Putting clients at the heart of your firm

This year’s PM Forum conference in London tackled the perennial issue of helping firms to become truly client-centric and the balance needed between systems and spirit.

Client care is a subject dear to the hearts of marketers and partners alike judging by the maximum turnout this year.

Laurie Young opened by reminding us of the home truths about the service experience we give our clients and what they consider to be the critical components of professional service.

The results of the Harte & Dale survey reveal answers that have been consistent for some time (fees are not one of the three most important factors to clients) and Laurie underlined the point that nobody has ever bought on price alone. Differentiation is vital, particularly in an over-crowded market place, and put simply, that means creating a different experience for the client.

There have been many scientific studies into how the relationships between a firm and its clients work and ultimately it depends on the behaviour of every person within that firm and the client.What is acceptable, desired and unacceptable is governed by the culture of the firm, with the leadership setting the tone. How we treat our people will be reflected in how our people treat our clients.

David Pester of TLT talks to his firm’s key clients regularly. He gave a very open and honest account of how he believes great fee-earners inspire clients. One of the greatest skills is the ability to recognise what clients are telling you; then listening and responding to it.

He also reiterated that regardless of what happens post Clementi, clients will always want all the other aspects of service before they consider price. In his interviews with clients, the issues that were raised were all about the individuals on the client team, revealing human issues like a lack of teamwork and how it was having a negative impact on the experience for the client.

A driver for the current trend of organisations taking the legal work in-house was that it was easier to control.The lesson for all private practices is that we need to get better at transparency.

He said that TLT had an advantage in that it had been a greenfield site, however he said that resistance was the usual reaction but that if firms wanted to survive, let alone succeed, it was vital they embraced the idea of proactive relationship management.That begins by getting an honest assessment of the current performance and for that we need to talk about the experience of working with us. Having conversations with clients about their perceptions is fundamental and if partner assessment doesn’t focus on the skills and behaviours required, then there’s something wrong.

He admitted that there were barriers – particularly complacency in this recent period of success for the legal sector, but again emphasised that there were great prizes for those who could manage the insecurities that the idea of talking to clients tends to bring to the surface. He also mentioned leadership and the need to “stop obsessing about golf days and spend time talking to clients about service instead”.

Recognising success is important but not just with the partners; the clients love to be told that positive feedback from them has been recognised internally. Looking to the future, he considered the impact that an aggressively regulated environment will have on client service. In conclusion, risk management and quality assurance are important but must never be to the detriment of the client.“It’s all about service” as evidenced by TLT’s impressive growth which is all based on expanding services to existing clients.The ideal model.

MORNING WORKSHOPS

CRM Programmes – Jane Lax of Wragge & Co and Darryl Cross of LexisNexis Interaction (pictured below) looked at how technology could improve the quality and efficiency of a CRM programme as well as some useful tips on what constitutes good CRM to the client.

It was no surprise to learn that when managing key clients, small is beautiful (though a quick straw poll indicated many firms didn’t always pursue this mantra).We also discussed the importance of having a programme with SMART objectives – if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

We were reminded not to collect data for data’s sake – all data collected should be allied to your objectives.We also discussed the different business parlance sometimes used by fee-earners and marketers – and how this divide might be bridged.

The concluding points were to use technology to help you; focus your efforts on the right clients; and ask if you are unsure – as each client is different and should be treated so.

Integrating client care into management – Whilst most firms profess to provide superior client care, we needed an honest look at whether there was a gap between the rhetoric and the reality of what was really measured and rewarded.This was provided by Abby Ghobadian of Brunel Business School and Martin Powell of Withy King.

Again and again we heard the message that the vision has to come from the top and the importance of having a united commitment to the need for change.The importance of getting the service aspect right before the market opens up was also highlighted.We need to protect ourselves from client defections as more client focused brands enter the market.

Measuring client satisfaction, key account planning and the need for coaching were all discussed and an interesting debate was had about fees and how negative it was to compete on price, as well as the impact of electronic auctions.The conclusion was that successful businesses are those that can reinvent themselves in response to what the market wants, even before it’s required. The other workshops that could have been chosen in the morning were Gathering client intelligence and Key account programmes and service agreements.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Georgina Noakes took us up to lunch with the stepping stones to making a difference and emphasised the importance of being able to have a conversation with your clients. As well as some thought provoking poetry and concepts, we were left with a strong message about the need to have solid foundations of trust and courage to inspire our firms to adapt their behaviour.

Nothing happens if you don’t talk. After lunch Alison Spence of Advent International took us through the case study of establishing the Advent name in the UK through a communications and brandbuilding campaign and concluded that however successful a marketing communications initiative is, it’s never a substitute for focused activity on prospects.

AFTERNOON WORKSHOPS

Psychology of client care – A very popular session, led by Charles Sutton, which again picked up on the dynamics of the multiple contacts that a client has with a firm.

Research has shown that in first encounters with clients, 67% of lawyers never described the firm but instead spent the meeting talking about themselves, which obviously shapes the perception in the client’s mind! Perceptions need to change and something dramatically different and note-worthy to reshape thinking is needed.The importance of the story-teller was underlined in terms of creating and changing perceptions.

We also explored how violations can occur when thought hasn’t been given to the aspects that remain unsaid.

Best practice in a single office firm – Suzanne Godbehere of Cassels Brock and Tim Hill of Taylor Vinters recapped on the importance of business planning as well as discussing the use of online event surveys (including one which resulted in a 25% increase in response rates over paper).The proliferation of the web as a business development tool was also discussed, with the group discussing ‘must haves’ (on-line media kits) and ‘nice to haves’ (site personalisation). We also discussed measuring your referral currency, including useful tips on how to capture this management information.

Knowledge management and the use of training to inspire and engage were also discussed.

In addition to these two workshops delegates were also able to chosen sessions on either multi-office or large firms.

ROLE OF THE CLIENT PARTNER

The conference concluded with a presentation on the role of the client relationship partner by Tim Nightingale of Nisus Consulting by reference to feedback directly from the horses’ mouths garnered from this year’s survey of general counsel and what they look for in external advisers.

He highlighted the human aspects of relationship handling and, for example, the harm that treading on relationships can do, ie. client relationship partners attempting to cement relationships with others in the organisation but with the result of making the in-house counsel consider that they have ‘gone behind their back’.This came up surprisingly often. As ever, he made the points come alive with quotes and anecdotes from the clients and judging by the laughter in the audience, had hit a lot of nerves with observations about clients who may not know who their client relationship partner is, but more worryingly, partners who may not have appreciated it was them!

Joining Tim was Helena Samaha, partner at DLA Piper and previously Group Legal Director at Virgin Management, who was able to give us the benefit of both sides of the fence. Helena emphasised that not everyone has the same emotional intelligence or skills but that the role of a partner should be in managing the relationships and that those fee-earners who may be excellent at the technical advice, should be rewarded in a way that didn’t necessitate being made up to partner.

As ever the day concluded with more useful networking over a glass of wine and then back to ponder the lessons of the day.

Catriona Russell and Nick Moore of Farrer & Co.


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