Evaluating Client Service Levels in a Professional services firm

Lipstick on Pigs or High Quality Bacon?

Chris Jones has an interesting perspective on using client service levels as a metric to evaluate and choose a consulting firm. Chris is a Fellow of the Certified Management Consultants of Canada (FCMC), a faculty member at Royal Roads, and a principal at Forum Consulting, and he and I agree that too many RFPs lean on vague or ridiculous definitions of client service within their selection process. More akin to judging the colour of lipstick on the pig, than the quality of the bacon, client service evaluation criteria invariably infuriate, disappoint, confuse, or alienate the responding consulting firms.

Over the years Chris’ articles have done a great job of outing intangible, immeasurable, and generally irrelevant client service evaluation criteria and offering tangible, measurable and relevant alternatives.

To Chris’ insight I can now add another interesting perspective provided by John Stanton, founder of The Running Room. Although from the retail sector, his is a great model for considering how service levels should be interpreted and evaluated in the management consulting context.

In an interview on CEOTV Stanton compares the service levels of his stores (which only sell running gear) to the service levels of big box retailers (that sell a wide variety of sporting goods).

I’m sure you can see where I am going here – expert vs. generalist.

He proposes that high levels of customer service are not primarily an outcome of courtesy, but of knowledge – and therefore the big box retailers will never be able to meet his service levels because they will simply never have the depth of knowledge about running gear that his staff have.

While common definitions of customer service may include both components, too many focus exclusively on the courtesy element – how to serve your client faster, nicer, slicker instead of quality of assistance based on accuracy, intelligence, previous experience, and meaningfulness.

Stanton recognizes his customer service advantage as being rooted in focused knowledge. He knows that while virtually anyone can learn to be polite and meet high courtesy standards (in fact most people already have these skills) only staff with specific training, experience, and knowledge gained over time can provide meaningful assistance. As the more difficult of the two for a competitor to replicate, knowledge is obviously the better anchor of client service – whether that is selling running shoes or management consulting.

You might want to remember Stanton’s framework the next time some poorly written RFP requests that you try and earn points by grovelling about your customer service skills.

Instead of going on with what Chris Jones so accurately describes as “vague statements” about your “commitment to service excellence” and how your firm is “passionate about your customers and exceeding their expectations” (each one a flaccid courtesy statement), frame your response within the two components of service.

Explain that although you are confident that the consultants in your firm are at least as polite and respondent as others, the more meaningful measure and predictor of high levels of service is your focused and relevant expertise.

Hopefully the client will dismiss your competitor’s vague customer service claims as lipstick on the pig while recognizing your firm as the lean, high quality bacon for which they are happy to pay a premium.

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The Consultant with Pink Hair

"This should be required reading for consultants AND their clients - especially the part about RFPs." - Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching

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