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The Second Tool: The Conditions of Satisfaction

In three preceding articles I have described the idea behind becoming a very highly valued five-tools project manager, ready to manage each of the five progress factors:

  • Manage the project, starting with the project charter (discussed in the previous article).
  • Manage the client, starting with the Conditions of Satisfaction.
  • Manage time, starting with the Off Switch.
  • Manage money, starting with budgets.
  • Manage the team, starting with assigning tasks accurately.

Let’s look this month at a core tool for managing the client: the Conditions of Satisfaction.

Overview

Client or customer satisfaction, often called repurchase intent, is generally the most important long-term metric in any enterprise. How do you know for sure you’re satisfying the client? More importantly, how can you maximize client satisfaction in advance, before you measure it?

Ask the client.

Actually, it takes a little more than asking. It’s really a negotiation, since you often work from what the client wants (the moon and stars) to what he truly needs (a couple of asteroids). Then, of course, you have to deliver on those agreed needs, but the process starts with a conversation.

Satisfaction requires meeting agreed obligations for five factors:

  1. Deliverables.
  2. Timeline.
  3. Communication.
  4. Cost.
  5. Critical Success Factors.

Deliverables

Deliverables are items – electronic, paper, information – that your team gives to the client or intermediary. They can include actions you must perform, such as appearing at a hearing.

Getting deliverables subtly wrong is a good way to reduce satisfaction – and you may not even realize exactly what the problem is. Therefore, it’s worth discussing deliverables with the client or client representative (or intermediary such as a corporate law department).

The first rule of deliverables is to do what you say you’ll do. You can’t guarantee outcomes, but you can promise to deliver tangible items or oral briefings as agreed. If you promise to brief the client Tuesday morning, you need to be ready Tuesday morning.

At least as important, though, as doing what you say you’re do is to do it the way the client expects it. If the client asks for an oral briefing, don’t deliver a fourteen page memo, however brilliantly argued.

Don’t list more than about three deliverables in drawing up the Conditions of Satisfaction. (Four is okay. Fourteen is not.) Keep the client – and the team – focused on the difference makers.

Timeline

Every commitment to a client, whether casual or explicit, has a timeline. What’s often missed, however, is the fact that people form expectations of delivery even when you don’t give them a date.

If a client (or intermediary) knows about the promise of a deliverable but doesn’t know the date, she’ll form an opinion as to when she expects it. Sometimes that opinion is based on when she needs it, but often it stems from some vague sense that “this is how long it should take.” She conveniently ignores the fact that you have other tasks on your plate, often for that very client.

So when arranging a deliverable – any deliverable, not just one significant enough to be called out in the Conditions of Satisfaction – make sure you also arrange a clear due date.

Ask the client, When do you need this? If that date works for you, great. (Write it down.) If not, negotiate.

Then do it when you say you’ll do it.

Obviously there will be times where you cannot meet a deadline with work of acceptable quality. When that happens, let the client know as soon as possible that you’re going to come up short, along with a revised date. The more often you meet client expectations around deliverables, the timeline, and the other Conditions elements, the more leeway you’ll get when you do need to delay a deliverable.

Communication

Tailor your communication to the client’s style, preferences, and needs.

First, when will you talk with the client? For urgent items, the answer is “now,” or at least “soon.” For Conditions items, however, figure out which of these two groups the client falls into: a) Talk to me on a regular basis, such as every fortnight, or b), tell me when something important happens. If you don’t know the client, ask directly.

Some clients want to talk about everything that happens. Others want to be “kept in the loop” about what progress you’re making on a regular basis. Many would just as soon do their work – and leave you to do yours – unless the situation changes and you have or need additional information.

Finally, some clients want to “talk” or communicate via email. Others prefer phone calls. Some check voicemail, while others ignore it. Learn the client’s preferences, and use them.

Cost

Clients need to understand what their legal projects will cost – at least in rough numbers, even if you’re not doing a fixed-fee arrangement. This rule applies as well for in-house departments that don’t charge back; business units usually have only a fixed pool of legal services they can consume every year, and each project depletes that pool.

Clients need cost information to make the right choices. They may or may not complain to you about an unexpectedly large bill they didn’t see coming, but you can bet they’ll let their peers and managers know. It’s not large costs that kill client satisfaction so much as unexpected costs – or costs at an unexpected time.

“Cost” includes time as well. If project success requires more than nominal time from client-side personnel, let the client know. The Conditions of Satisfaction offers a good entry point into that conversation.

Also, leave yourself room on costs. (Otherwise you’re in effect offering a fixed fee.) There’s a bit of if-this-then-that to the cost discussion, the old “it depends.” It’s fair to tell the client that you don’t know the costs up front, but do work towards a date by which you can tell them.

Regarding change requests, help the client understand that everything has an attendant cost – not just in money, but in time (both total hours and calendar/delivery date) and in what doesn’t get done instead. Give clients a rough idea of the costs of what they’re asking for. I’m not suggesting you nickel and dime them on small items (though small costs do add up), but make sure that they recognize the trade-offs on significant requests. This discussion is doubly important when a client request will increase project scope.

And remember, clients love to hear, “You’ll never be surprised by the bill.” Changes happen. Just don’t spring them on the client without a discussion beforehand.

Critical Success Factors

Critical Success Factors are usually outcomes rather than deliverables. They may include deliverables, but in much legal work outcomes are far more critical to success than deliverables. What must the project accomplish for the client to view it as successful?

As noted above, pick three, not ten or fifteen. Make sure that these items are ones that will actually “move the needle,” make a difference for the client.

They may not all be obvious “big ticket” items, either. A well-known luxury car brand lost sales to its competitors when the engineers refused to mar the beautiful interior lines with cupholders. People walked out on $60,000 cars because they lacked cupholders! The sales pressure got so intense the manufacturer apparently just slammed some in, earning more customer dissatisfaction when spills dripped down into critical electromechanical parts.

Cupholders!

For customers, having a safe place to put their latte became a CSF.

CSFs are the things that matter most to the client, things you need to discover. Some will be large and obvious, but it’s common that at least one of the three will be small or obscure, like the cupholders. Sometimes, forcing the list down toward three items will bring the real agenda, the real needs to the fore. Often, though, you need to ask explicitly.

(This article is adapted from Steven B. Levy’s new book: Legal Project Management Field Guide: Five Tools for Busy Professionals. The book covers the elements of the Conditions of Satisfaction – and the other tools – in greater detail.)

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