Make client relationships your secret weapon to unlock innovation

Joanne Conway is executive group chair and chief executive of FM Conway Group

The construction industry has always walked a tightrope, balancing hard-won, slim margins with the need for continual improvement of processes and practices. Innovation is vital for long-term success – no arguments against this – but it is especially important now given the challenges we face. From trying to hit stretching net-zero targets, to driving up construction’s famously low productivity rates, it’s clear that we can’t keep to the old ways of doing things.

“Trials need backing from both sides, to deliver the proof of concept needed”

But even though the case for innovation is sealed, allocating resources and spend is not an easy decision, typically requiring substantial investment and a degree of risk for construction firms. This creates a natural tension, with companies often hesitant to step away from the tried and tested methods for fear of jeopardising financial stability.

There’s one thing that can go some way to help navigate this chicken-and-egg situation of needing room to experiment, test and innovate while delivering against client budgets and remaining profitable – and that is trust. Out-of-the-box thinking benefits both the contractor and the client, and what makes it work is shared belief and commitment on both sides of the relationship.

Learning, testing and achieving together

In the highways sector, for example, there is pressure on both clients and contractors to deliver carbon savings. That requires pushing the boundaries on design and materials specification. A case in point is the ongoing effort to boost the amount of recycled content in surface courses to as close to 100 per cent as possible. As you’d imagine, this can’t be delivered overnight. Investment of time and resources to run trials is vital. And these trials need backing from both sides, to deliver the proof of concept needed to allow councils and authorities to evolve their specifications and review the viability and procurement of the sustainable options. Commitment to see things through is equally important, which is why it’s crucial to establish trust and dialogue with the client.

The collaborative and iterative process of testing, analysing and learning helps make it easier for clients to take on risk and to judge the extent of that risk. Crucially, they have to bring their own stakeholders along on the journey, as well as anticipate how new methods, materials or working practices might impact their customers. In highways, the clients’ responsibility to protect the public’s safety on the network and avoid disruption is paramount. The stakes for these kinds of initiatives are high on both sides, so building up a bank of evidence and data over time to make innovation more palatable for clients is essential.

Making relationships a strategic goal

There is so much being said in the market about sustainable practices and processes, decarbonisation and net zero, and a multitude of prospective partners to help deliver bold projects. It can be hard for clients to make the right choice. Again, trust is the differentiator. Clients will turn to people who have delivered to the highest standards of creativity and innovation before and can be trusted to do it again.

Building a good relationship does not come easily or quickly. Much like innovation itself, it requires a long-term view, together with investment of time and resources. And rather than a nice-to-have, contractors should view these partnerships as strategically critical, providing buffers against a tough economic climate. Why? Because good relationships deliver good results, and those results lead to greater client satisfaction.

This is turn creates loyalty and ultimately cements trust for the future. These metrics are important, not only for business viability but for creating room to experiment at a time when construction-industry innovation is needed more than ever.

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