoffs at A/E firms. They caution firms that are currently hiring to be careful about thrusting inexperienced, junior-level staff into project manager roles too quickly.

Several “takeaways” reinforce points we’ve been writing about in these pages. Morrissey Goodale advise A/E firms to “stay on top of owners’ industries.” In other words, get to know your clients’ businesses. As the report notes, “Owners repeatedly emphasized they are looking for A/E firms to understand the challenges they face and the trends that are driving their industries.” They note that firms that are organized around market sectors have an advantage here.

The report recommends being mindful of the needs of all your clients, including end-users—office tenants, shoppers, hospital patients, school children—as well as the facilities staff.

“Go beyond design” is another thoughtful recommendation. Help your clients find the money to build the great structures they want. Discover clients’ “pain points,” they counsel, and find the salve to soothe them.

Finally, some sage advice that applies to every business, not just AEC firms: “Never take clients for granted, particularly long-term clients,” Morrissey Goodale advise. “Provide high-quality service on each and every job, no matter the size”—wise words, but too often ignored in the helter-skelter of day-to-day operations. +

Rob Cassidy | BD+C Editors

Robert Cassidy is Executive Editor of Building Design+Construction. A city planner, he is the author of several books, including “Livable Cities,” and was a co-founder of the Friends of the Chicago River.

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