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Keep the customer satisfied

CIVIL ENGINEERING MANAGER OF THE YEAR: Keeping the client happy is vital to the success of any project manager. But it is not always an easy task. Finalists of the Civil Engineering Manager of the Year Award discuss how to achieve success.

There is no doubt that the role played by the client in the construction process is greater today than it has ever been.

Privatisation of utilities in the UK and across the globe has revolutionised the way these businesses are run. The upside to this is that there is often more money for capital projects and greater certainty that it will be spent. On the other hand, the emphasis on effective cost control and shareholder value is necessarily paramount.

The job of the civil engineer, or rather his focus on a project,

has had to change accordingly. Knowledgeable clients want to be involved in the entire process. In fact, they usually demand to be. Managing a project now goes beyond the construction process itself. Increasingly, project managers' work must extend to finding solutions to match and enhance their client's business.

Brian Coslett, of Hyder Utilities, agrees that from his experience of building the £45M Ganol Water Treatment project in Wales, the client is king.

'You must take time to understand the concerns of your client and let them become your own,' he says. 'Word travels fast if you are good at meeting the client's needs; it travels even faster if your service is bad.'

But equally, he insists that you cannot pander to the client's every need just for the sake of it. 'When you need to say no, don't avoid it. But make a constructive refusal accompanied by an alternative proposal.'

Rodney Self, who heads the £250M Karachi Water Supply Scheme for Mott MacDonald International, highlights the need to develop relationships and an understanding of clients' need for their projects to be accepted by the local community.

'Love thy client as thyself. The client, at the interface, is a human being, and no two are the same,' he says. 'Be sensitive to the client's need for the project works to be well received in the local perception. The state of the art solution may not always prove to be the flavour of the month 4,000 miles away from one's head office.'

But he agrees that standing up for yourself is vital: 'All you can do is endeavour to provide a consistently competent service. Stick to your principles with firmness and unflagging patience.'

But it works both ways. Project managing from the client's side requires similar skills to ensure that the entire project is in harmony. Ensuring that others know what you want is just as important as being asked.

Graeme Stewart, who led BP Amoco's £60M Vapour Recovery Project, agrees that a key role for the client must be to achieve as much clarity as possible on the project requirements.

'Typically, there will be a whole series of drivers on a project,' he says. 'Contractors need to feel totally empowered to discuss openly with the client their views on key project drivers and indeed on any issues which affect the success of the project.

'Non-confrontational contractual agreements such as alliancing are well suited to encouraging this type of dialogue, by allowing the integrated project team to focus on risk management and project delivery.'

But Michael Fordham, who was in charge of Thames Water's £165M East London sewage sludge incineration project, points out that managing the client interface during projects is also vital. 'Understanding the client's objectives and needs is an essential prerequisite to delivering a competitive technical solution,' he says.

'Performing competitively in a highly sophisticated marketplace, one has to find a sustainable balance between high standards of efficiency, safety and operational integrity and the interests of customers, investors and employees.'

Find out more about effective project management at the final of the ICE Civil Engineering Manager of the Year at the ICE on 14 October, from 5.45pm. Drinks reception and awards ceremony follows presentations from the finalists.

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