Thursday 19 May 2016,

This was the first time I’d heard from Joe Fredericks and Mat Thorneton-Field from PCA and I wasn’t disappointed. It was a presentation full of practical and useful advice on how to better communicate with clients but the presentation was also refreshingly engaging.

The focus was on the conversation, and as both qualified lawyers and professionally trained actors Mat and Joe set about literally showing us what not to do when talking to a client. Ask yourself “How often am I so focussed on my own agenda that I forget to be ‘in the moment’?”

How do we listen? Are we listening to the client merely awaiting a gap in which to speak in a transactional conversation or are we listening for opportunities, being in the moment and developing a conversation as it happens, in order to build a meaningful relationship? The truth is perhaps we are listening for gaps rather than listening for opportunities more often than we should.

They went on to discuss the new trust landscape and the ‘commodification of communication’ with a focus on how we all relate to each other and to each other’s industries. They endorsed a move away from the transactional model of doing business (“I have something to sell”, “I will buy it”, repeat) towards the development of true Client Relationship Management (CRM), something we’re all aware of but can invariably improve upon.

We learnt that key to success of CRM is the suppression of self interest and the promotion of our own credibility, reliability and intimacy – aiming to score highly on the Maister, Green and Galford Trust Equation

Adapting our communication style to scoring high on the trust equation, maps directly onto a successful business development sales cycle:

  • Intimacy, in the sense of having an open discussion, can lead to the identification of new leads and uncovering of opportunities
  • Increasing your credibility helps get a deal over the line and demonstrates commerciality
  • Being reliable further deepens the relationship and can place you in a position as ‘The Trusted Advisor’

The ability to obtain ‘thick data’, qualitative information that provides insights into the emotions and visceral context of how people experience a product or service is invaluable. It goes beyond ‘thin data’ which offers merely surface level information about ‘what is happening’ and goes further to explain the why; the reasons for certain behaviours, why certain ways of working succeed better than others and so on.

It’s not all about listening though. Better listening demands better questions. The person that gets thick data is invariably flexible in their approach to a conversation, willing to dive deeper down to ask probing questions, drilling down to the crux of the issue and then being brave enough to say ‘So what?’. This will take the conversation forward and apply context to what the discussion means for your relationship. 

Before leaving us with a very interactive adaptation of how to conduct a wonderfully thick data mining conversation they posed a question – is it possible to be innovative?

Often there is pressure to be new, different, cutting edge, and of course be commercially viable all at the same time. For this to happen we need three things:

  1. From the professional services / fee winner’s side you have to inspire ‘Organisational Confidence’ - faith in your team and processes, courage to try something new and the trust of your client.
  2. On the other side of the conversation you must have ‘Client Creativity’ - a client has to want to change and arguably they should be the ones to come up with the creative ideas. It is their business and as an outsider our creative suggestions, however good, will not have the insider knowledge to make them exactly right.
  3. The last element required is ‘Productive Failure’ - this is a cultural shift that says try something and if you fail, the learning experience will still be valuable, potentially helping you come up with something brilliant in turn.

Unsurprisingly technology firms are particularly good at innovating, the Boston Consultancy Group Top 50 Innovative Companies is testament to that, but although the end point is innovation the way they get there is different. Mat used the examples of Google allowing staff one day a month to do what they want, without fear of failure or recourse. Microsoft is seemingly more culturally rigid but invests heavily in start-ups as a means to having access to the creativity and productive failure elements necessary to innovate.

This level of innovation does not happen typically in professional services as there is always the fear of accountability to the arbitrary measures we face; number of billable hours, amount of money brought in, the age profile and willingness of partners in the firm and their personal motives for resistance to change are just a few reasons for this.

What I was left with though were some very clear points and the Alexander Fleming analogy explains it best. The renowned Scottish scientist in his rush to go on holiday had an undeniable professional failure. He left his laboratory in disarray with dirty equipment everywhere.

BUT, when he got back, he had his eyes open; he stayed in the moment; asked the right questions; probing what was put in front of him and developing a set of thick data. The end result had not only commercial application but was innovative and truly ground-breaking - penicillin.

We could all benefit from being in the moment more, being inquisitive enough to listen for opportunities and to ask probing questions – we might just find ourselves much better off.

Matthew Pears
Associate Director, Citigate Dewe Rogerson.