Challenge of delighting clients

Mohammed Dulaimi from the British University in Dubai looks at what construction firms should be doing to become more 'customer-oriented'.

COMMENT, Human Resource

In an interview with one of the founders of Sony Corporation a few years ago, he told of his experience with one of his early inventions. As an engineer, he was quite proud of this ingenious new product - the cassette tape player - expecting it to encourage growth in the corporation. However, he was disappointed to see the sale of his gadget did not exceed sales of other traditional products, such as the rice cooker.

One day he wandered into an antiques shop and browsed through some of the items that have passed their time of glory. One of the displays was a vase, which he described as old and tatty. He was curious when he noticed a man stopping for quite long time to admire this vase and was more surprised to see him pay the full price for it. As an engineer, he felt a flash of insight - that ingenious engineering and technical inventions are of no value if they do not contribute to providing a solution to customers' problems, as well as meeting and exceeding their expectations.

The famous management thinker Peter Drucker explained the purpose of any business venture by stating: "What business thinks it produces is not of first importance - especially not to the future of the business and to its success - what the customer thinks he is buying, what he considers "value", is decisive."

What does any construction firm need to do to continuously develop products and provide services that delight the customer? The answer is to become Customer Oriented (CO). What does CO mean to a construction firm? How is this different from what we are doing now? Do we need to change it?

Before going into what CO is, the term customer should be clarified in the context of CO. The term should be understood in its wider sense to involve all parties and individuals who influence the character, scope and nature of the product or service that the firm needs to provide. On a construction project, the coalition of powerful individuals and groups - the stakeholders - are by definition the customers of that particular project.

I would like to use one particular model for CO, which I have used previously, to explain the above. This model consists of three main components; intelligence generation (IG), dissemination of intelligence (DI), and organisation-wide responsiveness (OR).

IG demands that your firm should develop and acquire knowledge of your client's business environment and the forces that have created the need for this client to initiate a new project. Many contractors and consultants believe that this is out of their scope and it is for the client to worry about. At best, it is a matter left to individual members of staff rather than an organisation-wide exercise. Even when it comes to client briefing many professionals and firms rely on the client for stating what they want rather than what problems and needs they have.

In addition, being customer-oriented would require closer monitoring of competitors, technology, regulations, and legislation, which are likely to not only have an impact on design and construction but also on your client's business needs and preferences.

The great interest in ID in business organisations has grown out of the recognition that the business would not benefit if intelligence and knowledge are not shared. This is even more urgent in project-based businesses, such as construction, where professionals, administrators and senior management will be acquiring intelligence and knowledge through the course of their work and interaction with the business environment. In order for your firm to be able to respond to such intelligence, it is essential to not only disseminate and share knowledge and information organisation-wide, but also to achieve consensus on the interpretation of this intelligence. In many firms the organisation's structure, e.g. being in different departments and in many cases in different companies (at project level), and the fault lines created between different disciplines, create serious barriers to knowledge sharing.

In order for the construction firm to respond effectively to the newly acquired intelligence there is a need to consider whether the organisation needs to subject itself to a strategic change, OR. In this case, the analysis and interpretation of the generated intelligence may present your firm with an opportunity to enhance its competitiveness by embracing radical change in a specific area of its business activity, if not all. The change process will be a source of frustration if senior management is not committed to this change and not willing to commit the necessary resources. Unfortunately, many organisations try to hard sell what they originally have rather than make use of the emerging opportunities.

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