The applicant told the interviewer, “I don’t want a job; I’m looking for a long term career!” And a service company that takes that attitude toward its clients will increase the odds of success—for both itself and the client—because earning and holding on to a career requires understanding and meeting the employer’s needs.
Understanding a client’s business is critical: how it makes money, how it operates, how it justifies projects internally. This knowledge makes you indispensable. It cements long-term relationships. It earns you a “career.” It ultimately drives your revenue and fortunes as a company. The economy has come far in recovering from the financial crisis, but it’s still a difficult market. At a recent conference, the CEO of a major Class 1 Freight railroad said, “the overall economy is stagnant, manufacturing is in a recession and energy is in a depression.” This is a sobering assessment. Successful firms must remain very focused on their clients.
Too often, developers of designs and applications make incorrect business assumptions about a client’s expectations and disappoint the client, damaging the business relationship. A client on one recent project retained a firm to develop a design. The design firm’s deliverables reflected the scope and a final bid cost over $42 million. The client canceled the project. The market had changed in the 24 months since the original RFP for engineering services had been released and the design no longer reflected what the client needed.
Our firm reviewed the overall process and found a lack of urgency in the design by the client’s procurement and engineering departments. Because the design firm was not able to interact with the client business sponsors, the firm didn’t get a full understanding of the expected business needs and developed a design that did not meet the timing or needs of the client. Many factors go into this example of course: the client’s lengthy procurement for engineering services, inadequate scoping of the project by the client, no interaction between design firm and the client’s business sponsors, the client’s required design reviews at 30%, 60% and 90%, and the lengthy contractor bidding process. After 24 months and $225,000 in design fees, the design did not produce value for the client. The client missed the market opportunity. The design firm made money, but the project did not lead to a long-term beneficial relationship between design firm and client.
Better communication between the client and the design firm might have produced better results. With a better understanding of the problem, we assisted the client with refining its business assumptions, volumes and operational requirements. The result was to reduce the initial phase to $5.7 million, leading to implementation of the project and helping the client grow.
Engineering is the application of creative thinking to solve problems in science and technology so as to improve processes, from potable water sources to transportation, extracting raw materials, producing energy, refining and creating manufacturing processes and software development. Successful firms determine how to apply their expertise to meet a client’s needs, helping the client grow its company and its revenue. But they must start by ensuring they understand those needs. This requires clear, unfettered communication with the client.
Clients that welcome design firms wanting to know more about their business will reap the benefits of better designs and projects that save costs, leading to financially more viable results. Clients that prefer a rigid separation of design and business will never truly realize the great resources at their disposal when working with talented engineers who know their own industry and make the effort to understand the client’s.
David Thomson is president of Engineered Rail Solutions LLC, an engineering, management and logistics company in McHenry, Ill.