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  • Chance Staley, EIT

Relationships 101

Let’s start a little bluntly: RELATIONSHIPS MATTER.

Why do they matter? We are in a risky business. Relationships are the keystone, not just to any civil engineering firm, but to any business. They are difficult, confusing, and stressful. Keeping the flame lit can be a challenge. But without them, a company can find itself without clients, quality staff, or critical resources. Often, those small personal touches like asking a client about their child or spouse, or even just remembering a client’s favorite drink for when they stop by the office can go a long way. These small gestures lead to positive experiences working together and require almost not effort, just intentionality. it does not matter how big or small the person is in your company’s existence-- if you turn this intentionality into a habit, it will surely pay dividends.

What does that have to do with civil engineering? Everything, because civil engineering is a service profession, and the service is performed for people by people. If you are to succeed at any service profession, you need to get to know your clients and show them that you care. You need to show them that they are important to you.

Any competent competitor can deliver a report, a set of plans and specs, or any other instrument of professional service that is as good as—if not better than—something you prepare. But it takes someone special to ask, "How’s your boy doing?" as a follow-up to a conversation a month ago when the client told you her son got into an accident.

"That’s the marketing people’s job," you might say. Well, to some extent it is. But what’s wrong with that? If you and the client only bond over your deliverables, beware: someone may be "pitching" your client at this very moment, promising to deliver the same or better service and deliver it faster and for less money.

If you have clients begging you to perform services for them, losing some good ones here or there wouldn’t matter much. But if that’s not the case—and you know it isn’t—then losing a good client is a big deal. As a civil engineer, a lot of our clients will not be regular repeat customers, and often, by the time they get to us, these projects are some of the biggest and most expensive tasks they have ever attempted. Our clients can be cultivated from relationships two or three removed from the primary. Don’t worry, it happens to all of us; we are engineers, not relationship experts. But, we must always try our best to keep up with the relationship. But anyway, shouldn’t you care and, more importantly, shouldn’t you let the client and their representatives know you care?

Additionally , having a good relationship with a client will inevitably make you the "go-to" person when an issue requires your expertise. This can often result in a project of some kind, with the "go-to" person being "the person I call when I need a civil engineer." And after that call, you sit down with the client to discuss an appropriate scope and the fee for implementing that scope. No bidding required. No "nickel-and-diming" necessary.

Having such a relationship also helps elevate the quality of communication between you and the client. This helps lower the risks of misunderstanding and unrealistic expectations. It also encourages you to speak directly with the client at the first inkling that something unexpected is unfolding. And should that something unexpected be something you could or should have prevented, you will be able to work it out in a manner that strengthens your relationship. By promptly admitting your fault, doing everything in your power to amend it, we can avoid having to deal with a dispute, dispute resolution, attorney’s fees, lost time, a lost client and, worst of all, a lost relationship.

Having a good relationship with a client means that the client will respond to your queries about the background of others who have asked about your services. You will also be able to say to the client, with all sincerity, "I really love being able to work WITH you. We communicate well. You give us interesting projects, appreciate what we do for you, and pay our bills on time.” These relationships always lead to more relationships when asked if they have other colleagues that might benefit or be interested in your services. Clients are almost always flattered to have been asked. They often want to help, and usually do.

To sum it up, it’s wise to learn about a client and not only show the client how important he or she is to you, but truly be important to you. Why? Because that individual is important to you in terms of client retention, client attraction, and risk management, among dozens of other reasons. Remember, you’re in a risky business. People make it so. Deal well with people and you can deal well with risk.

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