Nigel Ostime of Hawkins\Brown Architects and chair of the RIBA Client Liaison Group, says that without measuring feedback, architects can’t improve
Manufacturers ask for feedback as a matter of routine and use it to improve their products in the next model, but the construction industry seldom does this. With few exceptions, each project is treated in isolation, and lessons are rarely passed on from one to the next. Feedback is at the heart of Quality Assurance and stimulates continuous improvement. QA started in manufacturing and came to construction in the 1990s. Architects however, often see it as a distraction in construction. There is good reason to believe this differing view of the benefit of feedback is a factor in determining productivity, which has nearly doubled in manufacturing over the last 25 years but actually dipped in construction in the same period. In construction there are two matters that we need to start measuring: one is the performance of the buildings we design and the other is the value, and consequent levels of satisfaction we provide in the professional services we deliver.
Measuring buildings is generally termed ‘Post Occupancy Evaluation’ (POE) and while it doesn’t happen enough, the principles are well known. When buildings are measured, an energy-use performance gap is often revealed between the as- specified design and the as-built condition. This is in part to do with how the building is used by the occupiers and points towards a need for better handover on completion. Soft Landings is a method designed to resolve this problem, and its use is becoming more common place, particularly when the client is the end-user. Seeking feedback on the service delivered by professionals is still uncommon. A survey of client experiences initiated by the RIBA Client Liaison Group (CLG), found that client satisfaction is higher when the client is given the opportunity to provide feedback.
When feedback surveys do happen, it is usually by large practices and done in clumps every few years. A key benefit of the RIBA survey was giving smaller practices access to business-critical advice and using a larger sample than has previously been available. But for feedback to be of most use it needs to be done as frequently as possible; as a minimum at the end of each project. Architects are concerned about asking ‘How was it for you?’ in case of getting a negative response. And let’s face it, how many projects run without a hitch from start to finish? ‘My insurers wouldn’t want me to do it’ is the usual cry. And indeed, chalking up potential claims is a consideration not to be taken lightly. But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
Hawkins\Brown is initiating a client satisfaction survey to be conducted by a third party in a structured telephone interview lasting no more than 20 minutes. The aim is to find themes that run across one or more sectors and to provide evidence of what is working well and what can be improved. We also consider this to be a badge signifying to our clients that we care. We are also about to start using Listenback (www.listenback.co.uk). Free to use, it allows you to seek regular and frequent feedback on the sort of factors where clients (according to the RIBA survey) see inconsistent performance from architects. By collecting, monitoring and, importantly, acting on feedback scores, you have a tactical tool to steer clear of the traps known to dissatisfy clients and thus stay ahead of the competition. It also gives you solid evidence about what you’re like to work with, which could be extremely useful in writing bids and making pitches. The Listenback website is simple to sign up to and use, making it cost-effective and sustainable. Also, the feedback tool acknowledges that clients are busy people, making it quick and straightforward for them to respond.
So how does it work?
You sign up for free to create a secure account, which gives you access to your dashboard. From here you can add your logo to the standardised feedback form and invite clients to give feedback through the Listenback website by emailing them a link. The webtool asks them to rate the extent to which they agree with eight statements on a sliding Likert scale. The statements are as follows:
1. They understood my reasons for starting the project
2. They managed their work for me smoothly
3. They were good team players
4. They pre-empted problems and responded quickly and effectively to issues as they arose
5. Their work was accurate and produced on time
6. They had due respect for my budget and commercial risks
7. They were good value for money
8. I would use them again and/or recommend them to others.
You are notified by email when the client submits feedback. Back on your dashboard, a tracker monitors what feedback you have sent out and whether the client has responded. The latest feedback is displayed. Older feedback can be seen by clicking in the tracker. Scores are expressed as percentage scores per factor. The recommendation is to seek feedback at regular intervals during the project. This has two advantages. First, it gives your clients the chance to benefit from the feedback. Second, it generates more scores faster, allowing you to build a critical mass of data to reveal trends that you can act on. Although the CLG research suggests that the mere fact of seeking feedback makes a positive impression, the real value to you and your clients is what you do with the feedback. The data generated gives you many of the clues you need to design a better service. What’s more, the continuous learning becomes a spiral of measurable quality improvement. Architects have been marginalised over many years because they could not provide convincing evidence of the value they add. It seems highly probable that post-occupancy evaluation and continuous client feedback can reverse this trend.
Nigel Ostime is delivery director, Hawkins\Brown Architects, and chair of the RIBA Client Liaison Group