Stirring the secret sauce of business development

Once seen as a rather niche activity (and maybe even a chore), client listening is now front and centre in business development. Bird & Bird’s Susie Greene has seen that journey and cautions that if we’re not listening – and properly – then the chances are someone else is.

Susie Greene, Senior Client Listening Manager, Bird & Bird

I’ve been around long enough to have experienced several different facets of business development: everything from market operations, revenue and resource planning to new business origination, account management and broader sector support.

And I’ve had the good fortune to conduct a number of client listening interviews during this time and bring their voices into my role. It’s been fascinating to see how client listening and its interface with business development and client relationship management has evolved: what was once a rather niche activity that was viewed as a chore has moved to front and centre.

Marketing and BD professionals have long recognised the value it adds to identifying and winning opportunities, and, once we’ve won that work, developing sustainable long-term client relationships. But we are also increasingly seeing how client listening can be leveraged to inform approach around things like campaigns, branding, legal operations and legal tech.

I recently moved into a new role at Bird & Bird leading the firm’s client listening programme and am excited about where we can take it.

Our global survey has been running for almost 10 years and in this time we’ve gained some extremely valuable insights. Throughout the pandemic our clients’ business objectives, challenges and operating models changed so rapidly client listening became more important than ever.

We could no longer make assumptions about our clients’ needs. And travel bans, home working and modern technology made it much easier to speak to them informally. In parallel, we’ve all become much more used to providing feedback in consumer settings, whether that’s hitting a green smiley face after we’ve passed through airport security or filling in a ‘quick’ supermarket survey, only to realise 37 questions later that it’s not very quick at all!

The time has come to take our client listening programme to the next level to include different modes of listening – in particular qualitative in-person interviews – on an ongoing basis, aligned to key points in the client journey, and with the focus on actionable insights rather than metrics. The main thing is that we give our clients an opportunity to tell us what they think at a time that works for them and in a way that works for them.

I spent a number of years at a ‘Big Four’ firm where client listening was “business as usual” and very much integrated into managing day-to-day client relationships. Large-scale pursuits came with considerable investment of time and resource, and to justify this investment we were expected to demonstrate a disciplined approach to no/no go evaluations and win/loss reviews.

I would routinely go to see senior clients - usually CFOs and CEOs - and speak to them about their needs, issues, long term plans, and experiences of working with my colleagues, whether that was their annual audit, tax return or a big transaction.

Without thinking about it too much, I became used to distilling key insights, feeding back to the business, writing up reports, extracting the key actions and integrating them into the account plans for my clients. I was that annoying person who went around pestering the fee earners to ensure they’d followed up on their actions.

It wasn’t very glamorous, and I’m sure they groaned when I asked yet again if they’d had any luck getting that follow up meeting in the diary, but it was very necessary and key to fulfilling our client promise.

And I’ve sat through countless internal meetings where client relationship partners have been reprimanded by a group head for not having regular client listening in place with their clients and warned that, if they wanted BD support and budget for client entertaining, they’d better pull their socks up.

Working at a larger firm is not without its challenges, however. There’s potential for duplication of effort, the systems and processes can sometimes be slow to evolve to meet the demands of the business and doing comprehensive client listening with complex global clients could be a long, drawn-out affair.

“At the end of the day we mustn’t forget that our clients expect us to listen to them. And if we’re not doing this, then chances are someone else is!”

I’ve learned so much in my new role. In many ways I think lawyers are very intuitive and adept at understanding their clients’ wider needs. However, within law firms the infrastructure, processes and culture to support client listening are not always in place. That said, there is a fantastic opportunity to have better conversations with clients to deliver better commercial outcomes.

Whilst I’m keen to crack on and speak to as many clients as possible, I’m mindful that - for some of my fee earning colleagues - the case for client listening has yet to be made. They might see it as something that happens to them, rather than a valuable tool they can leverage to strengthen their relationships and position themselves as trusted business advisors.

I may have conducted hundreds of client listening interviews down the years and have heard it all before, but this is very new to many of them, and might make them nervous. In reality, complaints are few and far between, often relating to small niggles and can be easily fixed. Invariably the insights gained and opportunities spotted in an interview far outweigh any issues or complaints.

The exciting thing about working in a firm like Bird & Bird is our ability to be agile and respond quickly to what the market is telling us. I’ve recently worked with some lawyers looking to unpick some specific issues and we’ve used in-person interviews very effectively here.

Like in any relationship, the lawyers have a jumble of thoughts and questions bouncing around their heads, like a tombola or lottery drum.

Why didn’t they ask us to pitch for that recent piece of work? Would they consider using us for data protection work in Asia? Have we got the mix of juniors/seniors right within the team? Am I spending enough time with the GC sharing insights? Would they like us to run a workshop on the latest regulatory changes with the team? Should I send them newsletters or do they feel like we’re spamming them? Y person doesn’t return my emails, should I stop trying? With a few carefully considered questions, I could quickly get to the heart of what the client wants and we then had a few key insights popping out of the lottery drum which are used to drive the relationship forward.

You’d be amazed the goodwill that just showing up and listening can generate. I used to joke that taking off my coat and getting out my notebook was half the battle, and I’ve experienced so many situations where the client has proactively offered a follow up or introduction on the back of a client listening interview. On one recent call a client took out her to-do list and read it out! Clients appreciate us taking the time to really listen to them and often want to pay us back.

In my experience, the single biggest challenge with client listening is to take the insights and actually do something with them. Most of my colleagues can understand on an intellectual level the benefits of listening to clients, but they’re often not quite sure what to do next.

That’s where my BD background comes in handy. I’ve got plenty of experience of integrating feedback into the day-to-day actions list of the account plan. I find it’s useful to discuss the feedback with the client relationship partner to get a better understanding of context. I always draw up a list of suggested actions but encourage the lawyers to test different approaches until they find something that works.

It’s worth remembering that our clients are just as keen to make things work and don’t necessarily expect us to come up with all the answers.

They’re generally very willing to help come up with efficiencies and improvements with a view to driving a sustainable long-term relationship that adds value to both sides. More broadly, the insight gained on clients’ main challenges and the strategic focus of their business can influence the marketing activities and topics firms focus on, ensuring that they strike a chord with clients.

I’m excited to see where client listening will go in the next few years. It’s been fascinating speaking to peers, competitors, and the various consultants in the market to hear about what’s happening.

There are so many developments in recent years. From the shift away from formal structured processes focused on metrics towards more informal and ongoing listening focused on insights, not to mention the huge innovations around technology and AI which drive much more effective and user-friendly analysis and reporting.

At the end of the day, though, we mustn’t forget that our clients expect us to listen to them. And if we’re not doing this, then chances are someone else is!