A Guide to Great Professional Services Projects
What does your greatest project look like?
Pause for a moment and think back to the greatest project you ever worked on.
What adjectives come to mind when describing the project? Which come to mind when explaining how you achieved that “greatest project ever” outcome?
Odds are, you’ll use words like collaborative, communication, fun, teamwork, or innovative. Great outcomes require a complex orchestration of internal and external stakeholders coming together, understanding each other, and working jointly towards a common goal. Great teams build their foundation on strong relationships. It’s those relationships that enable the adjectives like fun, teamwork, and innovative to thrive.
Project teams not built on strong relationships miss deadlines, blow budgets, and place blame. You’ve been on more of those projects that you’d like to admit. Aside from the practical concerns of budget, schedule, and risk, projects like that exhaust your energy, rob you of sleep, and keep you from doing the parts of your job you really love.
In 2004, Phillips Architecture (PA), a 30-person architectural firm in Raleigh, NC, set out to explore why some projects thrived while others struggled. PA initially hypothesized improving the creation of perceived value with clients would drive more consistent project outcomes. They began a project-based feedback program to evaluate what each client was thinking at key milestones on their projects. They soon found great projects require “high-frequency, high-fidelity” conversations between all stakeholders – not just with clients – in order to bring about more collaborative, positive outcomes.
PA implemented a near real-time, milestone-driven feedback process engaging their internal project management professionals, their clients, and other key stakeholders (their clients’ clients, sub-consultants, general contractors, and more) They gave all parties the chance to express their sentiments clearly, and initiated conversations when and where needed.
PA’s teams became more collaborative. They found more project success as evidenced by increased profit, fewer risks, and unmatched client loyalty. More than 500 firms have since implemented similar client experience feedback initiatives based on the program PA created.
Why Electronic Client Feedback?
PA needed a repeatable process that provided accountability and enabled action. Electronic feedback processes integrated with their project delivery plan became a critical component of their ongoing program. Phone and in-person conversations continued to be important. However, unlike those analog interactions, electronic feedback let PA scale their listening across an organization efficiently while also providing objectivity, accountability, and metrics not available in any other way.
Electronic feedback shouldn’t be the only method of listening. But, surveys are quick, effective, and provide metrics. For these reasons, PA chose to make electronic surveys the foundation of their voice of the client initiative.
Before you begin, recognize that an effective electronic feedback tool only provides value when paired with a commitment to follow-up to any items raised. The PA team configured alerts on their feedback program so a leader is flagged anytime someone records a low score. The leader then coaches the project manager to understand the client’s specific concern in more detail. The project manager will usually follow that with a meeting or conversation with all impacted project participants to discuss improvement strategies and design a more successful outcome for everyone.
This guide provides a framework for implementing and executing an active, ongoing, project-based electronic feedback process designed to increase the likelihood of a “best project ever” outcome, every time.
Creating a feedback plan requires knowing when to ask. Who should be involved? What to ask. Laying out an implementation strategy. Creating a follow-up plan. And, aggregating results to explore systemic improvements and trends.
When to Ask for Client Feedback
Don’t wait until the project is over. Few opportunities exist to change the outcome at that point. Ask early and often. Consider the critical moments in a project and develop check-in points aligned with those. Projects vary in size and duration, and your plan should be flexible enough to address projects lasting a few weeks and one’s lasting several years. We have found survey response rates remain high (40% plus) when recipients are asked as often as every 6-8 weeks, especially if you communicate the feedback checkpoints to all constituents in advance. Discuss with them how feedback helps improve the project for everyone.
Common measurement points may include:
- Project Kick-off – focus on discovering if the team has successfully identified a successful path toward success. If anyone feels misaligned, the sooner you discover it, the less time you waste going down the wrong path.
- First Deliverable – now that you’ve delivered the first product to the project team, you have a “thing” to evaluate. Assess the process used to generate that deliverable. What worked well? What could be improved?
- 60% Progress – many project teams define deliverables or milestones by percent complete; you may define yours with phrases like “contract documents” or “dried-in.” Whichever major work
breakdown structure works for you, consider developing a set of questions to support evaluating that phase of work.
- 90% Progress – just before the project is over, but not quite done, you have a great opportunity to capture any lingering concerns and still have time to adapt and improve. Think about the last responsible moment you can gather feedback and still have time to react.
- Project Completion – while you cannot change much after the project is over, if you and the team have done a good job sharing feedback and reacting when needed, the Project Completion survey allows the entire team to reflect, pass along kudos for successes, and consider “what’s next.” Don’t underestimate the power of giving people the chance to say, “well done” or “thank you.” Ending the project with captured positive sentiment cements in everyone’s memory the real success achieved by the project team.
Series of Feedback Exchanges
If your project has multiple major components, such as design followed by construction, consider having a series of feedback exchanges during design and another during construction. For example, your 90% Progress for the design team may align with a Project Kick-off for the construction team.
Resist the temptation to make the feedback plan too complicated or nuanced. Focus initially on the simplest plan that works for you.
Later in this guide we have included a survey template for Project Kick-off, one for use anytime during the project (Ongoing Project), and another for completion (Project Close-Out). Start with these and expand as your needs change. The Ongoing Project template may be used multiple times during project execution if needed.
Who Asks, Who Answers?
After identifying when projects hit critical moments worth measuring, consider who to involve in the feedback process. As a service professional, you might group stakeholders into four categories: direct and indirect clients, builders, and consultants.
- Direct Clients – the direct stakeholders responsible for hiring you or your firm. Clients may include multiple touchpoints within the client organization, including those in procurement (who acquired your services), those managing the delivery of your services, and those directly impacted by your services.
- Indirect Clients – are the clients or customers of your client’s organization. These people are critical in the value chain, as your primary objective is usually to help your client create value for his clients. In the case of PA, the direct client is usually a building owner or landlord; and the indirect client is a tenant moving into the owner’s building. If your firm is a consulting engineer, your direct client might be the architect, and your indirect client the hospital that hired them. Consider the total value chain when mapping out indirect clients.
- Builders – if you work primarily in intellectual property (as do engineers, architects, lawyers, graphic designers, etc.), your IP may be used by others working for your client to create something physical (such as a building, or a branded product). Those who must take your intellectual property, consume it, transform it, and from that create something tangible are often the ones with greatest insights into ways you can improve. They also occasionally are sources of conflict in a multi-party agreement with a common
client. Keeping abreast of their sentiments keeps you ahead of any surprises.
- Consultants – the team of professionals you have hired to help you plan, design, and deliver a project. Consultants include architects, engineers, contractors, construction managers, attorneys, designers, marketers, writers, and more. You likely will have direct consultants who may also have their own sub-consultants.
Each of these roles has a potential voice to help improve the delivery of your project.
Beyond understanding who might have feedback to give, you must decide who will be taking primary responsibility for the feedback collected. Typically, the person responsible for acting on feedback collected should be the one asking for the feedback.
Map the Value Chain
One way to plan feedback collection is to map the value chain. When you trace the flow of the value, you trace the feedback flow. A sub-consulting engineer creates value for a prime architect. The prime architect creates value for the procurement group. The procurement group creates value for the operator. And, the operator creates value for the users. Feedback requests usually are sent in the same direction as the value creation (e.g., vendor to client, at each step).
If you are in the middle of the value chain (perhaps you are in the procurement group for an owner agency), you may not be able to depend on your prime consultant asking for your feedback. Therefore, you may consider gathering that feedback yourself and publishing it to them. In this situation, consider a multi-pronged approach to soliciting feedback:
- From your direct client (the people requesting your service) regarding the overall project progress and performance. This reflects on both your internal organization, your consultants, and your management of those consultants. Gather feedback from this group throughout the project.
- From yourself and your internal project team. This self-assessment reflects mostly on the performance of the consultants you’ve hired to help develop and deliver the project. Gather feedback from this group throughout the project and discuss it with your consultants.
- From your consultants. Asking how well you are doing as a client gives your consultants the chance to help you improve. The easier you are to serve, generally the better, faster, and cheaper they can deliver their services. Plus, if you begin sharing the results with them later, demonstrating a willingness to review your role in the project’s success shows you are fully committed to improving, not simply blaming problems on the consultant. The most critical feedback collection occurs toward the beginning of the project.
- From indirect clients. Consider asking for feedback from anyone who helped develop the program during the project development phase. Also, consider asking for feedback from those impacted by the delivered project.
What to Ask
Writing effective questions takes skill and careful thought. If you’d like a complete primer on crafting great questions, request our guide: “Asking Great Questions to Get Great Results.” Here are a few quick tips:
- Focus on the Process. People don’t like being criticized. Most don’t like to be critical. Ask questions about the processes people use, rather than the people themselves. This will provide candid, helpful insights and critiques.
- Keep it simple. No more than 6-8 questions. Fewer than 12 words per question. If you see the word “and” you have two questions. Break them apart. People don’t read carefully. The question is just a prompt to get them thinking – nothing more.
- Don’t ask if you can’t act. Asking for feedback implies a promise to respond. If you can’t change the color of the grass, don’t ask if they like green grass.
- Ask about common themes. Develop a few different sets of questions for the different phases and stakeholders you will survey. Identify 6-8 themes that matter and craft questions for those themes on each template. A question about “budget” would be different when asking a direct client after a kick-off meeting, versus asking a builder at project completion. In both cases, you want to gather insight into the budget theme, but the questions will be asked differently. Suggested themes include helpfulness, responsiveness, quality, accuracy, schedule, budget, and scope.
- Focus on expectations, not satisfaction. You cannot control satisfaction. But, you can manage expectations and guide performance relative to those expectations. Take two minutes to watch the brief overview of question scale methodology here: https://youtu.be/2AwLFHpeCGU
Creating Accountable Feedback Processes
Designing a great program allows you to start gathering insights. To actually start asking for feedback requires an accountable feedback process. Tailor your plan to your specific tools, resources, and people involved.
When you first begin soliciting feedback, some of your staff may be uncertain or anxious. Provide adequate training to communicate your vision for the program. Clearly define the role of each of your staff. Help them realize you are there to support them through the process – especially when any challenging feedback comes in.
Avoid setting any standards for scores. Doing so may lead to gaming of the system, grade inflation, and worse – avoiding feedback from the places it’s most needed. Instead, define clear metrics for participation. Reward and recognize those who most consistently solicit feedback and follow-up to challenging responses.
To help operationalize your program design, identify sources of key project information. Clearly define the process and timeline for sending surveys.
Here is an sample plan:
- Identify a source of active projects and statuses. Perhaps you have an enterprise resource management, project management, or cost accounting system. These often have the “single source of truth” for where the activity is happening. Once a month, create a list of projects from your system. Starting out, focus on your top 10 or top 20 projects for inclusion. Go deeper down the list as your program matures.
- Compare lists. Look at the list of surveys sent in the previous 60 days and compare it with the list of active projects. Any projects already surveyed may be excluded from surveying this month. Flag those that remain for sending.
- Notify the staff members who need to send a survey. If staff have been surveying on their own, celebrate their commitment to listening. Those who haven’t yet followed the process may need a reminder to send. They may also need help. Consider assigning an administrative resource to manage this process. Set up/send surveys on behalf of the project manager or responsible party.
- One week later, confirm surveys have been sent. Make sure the process is working. Drive accountability all the way through execution.
- Two weeks later, track that follow-up actions are captured. Asking for feedback implies a promise to respond. It is important your team follows up. This leads to the next topic, taking action.
Once you’ve asked, you are now responsible for closing the loop on any outstanding issues raised.
Most responses will reveal positive sentiments, and only require a thank you or acknowledgment. Be sure to respond to everyone who completed a survey. This is how they know their voice was heard. The person who sent the feedback request is usually the person the client expects to perform the follow-up action.
When a respondent indicates something does not meet their expectations (about one in eight respondents, on average), invite that person to a real conversation via phone or, better, a meeting. Discuss the situation they raised. Don’t focus on what happened (which can lead to defensiveness). Instead, focus on understanding why the person responded the way they did. Seeking to understand the other person’s “why” demonstrates empathy, and opens the door for real conversation leading to authentic, root-cause solutions.
Some tools may be helpful to make the follow-up process easy and sustainable.
- Alerts. Set up alerts on your system. Unless feedback responses trigger alerts to the right person, at the right time, effective follow-up will be late and unreliable.
- Tracking. To assure respondents’ issues are actually resolved, find a way to flag which responses need follow-up, which have follow-up, and what action items or improvement plans have been developed.
- Reporting. As part of your drive for accountability, you or your leadership team may need reports of common issues, or of outstanding problems left unresolved. Without this information, managing issues to close becomes challenging.
If you find the criticisms coming inbound are focused on internal processes, meet directly with the responding party and discuss.
If you find the criticisms are targeted at an external process (for example, the client lodges a critique with a sub-consultant), meet with the client first to learn more. Once you have gained a better understanding, share the feedback with the sub-consultant. Invite all parties to meet and collaborate on a joint solution.
After developing the solution, document the new process and publish to all parties impacted. Doing so sets new expectations for the team, and shows everyone that you all, together, are able to collaborate and improve.
Asking commits you to following-up. Take action!
A great feedback process creates many incremental improvements and unveils individual successes and challenges. Over time, you will develop a library of common themes, trends, and insights. This data leads to broader organizational opportunities.
Examples of systemic insights include identifying:
- Which staff perform best on certain types of projects or with certain clients.
- Clients that work best with other consultants or stakeholders.
- Consultants best suited for a project requiring exceptional performance in one area (such as budget management).
- Themes that need attention organizationally (such as inconsistent responsiveness).
- Potential areas for risk or failure.
- Most common failures and developing training or processes to avoid.
- Most common positive surprises, and developing training or processes to standardize the discovered excellence.
- Areas of over-delivery that may be dialed back, reducing waste, and saving time
Summary and Next Steps
Implementing a high-quality feedback process doesn’t have to be hard. With careful planning and attending to a few best practices, you can find great success gathering insights and applying them to improve your organization. When all stakeholders have a voice, feel they are heard, collaborate freely, and work together for mutual success, everyone walks away from the project thinking “this was the best project ever!”
- Ask for feedback early and often.
- Involve key stakeholders in the process.
- Design surveys targeted for each phase/relationship.
- Write questions that are simple and concise.
- Measure processes not people.
- Ask about expectations rather than satisfaction.
- Create accountability to ask.
- Enable alerting to act.
- Create accountability to follow-up.
- Practice empathy when solving problems.
- Track your results and tackle systemic issues
If you would like to speak with someone who helps design and implement feedback programs, contact us to learn more, or click the button below to chat with a client experience expert today.