Client listening expectations in Australia

In Australia, the business development professional at leading national firm is front and centre with respect to client listening. It's in the DNA of those firms and front of mind for clients – in particular, leading in-house counsel.

Anthony Nichola, Global Business Development Divisional Head (Finance, Funds & Restructuring), Ashurst

Listening to clients, properly listening to them, is no longer considered an investment in the relationship nor a 'value add/nice to have' – it's expected.

More than that, an investment bank client once said to me (and I'm paraphrasing), law firms often think that taking me out to coffee or lunch or dinner to talk about the relationship, your firm's performance and/or market developments is the firm investing in our relationship; you've got that backwards; that's me (the client) investing in you.

He went on to say that he's very happy to make that investment if he can see a correlating return on that investment – that's the expectation. The take-away for me in that exchange was that client listening is the client's investment in us - the expectation is the incorporation of those conversations in future delivery.

In leading national Australian law firms, that is squarely the focus of business development, and at times, other business services (commercial, strategy, pricing) professionals – but not partners.

This is in contrast to UK and US headquartered firms (including those that operate in Australia) where partners (usually independent partners to the relationship or matter) take lead and only on occasion do BD have a client facing role to play in client listening. In my opinion, this is to the detriment of acquiring the breadth of possible intel and insights.

In leading national Australian law firms, the typical role of a partner in client listening is one of facilitator – that does often mean the insights are skewed to the positive (a partner isn’t necessarily inclined to facilitate a client listening he or she knows is going to be damning of their efforts).

Nonetheless, BD professionals are expected to manage the client listening efforts of the firm. Clients are also receptive and familiar with this standard. BD's role also includes the management and escalation (where necessary) of insights to enable greater service delivery moving forward.

The benefits are multifaceted, not least of all in demonstrating the value our function can bring to the firm. It positions us right at the coal face of clients' preferences, needs and expectations. Whether it be to provide intel gleaned from a specific client decision maker, or more broadly a client holistically, or broader still, thematically across an industry/sector – BD gets a seat at the table with partners as the voice of client in the room.

“An investment bank client once said to me. law firms often think that taking me out to coffee or lunch or dinner to talk about the relationship, your firm's performance and/or market developments is the firm investing in our relationship; you've got that backwards; that's me (the client) investing in you.”

Flip this to a client's perspective and (as I've been told many times) having BD manage the interaction often positively disarms the recipient and enables are more free flowing conversation. The conversations are service delivery focused rather than technical acumen focused; they are centred on value, engagement, the market, challenges and opportunities.

Mostly, they are a dialogue led by the client on what the client wants to talk about and -they are just that - a conversation, not a sales pitch nor a fact-finding mission. Naturally every client is different and there will be some instances where it makes absolute sense for any interaction with a client to be partner led but positioned in the right way and managed/facilitated appropriately (by the lead partner) the best outcomes are realised when this is BD's domain.

Client listening in Australia does also take different forms. Online portals and questionnaires covering relationship check-ins as well as matter completion debriefs are quite common. BD teams manage the operational elements and the insights that return. This has proven highly valuable in the utilisation of metrics for success/KPIs and data driven decision making.

It also aids industry or sector specific thematic insights. The ability to cut and slice the info is quite powerful in supporting action. At times this does come at the cost of richer content or the ability to probe interesting commentary further, but there is most certainly a place for data and analytics in the client listening landscape and the inclusion of a digital component makes that possible.

There are many lessons to learn from this side of the pond. We are arguably a more mature market with respect to client listening and BD's role in that endeavour (not all firms of course!), but we've faced our fair set of challenges in getting to this point.

Demonstrating the value BD can add to client listening is crucial in owning the role that we can play. The market is more and more competitive and demands on partners (and lawyers in general) are ever increasing.

If we can enable them to focus on the client work, while we bring great insights to on-matter client delivery, off-matter engagement and intel / info on a client's perception of value, then there's a real opportunity to improve a firm's position in its competitor mix.