The success of service contracts can hinge on the personal relationships between the principal players on either side. Nick Martindale reports on the habits that set good managers apart.
7 August 2017 | Nick Martindale
The ability to get on with other people is paramount in all walks of life, and arguably more so in people's professional careers than personal lives. Yet there are inevitably going to be times when personalities clash, or people do not 'click', and this can cause problems in working relationships.
Gillian French, a consultant at GF Associates and a BIFM trainer, says that while individuals' failure to get on is rarely the direct reason for contracts failing, it can make it difficult for them to succeed. "It's not that either party lacks interpersonal skills; it's just that they're really different people with different values, and they just don't like each other," she says. "That can make it more difficult to resolve the problem rather than being the fundamental problem."
It is an issue that can affect almost any kind of contractual relationship, but outsourcing deals, which tend to be longer-term in nature, can be particularly affected. One reason, suggests Lorna Fairbairn, director at business behaviour consultancy Impactful Moments, is that while those who set up the relationships in the first place may hit it off, whether those who deliver the day-to-day services do is left to chance. "You often find it's the senior people who set it up and then let the more junior front-facing staff get on with it, but perhaps the communication hasn't been cascaded at that level and often it falls apart," she says.
FM in particular can suffer from a culture that does not encourage the development of relationships, too. Chris Craggs, managing director of commercial catering and refrigeration equipment maintenance service provider McFarlane-Telfer, believes there is a degree of paranoia in some companies about not wanting to get too close to suppliers; something he says can get in the way of developing an effective working relationship.
"The reality is that decision-makers fear the development of relationships and things getting a bit too cosy," he says. "But in the process of trying to guard against that, they throw the baby out with the bath water. There is clear evidence that relationships are all-important. But procurement functions like to change contracts every three or five years just to avoid any cosiness."
Behind the lines
The practice for individuals to be based on a client site can also create conflicting pressures, which can get in the way of building up good relations based around trust, suggests Liz Kentish, managing director of Kentish and Co. "People get pulled in two directions and that's very difficult," she says. "They want to serve their client because that's what they're there to do but their company is asking them for commercial results based on their own objectives. It takes a strong person to have those relationships on both sides."
There are ways, however, in which FM suppliers - and those working client-side - can help to develop more harmonious relations. Anne Lennox-Martin, managing director of FMP360, a business that measures strategic relationships in organisations, says the first step for FM providers is to ensure that they recruit the right people in the first place, and then to consider which clients they would work well with.
"It's about knowing what you're looking for in terms of emotional intelligence and doing scenarios and role-plays when you're actually interviewing people," she says.
"Then it's about understanding people's backdrop and their personalities; if you have someone who is very interested in data and detail you have the opportunity to either marry them up with someone they're going to feel comfortable with or you may be able to pair them up with someone who is totally different so they can learn from each other; that almost intangible thing, which is the ability for both parties to form that relationship. But the onus is always on the outsourced company to form the relationship."
Fairbairn stresses the need for both parties to understand each other's visions and values at the start of any relationships, and to take practical steps to identify how well the different people will get on.
"Organisations I have worked with have established team events with a formal element but also a more social part to bring the mutual teams together," she says. "It means people are able to connect with each other and understand their different priorities. It's moving away from thinking 'we're the lead organisation and you're a subcontractor' to having this all-inclusive ethos where all opinions are valid."
Kentish gives the example of an FM outsourcing contract between global healthcare company Johnson & Johnson and a major service provider that was transformed after both parties agreed to take part in some relationship training.
"All the KPIs were running at 93 or 94 per cent and everything looked OK, but the client felt something wasn't right, and that was all about personal relationships," she says. "We did a global programme for them based around collaboration and we found that simply getting people to talk to each other as human beings - finding common ground by talking about families and football teams - broke down those barriers."
The two businesses developed a much more collegiate relationship, which led to a fall of 30 per cent in the number of monthly escalations requiring management attention, a 1 per cent rise in KPI performance and, eventually, a new 10-year contract. "We see it time and again, not just in facilities but everywhere; if a relationship is all about a contractual aspect then it's not easy and you don't have that level of trust," adds Kentish. "People like to do business with people they like." She suggests having collaboration and relationships on the agenda at regular client meetings, in addition to more formal elements such as KPIs.
Graham Davenport, director of Platinum Facilities and Maintenance Services, also stresses the need for regular communication, to understand both any changes on the client side but also to keep a tab on how the wider relationship is going. "By asking this question on a regular basis, say once a month, you're giving the client a chance to express the partnership successes, as well as the areas for improvement," he says. "It's only by having these candid conversations that you can ensure everyone's happy. If they're not, then you have the opportunity to either manage expectations in line with your expertise or better your offering."
Providers also need to read the signs from clients, and be prepared to make changes if necessary, suggests Colin Kenton, managing director of FM services at KBR. "Written verbal and body language is not difficult to interpret, especially in face-to-face meetings," he says. "The provider needs to be aware that there are different personalities and there can be clashes. Don't assume that the client needs to change, rather make the assumption you need to change. Quite often the best thing is to change that person for someone who is more aligned to the client's method of communications."
Senior management need to remain involved, points out C-J Green, group chief people officer at Servest.
"Regular management visits at a more senior level should be conducted to identify and rectify any concerns from the outset," she says. "Often small matters can grow into bigger problems if left unnoticed, so it's important to discuss and address these areas, in addition to KPI performance, at any given opportunity. Good personal relationships can make having these open and candid conversations easier to manage."
Clients also need to improve communication with providers, adds French, saying how they really feel rather than hiding behind contractual failings or KPIs.
"Often it's not that they don't get on or don't have the interpersonal skills; it's about the fact that we don't talk about anything that involves emotions," she says. "We talk about people not hitting their KPIs or being in breach of contracts but actually what we mean is we feel very let down, embarrassed and angry. We need to be more open about the fact that we think they have let us down as a person."
She believes those working on both sides of FM need to focus more on traditional negotiating skills, which would enable them to come up with solutions. "Those have become a bit lost as we have become more contractual in KPIs and tender processes," she says. "We're using a lot more portals, instead of sitting down and trying to find a way where both parties can get what they want."
Having good client relationships can not only help to make contracts operate more efficiently, they can also go some way to helping to resolve any issues where there are wider difficulties. "If you have a good relationship then when things go wrong there is a trust there and an attitude that we're in this together," says Kentish. "It makes things so much easier."
Craggs, meanwhile, would like to see the personal element of relationships formally evaluated by clients when it comes to tenders. "It's striking for its absence," he says. "If we send someone into a kitchen and it's all kicking off a bit, our guy needs to be equipped both technically and with the soft skills to handle that situation. We're reasonably good at it, but nobody ever asks us about it."
But getting on with a client will only go so far, warns Lennox-Martin. "You can't get away with having a great relationship and not performing," she says. "What having a good relationship does is to buy you time and credibility. If something goes wrong and normally everything is OK, a client is more likely to say 'let me know what I can do to help', whereas if it's an adversarial relationship they will issue you with a red card. It's that middle ground where it makes a big difference."