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Digital without disruption

Digital might be your day job, but it probably isn’t your client’s. This simple difference puts many customer/vendor arrangements in jeopardy on day 1, but some basic mindset and delivery changes can turn a fraught, will-they/won’t-they transactionship into an ironclad relationship.

As professional services providers, we serve clients. To us, that’s the work. And we’re wrong.

“Above all else, I want to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t disrupt our work. Disruption is so expensive that it makes the digital part not worth it.”

To our clients, the recipients of our professional service, digital is the extra work. Sure, their digital initiative might be part of their objectives for the year, but only part—at most, that part should command a proportionate share of their attention. When a client’s digital initiative pilfers too much attention or inserts itself where it’s not welcome, your client needs help, finds you, and places faith in you as the solution.

However, as if part of some natural law, the solution eventually becomes the problem. Why, providers ask? Was it code? Personalities? Stakeholder transitions? Or they just ran out of money?

No. Services providers’ inadequate empathy remains the greatest obstacle to quality professional services delivery and sustainable long-term customer/vendor relationships. More surprising are the ways disruption from low-empathy digital work causes harm to non-digital concerns. We’ve outlined some of the more pervasive offenders below and prescribed tactics you can employ to minimize your disruption.

“Just having this call is added work.”

Non-disruptive services sales

Sell unto others as you would have them sell unto you. Above all: don’t waste their time.

1. You’re the first disruption

Meeting with you takes time away from other things.

Start by accepting that change—especially digital change—disrupts any business. New people, unfamiliar processes, and additional technology upset the status quo simply by being proposed. From first-contact to first-contract, your mere presence disrupts an operation you don’t understand.

Solution: Make every interaction valuable to your client. Resist the temptation to “just check in.”

2. Remember, they need your help for a reason

A weird feeling, one that’s equal parts disheartening and cringe, hits when you’re 80% of the way through a vendor’s idea pitch only to realize they’ve missed the point completely.

Knowing why something is being done is the first, most important success catalyst. Jargon, tech speculation, and solutioneering muddy the conversation and create both divisiveness and distraction.

Solution: Talk less, ask more questions. We promise you don’t know the value until you hear it from them.

3. You’re the cost, not the benefit of digital

Every client can intuit the value of a given technological or process change to their company. Maybe not specifically, but definitely instinctively. “Doing X will save me $Y.” “Changing X will reallocate Y staff.” Even when you, the vendor, can bring about that change directly, you’re still part of its cost.

Solution: Be judicious, direct, and humble with your requests, assume they’re understood, and don’t whinge when they’re not immediately met. Vendorsplaining will lower your status.

4. Apply your expertise to their expertise

No amount of UX expertise or design seniority will surpass observing (or doing) the work. Every client will be willing to teach you their business to some degree, but that time is wasted if you think you already know the answer.

Solution: Be ready to change your mind. Better yet, observe with an empty mind.

5. Assume they’ve thought of that

Like a child watching Frozen on repeat, we’ve watched countless vendors propose solutions, sometimes with great fanfare, only to hear the customer respond with a deflating “yeah, we tried that.” Your first several ideas have likely been vetted and maybe already discarded, usually for compelling reasons.

Solution: Before you suggest anything, learn what’s been tried. It’s the fastest way to avoid this blunder.

6. Define done before you start

Agreeing on what “done” means before executing any papers dramatically lowers the likelihood of early-stage disruption. Ambiguity about the finish line will create increasing levels of emotion, argument, and doubt that culminates at the most critical time in a project: launch.

Solution: Ask blunt questions (“We’re done when happens?”) and make blunt declarations (“We’re done when happens.”) A vague disclaimer is nobody’s friend.

Non-disruptive delivery

Many engagement managers wrongly believe the solution to misunderstanding is overcommunication. Becoming a human Clippy will translate your every message directly into noise. To help your clients understand things, you have to act as their limbic system, telling them when to care, what to care about, and how much to care.

1. Make every communication meaningful

Remember this one? Your communication matters even more to your customer when you’re being paid for your time. We’ve heard several clients express dismay or anger at wasted hours with their technical implementers: “We just paid them thousands to reiterate what we’ve already told them!” Wasted money makes wasted time feel even worse.

Solution: Level up your meeting streamlining—challenge yourself to take 1/2 your expected time.

2. Send updates from your phone

How many times have you sent a comprehensive email only to be questioned later about things you literally just answered in writing? Huge status updates suck for everyone and disrupt life twice—once during reading if not crystal clear, and later when things have to be restated.

Solution: Read your status on a phone before sending. If it’s not concise, revise.

3. Don’t make your process their problem

“Agile” has become a mic-drop symbolizing efficient, waste-free development when the truth is very often the opposite. Backlog grooming and scrum ceremonies may be sacred time for many vendors, but they’re utterly meaningless to most clients, and they sure smell like a great way to both pile up billable hours and avoid accountability.

Solution: Does it matter to your client that you’re doing agile? Agile done poorly is the ultimate delivery disruption. I bet your practice is the exception, right?

4. Fighting over what was done and why

Locking horns over the bill is the last fight any customer wants. A verbose, accurate, complete accounting of your work is the best way to eliminate disruption when the bill comes due.

Solution: Do your timesheets. Clear, outcome-focused, jargon-free timesheets are the fastest way to get paid and ensure they’re not part of a discovery process.

Non-disruptive launches

First, do no harm.

For vendors, the job doesn’t end when you deliver code and congratulate yourself—you’re most vulnerable in that moment of relief. Launch gets tricky because it’s the first moment where your client onboards and integrates what you’ve built with their full attention.

1. Don’t break the business

The cost of down-time adds up fast. Late work, less production, overtime for correction, idle machines and people all turn an hour-long delay, broken application, or rollback-and-redeploy into a multi-thousand dollar problem for your client. Losing business is the penultimate disruptor, and will forever stain you.

Solution: Be sure. Be ready. There’s no reason for sloppy deployment, especially with modern tools.

2. Make sure they’re OK before you exit

Deployment may be the end for you, but for your clients it’s the beginning of something unfamiliar. All their anxieties about something new, plus any changes to the status quo show up here. Even if things are 100% improved, launch will feel disruptive.

Solution: Don’t rush to finish. You’ll win more goodwill in the last 5% of a project than in the first 20% by simply being available and willing to help.

Ultimately, disruption takes many forms and is often unavoidable and occasionally necessary to a successful project. Take the time to become aware of how you and your team show up for your client and impact their business. Your thoughtfulness will be rewarded with lower ambiguity, higher quality interaction, and enthusiastic agreement on how to move forward together.

Whether you’re a provider or an executive overseeing operations that include vended digital services but don’t focus solely on them, adhering to these fundamentals will prevent your digital efforts from derailing your non-digital going concern. If you need help navigating sensitive digital delivery, contact Next Mile for high-discipline, high-finesse delivery guidance.

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