Dr George Beaton is the Executive Chairman of Beaton Research + Consulting (beaton) with offices in Melbourne, Brisbane, Auckland and Sydney. The company organises and presents the annual Client Choice Awards, which attract entries from accounting, built and natural environment consulting, IP specialist and law firms throughout Australia and New Zealand. ACE is a proud supporter of the Best Consulting Engineering Firm category (<$30m revenue) in conjunction with Consult Australia. We had a chat with George about the awards and why more New Zealand firms should consider entering
When did the Client Choice Awards begin?
beaton created the Client Choice Awards in Australia in 2005. In 2008, firms from New Zealand were included.
The awards have always involved the consulting engineering profession, and three years ago, we added more professions to the Built and Natural Environment section (<$30 million revenue) which cater for architects, project managers, urban planners and quantity surveyors.
The awards are unique in the world, as it's the client's opinion on the quality of service they have received from a firm that decides the winners.
So, the awards are based on the only opinion that counts - the clients.
There is no self-nomination, no judges or panels, just the views of the client. In this way, we don't compete with professional society awards, which often celebrate project excellence.
What type of consulting and engineering firms enter the awards?
There is a wide range, from the large firms down to smaller firms that may turn over just one or two million dollars a year. The Built and Natural Environment Consulting award categories are designed so that all businesses that operate in those sectors have an opportunity to enter.
From the beginning of the awards, we've worked closely with professional associations on both sides of the Tasman and have always had a great relationship with ACE New Zealand. This relationship has become even stronger since Paul Evans became the CEO. We rely on these and other sector organisations to ensure the awards are brought to the attention of their members.
What award categories are available for ACE members?
ACE members will generally be interested in the Built and Natural Environment Consulting category. Firms enter in categories that reflect their annual revenue - less than $30m, $30m to $50m, $50m to $200m and more than $200 million. There is also a Best Natural Environment Specialists category which has 12 groups for firms which have annual revenue of less than $30m. The categories in this section range from Acoustical Consulting to Architecture, Consulting Engineering and Surveying. The likes of ACE, Consult Australia, and The Australia Association of Consulting Architects (ACA) are among the sponsors of awards in the Specialists category. It's important as the members of these organisations are firms who are eligible to enter the awards rather than individual professionals who are not entitled to enter.
How does the client survey work?
The awards entry fee is $150, and this includes access to a tool that enables firms to survey their clients. Once the firm has received a minimum of 30 responses, they're automatically entered into the awards. The clients respond with a rating and comments on the quality, value for money, price and innovation of the firm's performance. This information is used to determine the ranking of the firms in each category. One of the most significant advantages of this form of judging is that firms don't have to disclose their client list during the entry process.
How can the survey data be used to improve business performance?
The survey results give firms a pointer on what they are doing well, why they should continue along that track and where, in the opinion of the client, they should lift their game. Having access to this data can be a real boost to firms, as to gather this information in a more conventional way, would cost considerably more than the $150 awards entry fee.
Who has access to the client survey scores?
The individual client scores are not published, so only the individual firms know how well the business has rated amongst its clients. The client also has the option of not disclosing who they are to the firm when they complete the survey. History tells us that around 75 per cent of clients do identify themselves, even if they have been a little hard on the firm and given them a low score. We provide guidance to firms around how they can respond to clients who are at both ends of the scoring range. Our advice includes suggestions for the content of an email you could send to both positive and negative clients, and we give some recommendations on how to start a follow-up phone call, particularly to clients who have been a little negative in their response. We know that by responding in a constructive and accepting way to someone who has given a low score, you have a good chance of converting them from a critical client to being a fan.
How have New Zealand firms done in the awards?
Unfortunately, New Zealand firms didn't do so well against their Australian counterparts in the Built and Natural Environment Consulting category in 2020. While New Zealand had some finalists in this section, the category winners all came from Australia – this is in contrast with the larger Kiwi firms like Beca and Tonkin + Taylor who are top performers. One of the things we would like to see is more entries from medium-small New Zealand engineering and consulting firms (<$30m annual revenue).
Is the number of award entries growing?
In general, the number of entries has increased in all categories over the years. We only introduced the medium-small firms' categories (annual revenue <$30m) in 2019, and the entry numbers have grown year on year. The fastest-growing categories are the architects and engineering sections, and I put that down to the communication support we are receiving from ACE, Consult Australia and ACA. Word of mouth is also an essential avenue for the promotion of the awards. As an example, a small consulting engineering firm in the southern highlands of NSW was a finalist for an award, and the business owner made such a noise on social media about the value she received from the experience that around a dozen other firms from NSW entered the awards the next year.
Do you make use of the data collected from the award surveys?
Once we have analysed all the data, we publish a benchmarking report for each profession. It allows firms to compare their score against other firms in the same revenue bracket, profession and country. The more entries we receive, the more data we collect and the more valuable the benchmarking report is. Access to the benchmarking report does come at an extra cost over and above the award entry fee, but ACE members receive a discount on the report price.
When are the next awards?
Entries are now open to the 2021 awards. Entries close 3 February when finalists are announced later that month with winners to revealed in March.