What do winning A/E/C firms have in common? Strong, differentiated brands; loyal, raving clients; and a culture driven by engaged, client-centric employees. The secret to success lies at the intersection of client experience (CX), employee experience (EX), and brand experience (BX).
As CX, EX and brand converge, alignment of the three is essential to fulfilling the mission of each and ultimately creating sustainable competitive advantage for your firm. These three seemingly separate functions work together to authentically communicate and deliver on your firm’s brand promise.
A brand is much more than a logo, color palette, set of fonts and photography styles (although visual identity does play a huge role in branding). At its core, a brand is a position that exists in the mind of your audience—the collected sum of their thoughts, feelings and experiences with your firm. Every brand, regardless of the industry, promises something to consumers. Marketing and branding should reinforce what your existing clients experience when they work with your firm and offer a pledge of what potential clients can expect.
Branding is the process of defining, conveying and maintaining your firm’s core values and differentiators. It’s about figuring out who you are, what you stand for, why it matters to your audience and then reinforcing that promise in a meaningful and consistent way.
This is where the rubber meets the road. Your firm’s brand promise—however modest or audacious it may be—is only realized through the experience you serve up to your clients. No amount of marketing and communication, regardless of how clever or creative, can change the realities of what clients actually experience. This is why it’s so critical for brand experience and client experience to be fully aligned.
Everyone can think of a brand whose marketing makes lofty promises that are completely detached from the reality of what customers actually encounter. In fact, Gallup surveys have consistently found that most companies fail to live up to their brand promises. Experience is where the authenticity of your branding is either validated or discredited.
In professional services, it’s a firm’s employees that are largely responsible for delivering the client experience. While the outcome may be architectural drawings, engineering plans or a newly constructed building, the client journey is ultimately a series of personal interactions, face-to-face meetings, phone calls, emails and other communicative touch points that combine to create the experience. Sometimes a firm can deliver an unbelievable project that meets all the stated goals of the client and yet fail to exceed their expectations due to things like communications or responsiveness.
Here’s the catch—client-centricity can’t just be an aspiration! It’s not something you can merely pay lip service to, put on your website or hang on your walls. While most firms may claim to be client-centric, unfortunately research shows otherwise. Delivering a remarkable client experience is only possible when a firm has a culture that empowers its staff to deliver that experience. And it requires a great deal of intentionality to painstakingly build a client-first mentality into the fabric of the firm’s culture.
The truth is, most (if not all) of what many A/E/C firms tout as differentiators have become table stakes for today’s buyers. Things such as “on-time and on-budget” and “innovative solutions” are simply what clients have come to expect from every firm in the industry. And the industry’s focus on people, service offerings, and market expertise as points of differentiation are at best short-lived. Any one of a firm’s competitors can easily neutralize them by hiring away a key expert, purchasing a new piece of software or adding another specialty to their list of services and markets. Sustained competitive advantage exists only when it can’t be easily and quickly imitated by the competition.
In today’s marketplace, the expectation for what an A/E/C partner should provide a client is rapidly expanding outside of services, plans and the traditional deliverable. Today’s buyers are looking for solutions to their business problems from collaborative advisors, and they’ve come to expect a higher level of service and detail than what was provided in the past. In many ways, this reflects the radical shifts in consumer behavior and expectations for today’s business-to-consumer brands. Don’t forget that while your firm may exist in a business-to-business industry, you work with people who have grown accustomed to the personalization, customer obsession and brand experiences they encounter on a daily basis with companies like Amazon.
While quality and price will always play a role, buyers are increasingly looking for A/E/C partners who will provide them with an exceptional experience, from all phases of the relationship. Forward-thinking firms are realizing that providing an unrivaled, exceptional client experience across the entire client journey is the answer to creating genuine differentiation and sustained competitive advantage, while avoiding commoditization. By focusing on the client’s needs and building a strategy and culture that seeks to consistently elevate the client experience, firms can distinguish themselves from everyone else.
Ultimately, CX begins with a firm’s vision and a firm-wide, shared aspiration to delight clients. This has to emanate from the top and extend throughout the entire organization. Cambell Holt, Chief Customer Officer at Mercer, puts it this way, “Unless leadership has conviction around the primacy of the customer, then there’s very little that others can do to create real change.” You can’t simply resolve to make improvements in client service, as any changes made will eventually devolve over time to reflect a firm’s true beliefs about the client. To excel at CX, you have to put clients at the core of your firm and build a culture around that belief.
But it’s not enough to focus solely on the client experience. Remember, experience is delivered by employees, so ensuring that you have a firm filled with engaged people is paramount. Powerful synergy exists when a firm applies CX principles to its staff—to design and build an exceptional employee experience that drives engagement, retention, purpose and productivity. Let’s be clear that, just as culture is more than having a ping-pong table, EX is more than simply improving morale.
Engaging your employees by also placing emphasis on the employee experience is a win-win for A/E/C firms. Whereas dissatisfied employees won’t provide the level of service required for CX, research shows that engaged employees will go the extra mile to deliver for clients. They have the energy and productivity that enables them to deliver better experiences for clients—all with a passion that rubs off on other employees. And what about winning the talent war? Engaged employees have significantly longer tenures with their firms, thereby reducing turnover and all the challenges that come with it. Simply put, firms that invest in their employees outperform those that do not in all categories.
One of the most important elements of experience to keep in mind is balance. Any policies, processes, or changes made in an effort to improve CX must also be considered within the context of how it will impact EX. Client experience can’t be to the detriment of the overall employee experience or both will eventually suffer. All firm-wide decisions should be considered through the lens of what matters for both clients and employees and how the culture will be impacted.
Zappos founder Tony Hsieh has said that “culture and brand are just two sides of the same coin.” Culture is instrumental because it either facilitates or inhibits the mission. A firm must establish and commit to distinct brand values, and leadership must ensure that employees at all levels (and in every department) understand the firm’s purpose and can connect it with their individual work. Firms that have a compelling, client-centric brand promise and a desire to deliver on it will have to get intentional about building a purpose-driven culture. The rewards in terms of differentiation and loyalty make it well worth the effort.
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