Engaging the client
Why client relationships work better when the service provider evaluates the client as well as the other way around

by Martin Read — Healthy human relationships require work by both parties — so why should those between FM service providers and clients be any different? A new combined form of surveying and consultancy service gives supplier assessment of client performance the potential for as much weight as the reverse. Martin Read reports.

It’s 2014 — so when people seek to assess their organisation’s business performance data, surely context is king?

We’ve long passed the point at which the analysis of performance data per se is enough to inform rational decisions about the health of a client/FM provider relationship — haven’t we?

In fact, the arguments about who is at fault in the procurement, operation and management of client/supplier arrangements rage on with the value of key performance indicators and service level agreements routinely derided.

They each do a job, of course, but that job is ticking boxes, confirming simply whether a task has or hasn’t been completed to an agreed level of satisfaction at a given point in time. So while that work carries on relentlessly, the gradual development of mistrust between both parties remains unidentified, as do the reasons for it. What’s needed, say the people behind a new software system and consultancy tool, is a move from a two-dimensional tick-box approach to a three-dimensional process that sees the performance of both supplier and client assessed.

Currently in the final pilot development phase before a launch in early 2015, FMP360 has an offer comprising bespoke surveying software and consultancy. Its directors will be well known to many — consultants Anne Lennox-Martin and Lucy Jeynes are among them, with I-FM’s David Emanuel on the marketing and systems side. Their plan is to introduce a new way of working between client and supplier devised by Lennox-Martin as her “legacy to the industry”. It is the result of more than 25 years’ experience on both the client and supplier sides.

“I know the behaviour and attitude and experience of the client can have as much of an impact on service delivery as that of the supplier,” she says.

“There are clients who believe they have some kind of intrinsic superiority because they are paying for the service. In fact, the client can inhibit the supplier from bringing in innovation.”

The solution, she says, is for both sides to commit equally to a process of continuing assessment. Just as the client measures supplier performance, so too the supplier measures the client. And the way in which each measures the other is conducted transparently with a consultant acting as mediator/facilitator to provide a ‘bridge’ between the two parties.

Here’s how it works. Initially, a workshop is held between consultant and client. This needn’t be just the FM — finance, marketing, or any other department with a perception about how the supplier works can be brought in. Whatever the mix, the client decides.

The consultant facilitates and mediates this process. But subsequent negotiations between client and supplier to address any financial fissures identified in the process remain solely between client and contractor. In the client workshop, the organisation’s business imperatives for both business as usual and the forthcoming year are analysed; survey questions — based on success factors critical to the organisation — are then formulated.

A second workshop then takes place with the supplier, developing questions based on what they see as the critical inputs from the client to help them deliver the service they believe the contract demands.

At a third, joint workshop both parties are present to agree the final question set. FMP360 then creates and conducts the survey.

This process is conducted on a quarterly basis, after which a performance measurement meeting, facilitated by the consultant, is held. Survey results are interpreted and, in theory, the strengths and weaknesses of the relationship laid bare. From this, both client and supplier agree a ‘commitment matrix’ detailing their priorities over the next quarter to align their perceptions of how each side is performing. Clients signing up to what amounts to marriage guidance for client/supplier relationships pay a one-off set-up fee followed by annual software licence and quarterly report fees.

Explain yourself

Critically, participants can’t just rank performance as poor; they must explain why they’re giving the score before continuing the survey. Similarly, the weighting assigned to specific questions can be varied, as can the people allowed to answer specific questions. Different groups can be sub-divided and reported on, including both contractor and sub-contractor teams. All of this is a result of agreement between both client and supplier. And the questions can change each quarter so that the surveying is tied to changing client circumstance.

It’s this combination of surveying, consulting and using both client and suppliers’ answers to each other’s questions that makes this process so different.

“We see this as something that will bring benefit to the industry for all sorts of reasons,” says Lennox-Martin, “It can help raise the competence of operational FMs to a strategic level — something the industry has been talking about for years.”

What’s being attempted here is the imposition of a discipline from both sides to performance measurement, addressing what can be assumptions made client-side that, because they’re paying for the labour, they’re absolved of any role to play in helping the contract succeed.

It also seeks to lock in the engagement of other departments, allowing them to give their perceptions about the performance of the services delivered to them. One pilot FMP360 client has involved both finance and property departments as well as those in FM. (There are three pilot organisations subscribing to the service and two more potentially in 2014. They are from both the private and public sectors.)

“The challenge,” says Lennox-Martin, “is to develop a relationship where both parties can openly admit that perhaps the agreed spec isn’t adequate, that it’s not what’s needed — and that collectively they are going to sort it out because ultimately it’s all about the strategic business interest and the organisation’s end customers.

Imperative clause

Two other things point to the routine performance assessment from both sides being a model of working whose time has come. The first is the monotonous appearance at the top of most lists detailing reasons for FM relationship problems — a failure to align to business imperatives.

The second is that the likelihood of the FM requirement in year one of a contract being the same as that in year four is next to zero. Indeed, seeing as most businesses accept the premise that no change in operations means that you’re going backwards, conforming to and measuring by KPIs and SLAs set out at the beginning of a contract seems perverse. The FM service is seen as an array of fixed items when it should constantly flex and adapt to circumstances.

Despite this potential for enlightened self-interest, the old problem of a client blind to progress remains, no matter how original the idea of building supplier assessment of client performance is.

“If you have a client set in their ways who just sees FM as a commodity then they will not want to use our concept and it is not going to help or change them,” admits Lennox-Martin. “We believe clients with an open mind will be the ones to take this on and eventually we hope it will have real traction on the profession.”

The idea can also be applied to an in-house operation, with the FM getting his organisation’s board of directors to play the part of intelligent client, the process used as a way of confirming the FM service’s alignment with business objectives. It can also oblige them to identify whatever is important to the business to be measured against — true two-way working, and, in theory, a true understanding of what constitutes the ‘value’ of FM.

Should the idea appeal to clients it will be interesting to watch the reaction of suppliers. Could they add FMP360’s consultancy to their offer? Or would that itself act as an admission that the way in which they previously went about securing and maintaining new business was flawed? In any event, FMP360 is an entry into the performance measurement sector that will be interesting to follow over the months ahead. If it turns out that Anne Lennox-Martin’s legacy to the FM industry is a success, it will indeed be a significant development. – See more at:http://www.fm-world.co.uk/features/feature-articles/engaging-the-client/#sthash.j9fbo7gJ.dpuf

Launched in 2004, FM World aims to keep the profession – and others interested in facilities management – up to date with workplace and property issues, providing a forum for topical debate. The magazine, published every month in print and sent automatically to members of the British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM), is also available to others through an annual subscription.

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Copyright for this article resides with Redactive Media Group, publishers of FM World, the official magazine of BIFM. Founded in 1993, BIFM provides information, education, training, and networking services for nearly 17,000 members comprising individual professionals and organizations.