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October 28, 2010
When a group of us founded an engineering/planning firm in 2006, we had no idea that the economy, then very robust, would rapidly decline in our early years in business. What we did know, after years of working with both large and small firms, was the kind of firm that we wanted to create: a mid-sized, employee-owned consulting firm that lived its values.
The focus of our attention was how we could, in these tumultuous financial times, effectively balance new market development, continued service to our existing clients and create an environment that is inviting, family-centered and fun. The lessons we’ve learned may be helpful to other firms, especially during these interesting times.
When developing a strategic plan, involving staff members as well as management in the process is crucial to build firm-wide acceptance. Often strategic plans are written at a management retreat and then foisted on people who have no stake in its success. By involving staff and inviting comments with the plan openly accessible on the company server, employee contributions become central to plan development, rather than an afterthought. With the employees already committed to the plan, it becomes an essential element in a company’s day-to-day business.
Oftentimes we think of strategic planning only in terms of financial goals. But a strategic plan is more than simply that. It must address our most important assets: involved employees and satisfied clients. These foci, with an underlying foundation of fundamental values and culture of the company, transform work to enthusiastic engagement.
Engage employees, clients
Any successful business keeps its clients happy. Clients rely on a firm’s technical capabilities, but they are also attuned to the quality of the working environment. Developing relationships with employees is just as important as developing relationships with clients.
Long-term working relationships between people, rather than between a firm and client, are vital. Clients are much more likely to hire people with whom they have established relationships, and their continued satisfaction with a firm depends upon both the expertise of the employees and the continuous nurturing of relationships.
Mentoring is a key component of successful client relationships, as well as employee satisfaction and professional growth.
Whether public or private, current client or prospect, getting to know the people in the team before work begins on a project is an essential step toward achieving satisfaction. Learning who the clients are and what they are looking for when hiring outside consultants helps in both winning work and knowing how to best accomplish it.
Parallel, but independent communication by client services personnel should occur in addition to the technical project team’s regular dealings with the client. These communications can discover challenges and resolve them before they impact work.
If any issues arise before or during a project, address them at once no matter how insignificant they may seem. Clients that are listened to and see action taken are likely to be satisfied beyond their expectations. Even contentious issues that may arise during the project that can be handled quickly and efficiently rarely adversely affect the long-term relationship.
Another key for both client and employee satisfaction is encouraging innovation and decision making by giving team members license to be creative and make decisions.
Often information gained from one project or an idea generated by a team member can have a positive impact on the schedule and make a project more cost effective. In addition, create a forum so ideas can be shared and used throughout the firm.
Build company culture
Defining the company culture in the strategic plan outlines potential. Living those values determines success.
Emphasizing communication and establishing an open-door policy to management helps all staff know that they have access to information, can discuss challenges and make requests at any time. It’s the soft skills of communication and tone set by managers that can establish the collegial atmosphere that makes the workplace more enjoyable.
Establishing a mentoring program where senior staff spends time on a regular basis with younger staff helps encourage professional growth and leadership development.
Promoting and subsidizing professional training ultimately pays for itself with increased skills and productivity. In-house training, seminars and brown-bag luncheon presentations further employee knowledge and give staff a sense of both current and future projects.
Annual reviews are a way to check both employee performance and satisfaction. Having employees write their own evaluations and match it with that of their supervisor helps pinpoint areas where communication might be falling short. It is also a time to discuss career and leadership development goals, and assess and establish budgets for training and participation in professional associations.
Staff satisfaction surveys assess the firm’s success at engaging employees and gives valuable information about specifics of the business operations. Enabling the staff to feel that they are an active and vital part of company decisions is critical. Surveys also help the firm establish community service commitments that are important to staff.
Whether employees have an ownership stake in a business or not, incentive compensation, dividends and bonuses give everyone a sense of building a company together. When employees are connected to the results of their labor they are more likely to generate ideas that will streamline operations and make project work more cost effective.
Studies show that younger workers are as interested in having work/life balance as they are in good compensation and benefits. Allowing for flexible hours and using a virtual private network so that staff can access the main server from their homes helps them manage their personal responsibilities with home life. Managers can also set the tone by keeping to a 40-hour week and monitoring staff to support them in doing the same.
Creating opportunities for family interactions such as picnics or holiday parties also reinforces a firm’s commitment to balance.
Over the last four years the business climate has changed. There is now and will always be more attention to efficient and cost-effective project delivery. As the economy improves, this new paradigm will continue. The practices and values of ensuring that both clients and employees are considered equally important can help firms grow and maintain a highly competitive market position, while supporting and encouraging the people who make that growth possible.
Craig P. Chambers, PE, is president and cofounder of BHC Consultants, an employee-owned and -managed consulting, civil and structural engineering, and planning firm that specializes in municipal utility design. Chambers has more than 30 years of experience in design and management of wastewater, stormwater and water systems.