Sharpen your client focus

Kim Tasso reports on this year’s PM Forum conference where delegates met up to discuss creating advantage in a competitive environment.

The 22nd PM Forum Conference started with chair Graham Munday of Hydrock getting us all on our feet for an ice-breaker. That raised the energy levels and we were off to an enthusiastic start.

Practical futurologist and digital disruption
Andrew Grill, practical futurologist and ex-IBM, provided a lively keynote. There were the usual scare stories such as the world’s largest marketing company WPP being hit by digital disruption and the headline “52% of Fortune 500 since 2000 have gone”.

He warned us that with such attractive profits, professional services firms were in the ‘Short fuse, Big bang’ segment and ripe for disruption. He showed us a list of new terms we should know (that’s our homework). He implored Boards to aim for digital diversity combining the ‘Born digital’ to the ‘Going digital’ tribes.

I liked his comments around “Where the product is free, the product is me” and the quote “It’s not what you know, it’s not who you know, it’s who knows what you know” (@JKHoey) to support networking. There was also strong endorsement for using LinkedIn to build personal brands.

It was an entertaining romp through many familiar themes – digital advocacy, digital eminence, amplification, block chain, GDPR and the gig economy – and a good reminder of the need to stay alert to avoid a similar fate to former market leaders such as Blockbuster, Kodak and Nokia.

Client relationship management
Anna Lind, Director of Client Relationship Management at JLL, talked us through the firm’s six-point system to manage critical client relationships:
• Client management operating model
• Client intelligence
• Skills development and training
• Career model and reward structure
• Client feedback
• Accountability and governance

I was impressed with the cool, calm confidence with which she described the enormous amount of work her seven-strong team manages. It was interesting that she observed that the firm does not have a CRM database system and that Client Relationship Management is entirely separate from the firm’s marketing team.

Managing international clients and pitches
Conference veteran Allan Evans, Global Head of Business Development and Marketing at BDO International, started with an array of quotes, facts and figures that demonstrated even small professional service firms have clients with international operations.

Whilst he acknowledged that cultures were homogenising, he also provided amusing examples that highlighted the importance of adapting to business practices around the world offering examples of cultural differences between the Dutch, Brazilian, Belgian and Middle East.

Allan then took an international lens to his firm’s business development five principles – Pursuit (choosing), Conversion (using), Cross-selling (buying), Servicing (staying) and Exploiting (recommending) – with a particular focus on managing international pitches.

His three top tips for surviving in an international business were:
1 Find a tribe of supporters
2 Learn about culture
3 Be prepared to travel (and spend time out in the evenings, for example, at night clubs and karaoke bars)

Personal effectiveness and building a brand
Daniel Priestley, co-founder of Dent and author of several books including Key Person of Influence, led a lively overview session which focused on the entrepreneurs’ journey supported by personal brand building.

His talk was littered with references to neuroscience and he offered interesting insights into how people make purchase decisions – with a prompt to be ready for the “pre-purchase content gorge”.

He took us on the entrepreneurs’ journey through the wilderness, desert and boutique phases towards being either a factory or a performance organisation. This resonated with many professional service firms.

Daniel described how to de-commoditise your personal brand (moving from being a Newbie to a Worker Bee to a Key Person of Influence) and shifting from functionality to vitality by using the SALT process (Social footprint, Awards and associations, Live appearances and Third party media).

His simple and elegant five step model was summarised as follows:
1 Perfect pitch
2 Publish your ideas (content)
3 Productise your value
4 Profile raising
5 Partnerships

Human vs machine – Automation and Artificial Intelligence
Fearlessly entering the graveyard slot wearing a pair of Google glasses in his signature orange, David Gilroy burst onto the stage. He showed us mind-blowing examples of computer learning and artificial intelligence including Google’s DeepMind. He shared some scary but exciting visions of the future with man and machine integration, emotion-detecting chat systems and robotics in the client experience but with the warning “Bots should not pretend to be human”.

Then David came back down to earth with a review of some of the current legal automation systems and the potential impact of GDPR and AI in marketing. He offered some practical resources on improving the quality of marketing writing and an analysis of how much medium-sized law firms spent on marketing as a percentage of turnover (average 2.1% excluding salaries). He finished with a flourish – a famous experiment showing an advert designed by a robot compared to the design by a human. Personally, I thought David’s talk was more future-facing and compelling than the session which started the day.

Driving your digital marketing
At this point I joined a smaller break out session run by Simon Marshall of Burges Salmon. It was an interesting stream of consciousness piece providing fascinating insights into digital marketing.

Using the flipchart with aplomb, he started with a hierarchy of processes – from communications, to marketing, to business development to client relationship management. He showed stats on the proportion of traffic to our web sites via home page (20%), social media (15%) and Google (55%). He showed that 55-75% of people use the first two SERP results, so SEO remains critical.

Simon explored the challenge of content copying and common mistakes in hiring digital talent – which in essence requires us to pay these folks enough – and in harnessing the power of employee advocacy. We laughed as he urged us not to join a professional service firm half way through a web redesign project and said that the relationship with the IT director was paramount. Before changing agencies he argued that the new work had to be 20% better than the incumbent. And he admitted that he would have used PPC and remarketing earlier and made some interesting comments about storytelling too.

Client panel – CIM, Transport for London and Fourfront Group
My favourite session of the conference is usually the final client panel and this year was no different.
Andrew Rogerson, of Grist agency, chaired a panel with Chris Daly, the Chief Executive of CIM; Polly Fox, a disputes solicitor at Transport for London; and Clive Lucking, Chief Executive of £160m workplace company FourFront Group.

There were interesting insights into how to improve pitching and client relationships as well as a couple of horror stories of when client entertaining goes wrong. It was good to hear that Grant Thornton’s integrated thought leadership and events programme was so well received by clients.

Concluding remarks
Graham did a quick summary of the day and reviewed some of the ‘What I will be doing differently tomorrow’ slips from the delegates. It was good to touch base with regular sponsors Vuture (marketing automation), Mytton Williams (branding), Emperor (design) and Passle (content distribution). I was also pleased to meet with new exhibitor Intapp which specialises in experience management to support pitching and the folks from HighQ and BoardEx.

For me, the key takeaways were:
• the need to be prepared for future disruption, globalisation and automation
• the value of simple firm-wide processes for building the business, managing the client journey and developing key clients
• marketing’s role as the client’s representative and the growing importance of research and client listening
• the increasing complexity of pitching – and the apparent continuing failure to get the basics right
• maintaining the delicate balance between the benefits of digital automation and the need to keep things personal through good people skills.

Kim Tasso is a management consultant, author and journalist. Further information at