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‘Flogging engineering services has long gone’ says Australia’s most client-focused Engineer

According to Brent Thomas, it’s trust based relationships that matter most in business. And he should know – having just beaten an impressive field of candidates to win the national Client Choice Awards Most-Client Focused Engineer of the Year award for 2016.

“After every meeting, the client needs to leave with a feeling that you are easy to deal with, that you truly have their interests at heart, and you’re providing value out of the interaction,” Brent says. Unfortunately, he sees a lot of people in engineering, and business, that still have a way to go.

“When I get a call from someone who says that we haven’t spoken in a while and it would be great to catch up, my reaction is, why? There is no point. There is no value. A discussion about irrelevant things is a waste of time.”

The key, Brent says, to finding that value lies in truly understanding your client’s industry and business.

Do you know your client’s strategy?

Most consultants like to think that they know their clients really well. What they usually know really well is the client’s project and their own area of technical expertise, but rarely do they understand the bigger picture strategy.

“In the past I have spoken to client team leaders and asked them to identify the clients’ businesses three prime objectives for the next 12 months. Not the project or engineering objectives but the business objectives. The immediate reaction is usually silence and it can take some time for them to realise why this is critical,” Brent says.

But critical it is. According to Brent, if you don’t understand the client’s strategy then you cannot be in their shoes. And only when you know their strategy can you continually scan the environment to order to understand what their real issues and needs are. And this is where the true value in your relationship lies, together with genuinely caring about the client and their business.

It pays to be helpful

Brent told me the story of a key client who issues work off a panel arrangement, but right now their biggest need is not something Brent and the team are on the panel for, or even a service they provide.

“Instead, I’m helping in this by pointing them at people who can help them with the organisational survival need,” he says. “The whole mindset of the organisation and everyone in it needs to be about helping people and not being a service provider.”

This then links to pricing. Brent says that if you charge by the hour then this is how you’ll behave, but if you charge by the value you have added, that is they way you’ll behave.

Don’t become a robot

In a time when more and more companies are focusing on systematizing their business and processes, and how they can increasingly use technology, Brent thinks that we need to be very careful to not become ‘robots’.

“Most people put in multiple systems to measure, control and drive behaviour, which tends to make people behave like robots,,” he says. “Systems (like CRMs) should be an enabler to business and a measure of outcomes – not the driver of behaviour.”

So, what should drive behaviour? According to Brent, a lot of this needs to come from the top – from the leaders of the business – who all need to be actively pointing in the right direction and demonstrating the desired behaviours themselves. This is particularly important when times are tough and the tendency of the business can be to revert to ‘winning at any cost.’

“Any time there is a need to focus on short-term revenue, the messages are mixed. The audio is out of synch with the video,” he says. “Despite all the drive to form trusted, strategic relationships the messages are often about winning whatever revenue we can at whatever cost.”

Instead, he says, we need to say no more regularly to certain bids, certain projects, and certain clients. And we need to stop using excuses, such as the amount of time it takes to build trusted relationships, and a lack of time to do this.

Lack of time is not an excuse

One of the things that frustrates Brent the most about their resistance to having the right way with clients, is the excuse that they lack time.

“As far as I’m concerned, to build a trusted relationship with a client is not about doing anything additional, it’s about a different mindset to have a different type of conversation with your client,’ he says. “If you get the mindset and the conversation right, then it actually takes less time as everyone in our organisation and the client are working together rather than against each other.’

And it’s in this mindset that trust is truly built.

The importance of trust

Time and time again in our interview, Brent referred to the importance of trust and trusted relationships. When he talks about trust, Brent refers to being ‘in partnership together to achieve an outcome’, as opposed to it being a provider and a client with different aims.

“We have their back,” is how how he describes it. “Their interests are my interests.”

He also believes that one of the key tests of whether you have a trusted relationship comes when a problem arises.

“One of the best ways to build trust with a client is when you do have a problem, you are honest, you fix it, you cop it on the chin and you work through the issue with the client.   That can be the point where trust is created.”

Three things you would advise other firms to do?

I asked Brent what advice he would give to other consultants and other firms on the three most important things they could do if they need to break out of a client rut. Here’s what he said:

  1. Work out which clients are your most profitable and why, and figure out how to get closer to them and deliver more value’. It might have nothing to do with what you are ‘selling’.
  2. Develop a list of aspirational clients who fit the mould of the client you want. Start building relationships with them (don’t just chase not impending projects).
  3. Invest in smart marketing and not chasing bids. Put out really useful research and data to the market which draws them to you – not traditional brochureware.

And one final piece of advice?

“Never give up, always find a way and most importantly do what is right by people. If you bring all of these things to your client then they will know that you genuinely care about them and their business.’

And when clients genuinely feel that you genuinely care, you won’t need to flog your engineering services in the first place.

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