At the start of my customer-facing career I suffered from an eagerness to please and an avoidance of disappointing clients that today I still see repeated across all industries. Some would argue this is the very definition of customer service: a nod, an affirmative “Yes Sir”, and then resolving well out of earshot any challenges in achieving what the client has requested. In the service industries, unless the client is asking Burger King to produce a Big Mac the client’s requirement is typically of sufficient simplicity to fulfill that a universal “Yes Sir” probably is the correct resolution method. However, this cannot apply to B2B trading, especially involving complex projects.
Any supplier, no matter what their industry, naturally wants their clients to perceive a near utopian image of a synchronized, flawless machine that can meet their needs. Such surreal perceptions are of course inherently flawed and, despite the best efforts of brand marketing teams, even the biggest company’s image bubble can burst overnight following revelations of unsavoury operational practices – think big clothing brands and the child labour scandals of the 1990s. The problem with a culture of cover-ups is one day it will come crashing down, always.
The more new challenges to overcome in fulfilling a requirement, the greater opportunity for mistakes; given the nature of product development, particularly in our own industry where we daily push the boundaries of computing technology, herein exists the perfect example of why such a cover-up culture is suicide for any project-based and/or product development operation. Design consultancies exhaustively train, have vast experience and expertise, and increasingly are speculatively “pre-designing” functional building blocks to reduce the number of challenges and thus risk – however, design remits vary wildly, thus it’s nigh on impossible that any two design processes will be sufficiently similar to reduce risk on their own.
Pre-investigative effort, typically as part of the quotation phase, identifies what those challenges are, but unless the pre-design becomes the complete design, a plethora of design decisions remain to be made as part of the design process. It’s during the normal design phase I feel you start to understand a design consultancy’s cultural attitudes – well past the nicey-nicey phase of them selling their service. It’s now that you’re committed when things naturally will go wrong; they may be minor or they may be major, but if absolutely nothing appears to falter are things genuinely perfect or are you being hoodwinked?
One could argue that as long as the requirement is delivered in full and on time, what happens in between that, internal to the supplier, is of no relevance. However, the reality is that within any culture of cover up, life is great until that devastating revelation at the very last second when it’s become impossible to cover it up any longer, potentially leaving you with no product, a delayed project, and a horde of angry clients – particularly angry as only yesterday you’d guaranteed them all was proceeding perfectly.
A man I respect once told me he always wants “something” to “go wrong” in any relationship, as it’s when an individual or company is under pressure and has an issue to resolve that their true colours, behind the façade of sales and marketing spiel, is revealed.
I’m not proposing we all become overtly suspicious of any of life’s activities that proceed without hitch, interrogating any purveyor until they collapse and concede, “Yes, we did fail to align your burger and bun perfectly, please forgive us”. At the other end, the supplier itself is often equally keen for something (small) to go awry, for the same reason – to prove their expertise and credibility in how they resolve it. “Transparency” is a term that is bandied around wildly these days, though I find that transparency generally only extends to positive news – individuals and companies naturally find it much more difficult to be transparent when the news is negative.
Clients demand transparency, thus the need exists to formalise achieving this and not leave it up to an individual’s whims depending on their perception of the client’s likely reaction. An increasingly popular way to achieve this is via comprehensive post-project reviews. I’ve seen subcontractors be extremely dismissive of such a document; when the project was delivered as intended they don’t want to volunteer the difficulties they had faced, and when the project wasn’t delivered as intended they want to mask the root cause of those failings into something more politically palatable for their client. This is an organisation cultural issue that is really hard to change.
More enlightened organisations recognise that the world is not perfect, estimates can never be completely accurate, and mistakes always happen – whether they’re a day’s slippage or an untenable development route identified months into the project. I genuinely believe that whilst anyone outsourcing any task wants their requirements definition met, what they value far more is honesty and integrity. Theoretically, any company adhering to a certified quality system, such as ISO 9001, should be identifying occurred issues at the time of incident and follow through their continual improvement program with preventative actions. A post-project review is simply gathering this information relevant to a specific project and involving the customer in its analysis. For those new to this process you’ll be staggered by how much you learn from such an exercise internally, let alone once you involve your client.
We’re taught as children to always tell the truth; the sad fact in business is some shamefully still revert to “everything’s fine” denial, but putting a post-project review system in place can get businesses back to telling the truth.