I just finished reading John Bachner’s article "Open Letter from a Client Representative" in the May issue of CE News. It relates a hypothetical letter from a dissatisfied client and provides several points regarding the desired role of the engineer from the client’s point of view. Of course, correspondence from a client like this is rare. Many firms may attempt to gauge their performance with post-project surveys or interviews, but this valuable insight often is foregone in favor of moving on to the next project.
For a client to write such a letter might indeed be a once-in-a-career event. But the hypothetical views in the article provided as much information about the client as they did about the consultant. The letter also implicitly distinguishes between two extremes of potential clients: those who want a low-cost, textbook solution to their "typical" project and those who have a vision for the edge of technological ability and want a consultant who is willing and able to venture into the unknown with them.
These two extremes each have their places, and they are present in virtually every industry. Therefore, the consultant must evaluate what portion of the client continuum is best served by the firm and focus its efforts. This means that with certain exceptions, some business must be passed up in favor of a better combination of budget, schedule, and client expectations.
Consider, for instance, the legal profession, with which engineering often has been compared. There is a range of legal advice that can be sought (and bought) based on the particulars of the legal situation in which one might find oneself. On one end, there are high-priced attorneys that gain new business based on personal reference and acquaintance only. They may focus on a variety of individual needs, but limit the extent of their clientele. As such, they provide a very personal service and build on the relationships that form over a long period of time. Such an attorney would value the type of client that might write the "Dear John" letter in Bachner’s article.
In contrast, there are a number of attorneys who depend on advertising, client turnover, and a higher volume of cases at lower prices. Often, given many derogatory labels, they are the basis for many characterizations of lawyers as unethical and uncaring. Nevertheless, there exists a market for such legal representation, and where there is a demand, a supply will follow. Such a wide variation exists wherever a product or service may be differentiated based on quality.
This is true with the engineering profession as well. The great variety of projects, expertise, corporate culture, and client needs guarantees that every firm will have a range of projects that will be a good fit. Bachner raises a valid point that all firms should strive for being more than a provider of commodity engineering. On the other hand, there always will be clients and consultants that will find each other at the level at which they are most comfortable. Since every firm’s culture and expertise is unique, each must determine the right combination of project attributes that will lead to future success. There rarely is a "one-size-fits-all" answer to the question of which clients to keep.
There has been recent concern that some firms "commoditize" the field of engineering and cater to the lowest common denominator of client, thereby making it more difficult for other professionals to justify higher fees. As Bachner shows, however, there always will be business at the other end of the spectrum, with clients that deeply value a personal relationship and depend upon a consultant for more than a textbook solution. Therefore, the consultant is in a decision-making position about what jobs to accept and what jobs to let go. It is then up to every firm to apply their efforts to those projects that complement their own internal structure and add value to their professional careers as well as to the client’s vision.
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Jason Burke works for Allied Engineering in Bozeman, Mont.