I have been physically out of pocket at the office for several months as I have been running in/out of meetings all over Northwest Indiana with our partners and clients. The benefit is the growth we have experienced is great as we are able to grow and employ more awesome people. But that growth comes at a price and today I want to write about what has happened and some hard decisions that I, as the owner and the person ultimately responsible, am making to "fix" the problem. Now I say "fix" as I don't know if these will truly fix the problem. I know they won't hurt things but as an agile company we have to change and adapt, do so quickly, efficiently, and constantly evolve.
The first place to cover is over the past month where have we failed our clients and what we are doing to fix it. For any business owner this is not an easy topic to talk about, often isn't talked about, and is something usually kept behind closed doors. I believe in not only transparency but also helping others so that they don't hit the same struggles we've hit. I am going to break these failures into four core failures which come down to areas that I am ultimately responsible for. We have a great logging system (called Tasks) that allow me to see at a glance what is being worked on, what has been completed, and how long items are "in the queue". This works well but there are obvious holes that need to be covered.
Failure 1 – Following through
In all the situations in the past months we have tasks that show we sent correspondence of status, where we are, asking questions, etc. This is great that the team is contacting clients, they are logging that they are doing so, and then comes the failure part.
The failure part here is that we are sending the status, information, and even asking questions for additional information. I am seeing that weeks are going by and the client is not responding and we keep sending emails. Email to me is very impersonal. I like it for its efficiency but sometimes it's the worst medium to communicate. This isn't the clients issue but rather ours. We need to step up, pick up the phone, and reach out to them as email gets lost, hits junk email, and our clients lives are busy and why they are looking to us to help them grow after all that is our job for them.
Failure 2 – Breaking "the need"
The next area is that meetings are being pushed off in meeting with clients as they want to only meet if I am sitting at the table. Rather than letting customers know that I am not working on their project and sitting down with them is not only more efficient but will keep all the cogs moving efficiently.
With my living on the road for the past several months I am often not in the office and when I am it is for already scheduled meetings. This has only exasperated clients that feel they can only get items done if I am in the meeting. This tells me that from a client's perspective that things aren't happening as they feel that having the owner is the only way things will get done.
Failure 3 – Asking for help / Documenting
The team is highly efficient in that if they don't know something they will look for the answer on their own. They are self-thinkers, independent, and very good at finding the answer. This research time though does mean a considerable amount of time is being done researching rather than moving a project forward. I see this more on the Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress projects as when we integrate different third-party modules they are all configured and work differently.
Often, when I have been in the office I am hit up, we draw up information on the whiteboard and discuss. Often, by the end of the conversation where we thought we needed a brand-new module to do something we see that there is already a module that does what is needed but does so more efficiently and effectively than we were thinking.
Failure 4 – Setting proper expectations
Often when two people email, talk on the phone, or talk in person there is a miscommunication on what is being asked for. This normally is not intentionally by anyone but missing the expectations of the client is a way projects can go south. Everything needs to be clearly explained and understood. This miscommunication and clarity is the true game changer of success and failure within any project.
Time for the fix
The fix is going to be many folds over the course of many months. I know I can't just stop being out of the office as my meetings are many weeks, and many months out. In fact, I have meetings scheduled already over five months out and I don't see that changing. This means I need tools to more effectively manage digitally but also ways to help the team when I am not there as I am out of the office more than I am in the office.
When I see myself getting behind I often leave the office as when someone walks in and asks for me I am pulled into a half-hour or more conversation that requires me to be behind. This further slows down the team as my tasks are the core items that the team needs to be efficient and stay on-task.
Fix 1 – Setting and Getting Client Expectations
The first step will be establishing a new document that we are calling "Client Expectations". This is where it all begins. Clients need to know what they signed up for. Often, a sales person will make a sale and may have forgotten to relay a key piece of information from the client. This client expectations sheet is the first thing that happens and will happen within the first two business days of any client signing up. This will allow the client to know:
- Who their primary and secondary contact is.
- What services they are getting.
- Set objectives and goals.
- Define success and failure.
- Set timelines for certain tasks.
- Set the primary communication methods (and frequency) the client wants.
- Cover anything and everything else the client or the team the client will be working with feel is appropriate.
- Letting clients clearly know that I do not have to sit in meetings and that by waiting until for my schedule to open will actually slow things down as it is the team that is doing the majority of all work.
This onboarding conversation will then be signed off that we met, went over, and we're in agreement. This puts the responsibility of communication on everyone and makes certain that things happen at a pace the client wants.
With all communication there if it fails at the preferred method of communication that doesn't mean that we say "oh well" but that we move to the second one at a very quick pace. If we are waiting for information from a client we don't just say "oh well they must be busy" but rather we seek out other forms to get that information whether from the client or their alternative person so that we can keep everything on track.
We aren't stopping with just new clients either. We are going to fill out these sheets for every existing client over the next several weeks and making certain that expectations are being clearly met, understood, and we are taking care of all of their needs.
Fix 2 – Project Manager
The next step is adding a new person with the responsibility to cover everything within this article and everything we learn to improve efficiencies going forward. This person will be ultimately responsible for making certain we are always providing a superior customer service experience to our clients and will be what their success will be based on. They will have the responsibility to make certain all projects are completed on-time, they will do quality verification checks, that communication flows efficiently between the developers, designers, photographers, videographers, writers, and support team. That those that just walk into the office don't pull the team from doing the work they are doing.
This "Project Manager" role is important in seeing that tasks are getting done by everyone (including myself), that the team is getting the answers they need from the client, as well as any internal team member. They will be making certain that we don't have any walls being built. Internal walls can be as simple as (1) I have a deadline so I can't help, (2) I'll get to that next week, and (3) just Google it. Those aren't any words I have ever heard (when I have been in the office) but thinking as I write this that these can be hurdles to getting things done.
Fix 3 – Information Board
The third step is the creation of a new information board that everyone can see what is being worked on. This information board the team will see as they walk in every day so that if someone knows they have a lighter load and a project is getting close to the complete date and isn't as far as it should the team can help the team member out. Digital is truly what we are and we have this already within the system but sometimes analog systems can help solve problems that a digital system isn't working as well as it should.
Fix 4 – Team Scheduling
Scheduling team meetings weekly with every department for all open projects. Right now, I've set aside a one-hour meeting to go over any questions the team has but now we're going to change the structure to cover all open projects in addition to everything else. This way I am more aware of where projects are and can help more.
Fix 5 – More Time
Keeping a large portion of my time to sit and work directly with those that are in need of help so that they can stay on track, on task, and on schedule to meet the client expectations. We will also dictate that I don't sit in meetings so that clients never think items cannot happen without myself in them. If during the meeting there are questions, the team will then meet with me (see fix #4 above) and then immediately get back with the client via the method they chose (email, phone, or in-person).
Growth for a company is a positive and something for any company to celebrate. There will always be set backs, and for us, this is truly the biggest one we have ever experienced as a company. We lost a great customer that I truly believed in due to the above. I could dwell, cry, get mad, or many other emotions which I have felt since learning about what transpired on this past Friday. Instead, I need to accept where I, not the team, failed to the client's expectations, acknowledge the failure that I created with my team, and come up with a plan to fix it so that it doesn't happen again.
I am proud of the work the team did as they put in over 300 hours into the project, the project went live, their stats and their bounce rate dropped within the two weeks they were live, but ultimately, I failed as the customer wasn't happy. I feel personally saddened that they decided to leave as looking at what the team did would've exceeded what they wanted to achieve but I also respect their reason that they felt we didn't provide the customer experience they expected after we went live with their solution.
The saying of "the buck stops here" is something that people often say but don't follow through and do. I will not let this step back set us back. I am using this as a very positive learning event, making the differences, that will make us as a better company.
For our one client we lost I cannot apologize enough and know to them all these changes don't matter to them. I will not make any excuses for what the team did as everything comes back to me. I know our team is truly the best that exists and know this with all of my heart. We will improve, we will improve fast, and the mistake that we created will not happen again. This doesn't mean we will be perfect going forward but we will do our best to reach perfection as that is what we do.