Saturday, 2 February 2013

Service providers should understand client requirements, right?

I take great care in providing services to clients and do my best to serve them according to their needs.  I have a hierarchy I always try to follow when serving clients:
  • Client first
  • My company second
  • Me third
I remember winning a very large consulting / project management engagement a little while ago.  While we put in a lot of preparation, careful thought as to clients needs, and effort, I was surprised that my presentation to the CEO only took twelve minutes and consisted of him asking and me answering about six questions at which point he told me we had won and to finalize contracts.  About a month after starting the engagement and in my first 1-1 status review with him, he mentioned how easy it was for him to select me and my firm.  He was the first one who told me of the hierarchy mentioned above and that I followed it while my competitor (and the Partner at the other firm) was clearly thinking in the reverse order.  I was really impressed that the CEO picked up on that and am thankful for him being able to articulate that to me.  It was a great lesson learned.

A friend of mine is drinking a 2003 Kilikanoon Oracle Shiraz today and it reminded me of  a time when a  service provider did not put in even the minimal effort to determine their clients needs and they became a laughing stock.  More importantly, they precluded themselves from doing business with a number of important executives who would be using similar services repeatedly in the future.  I expect they are no longer in business today, but would not know as I have never reached out to engage them again!

I was working for SAP, one of the worlds most renown IT companies, and the time was 2007.  SIBOS, the worlds largest Banking Payment conference was being held in Sydney that year.  SAP was a major sponsor for the event, and we spent a great deal of money, promoting our products, creating thought leadership, and spending time with analysts, the press and our customers, along with a budget for client entertainment.

We had organized an evening boat trip on the Sydney Harbor which is always a great time, and we were fortunate that evening to be blessed with great weather, especially since it was early September.  We invited 100 guests, had a band and speakers, a great buffet dinner, and also organized a wine tasting where the price per head for the tasting had been settled on, and the rest left to the wine tasting company to arrange.  Unfortunately, I was not involved in that particular aspect of it as I had much other client facing and public relations activity I needed to be involved in.  More unfortunately, our event coordinator also was not aware or involved and left everything on trust to the service provider to take care of the details.

The wine tasting company made a big deal about keeping secret what wines we would be tasting that evening which built anticipation, but was unfortunate in that they made two very large gaffes.  They made a big deal about us comparing two superb and iconic Australian wines.  We had an international audience that evening, so that seemed to be a good start to the tasting and would be a treat for the participants, especially my colleagues from overseas.

The first gaffe was to select the just released vintage of the Penfolds Grange which was only five years old when released.  I cannot possibly phantom why anyone in the wine business would consider doing something so stupid.  20 year-old Grange would not have cost any more than the current release and would have been much more drinkable.  An extremely young Grange is just not pleasant to drink!  A great deal of money was wasted on this and the results were very disappointing.  Many of our clients and partners were dismayed and in shock.

But then the gaffe of the evening occurred when they presented the second wine to sample.  It was the Oracle shiraz!  People starting laughing.  Oracle is SAP's largest and most demonized competitor!  To serve and promote the 'goodness' of Oracle at an SAP event is beyond stupid.  It was careless and representative of a firm which does not think about their customer's needs or requirements.

While the evening overall was a great success, the wine tasting was a debacle with the criticism being leveled at the wine tasting company and their attendees throughout the remainder of the evening (and unfortunately they had to put up with at as they could escape the boat until we docked!).  Service providers really do need to think about their client's requirements and put them first.  I expect this wine tasting company did not do much thinking at all and felt they had a formula that would work with anyone by just using iconic brands.

Fortunately I was able to recover nicely later in the week.  I had arranged a bus, a wine tasting expert (who I knew personally and worked with to prepare for the trip) and we had 20 of the same group of us go to the Hunter Valley the Saturday just after SIBOS finished.  We got to sample older vintages of the Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz, visited six of the Hunter's best wineries through the day and had lunch at an estate overseeing kangaroos hopping around.  Most people who made that trip said it was the highlight of the week and their trip to Australia.

I spent only a quarter of the amount of funds for the day in The Hunter Valley that we spent for the wine tasting on the boat and it was a far greater success.  We had the CEO of Swift, the CEO of Postbank Systems, and many other executives where we forged a real bond and lasting relationships that day.  We associated SAP as a successful company with very successful wineries.  We had the wine makers talk to us directly and be available to answer questions.  We put a little time into thinking about what our clients and partners wanted and delivered that with little effort, yet great results.

I am a service provider and as such, I also value other service providers and am willing to engage them to help me.  However, I do expect them to understand my requirements and needs and then adequately respond to them.  If they don't, they will never be given the opportunity to be considered to serve me again.  I try to keep that in mind when I am asked to serve others.

Early in my career (and while still living in the US), I had to get out a proposal for the United States Postal System (USPS).  We had to deliver it the following day.  I had enough sense to use the the USPS Express Mail system with guaranteed overnight delivery to deliver the proposal.  My competitor used Federal Express.  Can you guess who won the business?  I hope my proposal was better value, but I will never know and it never made the difference anyway.  I was smart enough to not use my client's competitor to deliver the proposal!  (BTW, in that situation now, I would have both sent the proposal USPS Express Mail and have spent a couple hundred dollars to hop on a plane and hand deliver it.  Half a day in travel and $200 in expenses is a good insurance policy when going after $300,000 of work, especially when we are looking at that amount in 1980!)

Always think of the client first and understand their requirements.  You will have a lot more and a lot happier customers!

Steve Shipley
Twitter: @shipleyaust
My wine blog:  SAZ in the Cellar

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