Avoid Ambiguity at All Costs (or It Could Cost You)
A recent study indicated that some customer satisfaction issues inside government agencies stem from poorly written supplier contracts. While the responsibility ultimately lies with the CO and agency customer to articulate their requirements and expectations in the Scope of Work (SOW) or Performance Work Statement (PWS), you – as the chosen supplier – are ultimately the product, service, construction or systems expert. And, you are the one whose performance will be measured against that contract’s terms. If the contract language seems vague to any party, then the confusion that will likely ensue regarding your obligations could cause customers to unfairly blame you for poor performance or non-performance. With that in mind…
- Don't ever assume that the end customer was involved in defining the contract details, or that the contractor and CO are experts on your product, service or industry standards. They may not know enough about technical specifications to thoroughly articulate requirements in the contract.
- Do take the time to review all contract terms, eliminate confusing words, recommend more specificity in job instructions and inform the CO/customer of other terms that should be clearly defined up front.
- Don’t be afraid to speak up if you have any additional questions or concerns during the solicitation or contract negotiation process. By opening these lines of communication and clarifying all expectations in detail before you start, you will minimize the risk of miscommunication later on. You will also be well-positioned to ensure that the customer gets exactly what they want since you will know exactly what to deliver and when.
- Do be willing to offer up your subject matter expertise during both the pre- and post-award phase. There will be times when you will need to educate the CO, the customer, or both on how the project or service delivery can and should most efficiently be executed. Market research can only tell them so much about how things work. Your real-world experience and counsel will be valued during the contract development and execution process, especially if the resulting decisions and actions ensure the customer receives their desired outcomes.
We’ve already talked about why it’s important to proactively review and recommend SOW/PWS adjustments before committing to terms. However, you need to proactively request customer feedback after the goods have been delivered or throughout a project or service period. You also need to be aware of the performance variables that could potentially impact customer satisfaction; those things the customer values most…
- Do confirm how often the agency will officially review your performance and how they will measure performance. Per the FAR, most contractors will be rated in the following areas: workmanship, cost controls, adherence to schedules, reasonable and cooperative behavior, commitment to customer satisfaction, reporting compliance, Integrity and business ethics; and business-like concern for the interest of the customer.
- Don’t wait for a CO to call you with concerns. Unless you only have one government contract – and that agency is your only customer – then it is going to be challenging to monitor your employees and subcontractors on-site every day. You shouldn’t have to micromanage anyway. And, certainly don’t wait for the final performance ratings to be filed in your record at the end of the contract to try to rectify an issue. It will be a moot point, and your reputation could be tarnished at that point. As such…
- Do frequently check in with both the customer and CO to see how their feeling about the project or order and make sure they’re 100% satisfied to date. Inquire about possible changes in the customer’s requirements or expectations (if not well defined in the contract) so that you can accommodate.
- Don’t assume that your on-site project team, suppliers, subcontractors or employees will proactively communicate customer concerns or incidents to you. Check in with them even more than the customer and encourage them to express concerns about your company’s overall performance without repercussion. While you don’t want to encourage an environment of “tattling,” you certainly don’t want any surprise calls from a CO either.
Clearly Communicate How You Will Correct Course - Then Do It Quickly
In the private sector, customer loyalty is not typically lost after one issue, as long as the vendor or service provider takes swift action to resolve issues as soon as they surface. The same holds true in the public sector. Federal, state and local government agencies spend an extensive amount of time and resources sourcing for commodities, services, constructions and major systems. They are not going to be eager to repeat the solicitation, evaluation and award process for your contract over a single issue (so long as you aren’t doing anything illegal.) In fact, government contracting officials are more inclined to give you an opportunity to resolve the issue, assuming customer complaints against your company don’t become repetitive.
Take advantage of the opportunity they are giving you to prove that your company can meet or exceed performance expectations. Just don’t “take advantage” of the fact that you’re getting a second, or third, chance to retain the business. There will come a time when the customer or CO will decide to terminate your contract if you consistently fail to meet requirements or do something to damage the business relationship beyond repair. If you receive a complaint...
- Do apologize immediately and commit to the resolution the customer proposes.
- Don’t point blame back on the customer, make excuses, or get defensive. Take ownership, remain professional and remember that “the customer is always right.” This will help you more successfully reach a resolution and retain their business both now and in the future.
- Do review the contract if needed to confirm that the customer is within their right to make the request per your SOW/PWS. (Remember the ambiguity issues we discussed above?) Investigate with your team as needed to understand what went wrong and why (if an isolated incident) and to understand what changes can be made on your side to restore the customer’s confidence in your product, service or expert counsel.
- Don’t delegate the issue to someone else unless you have complete confidence they will follow through. In many cases, trust in your product, service or company has been lost. Ensure the person running point is in a position to make decisions and affect change within your organization to fix the issue fast.
- Do go above and beyond to restore customer satisfaction. Make yourself available and meet with the CO and customer as many times as necessary. Really listen to their concerns. Don’t try to “sell” them on a new solution that will require more money unless it’s the only option to resolve the issue. Commit as many resources as necessary to fixing the problem or preventing a recurrence. Be proactive (that word again) in communication supply chain disruptions, alternative sources, etc. (Over)communicate the steps you are taking to fulfill your obligations, achieve the agreed-upon resolution in a timely manner or prevent a repeat.
Keep In Mind
Don’t think that a current performance issue will just go away once the project is complete or that Past Performance records become less relevant as time goes on. Even a single blemish could potentially impact your competitiveness in the future. The good news is that, if you follow these tips and prioritize customer service, you will never have to worry about a dissatisfied customer or performance rating markdown.