A taste of my own medicine (?): my time in the 'shoes of the customer'

4 December 2012

Mike Curl

Mike Curl

Head of Finance, Services & Media

I've learned a lot about what it's like to be a customer over the last few months. I've been having building works done at home and throughout the process, I've experienced the full range of emotions and reactions I sometimes see my customers displaying.

On a commercial level, I thought it might be interesting to share what I've learned on the back of this. Whilst I've always believed myself to be empathetic and customer focused, it's definitely made me re-think just how much more I can do. 

The vendor section process

To kick things off, I thought I ran quite a slick vendor selection process. I sought advice from a number of friends, neighbours and colleagues and eventually asked a number of builders to come round to discuss the requirements. I got written quotes from three, and ended up selecting the one I thought could credibly do the job within my timescales at the lowest price.

Challenges from the onset 

Things started to go wrong early on - the usual sorry tale of "no shows" and resourcing problems, poor quality work, lack of planning etc. I also requested a couple of scope changes and we hit one unexpected problem when a nasty leak was encountered.

Now most builders in the UK estimate work and then deliver it to a fixed price. Customers tend to prefer this, and I'm sure builders do too as there is a large potential upside for them with naïve customers. Luckily I was around for some of the time to see what was going on. Here is what I noticed / observed:

  • Lack of planning and poor management of resources: Workers were being used across several projects rather than being dedicated to mine. Resource allocation seemed to be based on which customer shouted the loudest
  • Problems were actively hidden from me where they might slow the builder down / affect his timescales / him getting paid. But hang on I thought, I want things done properly!
  • The materials used: These seemed to be of a low quality
  • Change to scope: These had no effect on cost and were downplayed, but increases always had a high price tag and impact
  • Poor quality work and re-work needed due to rushing and inexperience. For example, the electrician (my own thank heavens) spotted some wiring that the builder had screwed right through and could have been very dangerous.
  • Not listening to my requests / feedback: He was going to do it his way regardless.

After a couple of warnings and remediation plans, I realised that the builder and I weren't a good fit and we parted company. This wasn't an easy or enjoyable experience, especially given the amount of time I'd invested in trying to make it work. As I'd been keeping a detailed diary of comings and goings, I agreed somewhat foolishly to pay for work done to-date on a time and materials basis. At the time my main concern was to get him out of my house and get the keys he had back.

Onto the next - this time via a referral

Then, via a referral, I engaged a much better builder. As the job was half finished and with a number of unknowns which were yet to unfurl (how bad was that leak?), we agreed to a time and materials approach at a pre-agreed day rate. This worked much better for me and I had much more control and input into what was going on. But then I began to notice that things were taking quite a long time, and I began extrapolating the costs and realised that I was going to run over budget. I talked to the builder about this, and initially he was offended and I think he was about to walk out.

The importance of communication

However, in talking things through we realised that the main problem was communication. I had no real idea of how long certain tasks should take and he hadn't done a very good job of managing my expectations.

From then on, we had daily update calls and meetings where he explained what had been done that day and what the plan was for tomorrow. We also had a weekly review of costs and issues. Pretty basic tools but they needed to be seen as valuable from both sides.

In retrospect, regardless of the commercial model, what I really wanted was a good quality outcome at a price that I understood, together with the confidence that changes and surprises could be accommodated at reasonable additional cost. This requires trust from both parties and good ongoing communication.

We're now just finishing things off which is good news as I'd forgotten to mention that we had a pretty immovable year-end deadline - with my wife's family travelling from France to join us for Christmas.

Lessons learnt

To wrap up, here are my lessons learned from the whole experience and it's funny how many of them are common sense / best practice in the IT services industry too:

  • Use your network for referrals: Select a supplier based on referral and then follow up references
  • Don't be swayed too much by personality: it's a working professional relationship not a long term relationship
  • Feedback: I should have given more direct feedback to the first builder and followed it up in writing
  • Compare estimates: This should be done on an effort as well as cost basis. Make sure you are provided with a good breakdown - has someone vastly over or under estimated the amount of labour / materials. Transparency at this stage is good and can lead to a much better outcome for all parties
  • If on a fixed price: Agree what rate will apply to any scope changes and scope reductions.
  • Keep a record: Track time spent on site and ask to see copies of the materials invoices
  • Clarity upfront: Agree/communicate from the onset how much involvement you want to have and what your expectations are
  • Time invested: The more time you invest, the better the outcome for you
  • Reputation: Select a company who is proud of their reputation

I like to think that my experiences on the commercial side made me a better customer, but I doubt either of my builders would agree!

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About the author

Mike Curl

Head of Finance, Services & Media

My interest in technology started in 1981 when a friend’s father built a Sinclair ZX81 and then relied on the two of us to program it. I soon moved on to my own BBC “B” computer (thanks dad!) and amused the family with some very rudimentary INPUT and PRINT statements…

My passion continues but on a much bigger scale than I could have ever imagined.  Today, I advise business and IT teams at some of the largest organisations in the world, helping them design, implement and exploit the latest technology in support of their business priorities and challenges.

I co-founded Bluefin in 2002 after spending many years in the consulting industry, having started at Andersen Consulting in 1994.  With Bluefin, I have been fortunate enough to be involved with some truly ground-breaking projects and technologies over the years.

What I really enjoy is finding the business value of new technology and leading the pioneering engagements to implement it successfully for the first time. Barclays, a client I lead at Bluefin, has won several industry and partner (SAP) awards for the innovative work we did with them around enterprise mobility. At another client we’ve also been doing some truly amazing work with SAP HANA that has the potential to disrupt established business models.

Bluefin and SAP S/4HANA - welcome to the one horse race

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