managing client service in surveying and property partnerships

At a recent workshop for surveyors (“Managing and marketing your surveying practice” I was asked to write a blog about managing client service in surveying and property partnerships. It’s a big topic, but here are the headlines with signposts to further reading. 

Why is managing client service in surveying and property partnerships so important? 

Most property partnerships will pride themselves on providing a quality service and being client focused. Trouble is, clients – especially those who are not technically trained – may have a different view of quality and client focus to the property professionals. 

Property is a people business Perhaps more so than other professions, property is a people business. It is built on relationships with people – who know your business, your portfolio, your aims and your markets. The way you communicate with and work with people is a key part of your service.

Your reputation depends on your service levels Your reputation in the market – amongst clients and other professionals – will be based on your past performance in providing a good service. Years of good work can be undone or ruined with a single service delivery failure. 

Service is a core part of your proposition Like all professionals, there is a tendency to focus on the technical content of the work delivered to clients. Yet often there is little to differentiate your technical excellence from those of your competitors. So the way in which you deliver that technical expertise – the service experience – is what often differentiates your proposition from that of your competitors. And a differentiated service is less likely to experience price pressures.

Clients judge you on your service Whilst clients want competent technical skills, often – as a member of the professional body (RICS) where there are standards – these are assumed. So the way in which you deliver this expertise is how clients decide whether you are good, bad or indifferent. Your bedside manner is the critical issue.

You must meet client expectations Clients will have expectations about how you will deliver your service. This means that you must consistently – across all people and all projects – meet those expectations to avoid disappointment and complaints.

“Client care is the identification, management and control of critical incidents when clients come into contact with the organisation, and form their perceptions of the organisation’s

service quality, expecting their needs to be satisfied”. Another definition, from Preece and Shafieie at Leeds University, says “It involves a complex series of relationships and interpersonal interactions between clients, individual employees and the organisation and must cover every aspect and activity of the organisation’s operations to make it work”.

How do you manage client service in surveying and property businesses?

The way you manage client service will depend to some extent on the nature of your practice. If you manage thousands of small transactions for a hundreds of residential clients, your client care systems will be somewhat different to how you manage client care if you tackle a handful of major projects for a couple of critical commercial clients.

It will also depend on the level of technological automation involved and the nature of your service. Are you acting as a trusted adviser providing a range of advisory services or as a commodity provider for a few distinct products through on-line systems?

Try to break it down. I suggest that you consider your client service in three key areas:

  1. All touchpoints and moments of truth – All interactions between your firm and the market impact perceptions of service. The way that phones are answered, the way you respond to messages, the appearance of your web site, the signs in your car park and the presentation of all communications. There are a myriad of small things that together impact the client service experience.
  2. How surveyors manage client work on a day-to-day basis – Ensure that there are two components to your systems – those that measure the quality of the technical work delivered and those that measure the way in which that technical work is delivered – a host of communication, reporting, pricing, response time and relationship issues. What is your client care policy? Do you have standards regarding client communications? Do surveyors manage client work in a consistent way? Are your staff empowered to adapt to different client needs? Do you have work processes and policies that are understood and followed?
  3. How you treat your largest and most important clients and referrers – All practices will have a handful of critical clients (and referrers) where a large amount of work for them is managed. There may be special terms of reference or service levels agreed for these clients and they must be managed. This may involve dedicated information systems and tailored reports for those key clients on service delivery performance. This may mean you need to tackle client care and service delivery as part of a Key Account Management (KAM) programme (see, for example:

How do you measure client service?

An easy and popular way to measure client satisfaction within the professions is the Net Promoter Score (NPS). For an explanation and example see the material on GVA:

But there are many other ways from simple card or on-line questionnaires to in-depth face-to-face interviews at the end of a major piece of work or as part of an annual service review. Some firms organise client panels where small groups of clients are invited to an informal discussion about aspects of the firm’s service and how improvements and innovation can be developed in the future. There are even automated apps now where clients can record their level of satisfaction on transactions on their mobile phone.

As well as obtaining satisfaction ratings for things such as service delivery, areas of expertise and the relationship you may also wish to collect qualitative information – comments and verbatim reports to really develop your understanding of the client perspective.

Some firms will have people monitoring social media so that if clients grumble about poor service on-line, there is someone to respond quickly (in an off-line environment) to resolve the issue and avoid a social media reputation crisis spiralling.

As a member of the RICS, most firms will have some form of complaints system. However, you need systems that monitor and manage dissatisfaction before it gets to a complaint.

You should also consider how you manage and leverage excellent service. Make it easy for satisfied clients to provide references and testimonials – on your web site and on social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Google+.

Developing a client service improvement plan in your surveying or property business

So how do you tackle client service improvements?

Agree the aims and develop a plan

Like all projects, you need to have clear aims at the outset. What are you trying to achieve? What are your baselines against which you can measure improvements and results? Make sure that you have agreed the aims so that you can manage the scope of the project.

Your focus may be on service improvements as part of a branding and reputation exercise – to ensure you are consistently delivering what you promise. It may be part of a client retention programme – to minimise client defections and loss. It may be to improve a particular aspect of the service such as responsiveness and meeting deadlines. It may be as part of a cross-selling, client development or referral programme – to encourage satisfied clients to buy more services or refer to others. Or it may be to ensure that you deliver the level of service agreed for a particular client or group of clients.

Your aims will make it easier to manage the scope of the project and to select the relevant activities – at a firm-wide, departmental and individual staff level to achieve the desired aims. As with all change management projects, it is vital that you are really clear on what you plan to tackle and how. And it is better than to attempt to achieve a small but important change than to plan to master the universe and do nothing.

Establish information and measurement systems

Then you need to establish systems to measure current services and implement changes to policies, protocols and systems. This might also include how your partners and senior professionals supervise and monitor the quality of service delivered. It will certainly involve some method to measure client satisfaction. You might even ask key clients to provide their insights and suggestions on how you improve your policies and systems.

Some firms will use techniques such as client journey or service mapping to explore how services are currently delivered to identify weak points or to re-engineer the processes to reduce costs or maximise client value perception.

Another critical activity is to understand where service failures occur. Some firms have cut back resources to reduce costs to such an extent that those producing the work are stressed and overloaded which means that the time they have available to anticipate client needs, take proactive action and develop the relationship is limited. Management needs to be clear what is expected of the team and to provide the time, systems, training and resources for the team to meet those expectations.

Communicate with and train your people

Involve your people (both professional and support staff) in understanding their views on client service and where improvements can be made. Ask them for their ideas and suggestions. They will respond better to any subsequent programmes if they understand your aims, have had a chance to air their views and contribute their ideas.

Develop communication and training programmes so that they understand the importance of service excellence and their role in promoting service excellence. Be clear what you want them to do differently.

A common area for client service problems are where there is a mismatch between what the client perceives as the value of a service and the price or fees for that service. Expectations management and price communication is explored further here:

Manage performance and rewards

Adjust performance management and appraisal systems to ensure that staff are encouraged to deliver the promised level of service. There’s little point in demanding that staff invest time in providing high levels of client service if they are measured entirely on recorded hours or deals completed.

What gets measured gets managed.

Monitor client service levels

Once you have completed any projects to achieve improvements in client service, you may wish to appoint one person within the practice to take responsibility for monitoring ongoing quality and client service in your practice. This will be particularly important if you achieve accreditation through one of the various quality standards which require ongoing audits.

Change the culture and motivate your people

It is also important to maintain ongoing internal communication about client service levels. Congratulate staff where clients commend them for superior service where they went the extra mile. Celebrate successes when excellent client satisfaction ratings are received. Share when departments achieve superb results.

Other sources of information

Other blogs on client service are:

There is a chapter on relationship management (“clientology”) for property partnerships in my book