When it comes to listening, deploy a crack team
We know that when done properly, client listening delivers the most effective ROI of any activity in the business development toolbox. But we also know that effectively embedding a culture of sophisticated client listening within a professional services firm is hard.
I was delighted to be asked to write for this issue of Centrum. I was even more delighted when I was told the theme was ‘client listening’. I know that as business development professionals, listening is what we do but, let’s be honest, we’re coming out of an unparalleled two years and the world has changed for us, our clients and our colleagues.
Very often client listening is positioned as something that sits within a key account management (KAM) programme, but we can achieve a great deal more if we broaden the scope. Using your client and targets as a focus group can really accelerate business transformation.
I’m a big advocate of establishing a desired state and working backwards. Perhaps you are setting up a client programme - in which case insights from your clients and targets absolutely should form the bedrock of any initiative.
And, as you might expect, approaches to execution differ.
I’ve worked at firms where client listening is literally insisted upon as one of a number of relationship hygiene ‘mandatories’ that client partners are personally assessed against.
I’ve worked at firms where it’s a KPI for all clients on a programme. I’ve worked at firms where territory targets are laid at the feet of managing partners, and I’ve worked at firms where it’s an informal chat over a boozy lunch.
In my current firm we’re lucky enough to enjoy some great relationships that go way back, with many clients very much at the “bond” end of the value chain, but there is still every reason to put some structure around client feedback.
There’s no right or wrong way to skin this cat because there are so many factors in play: your firm’s culture, previous experience of client listening, strategic focus, bravery of the partners. What’s important is that it happens, and that what is heard is acted upon.
Once you’ve achieved a decent volume of feedback, thoughts naturally turn to embedding a culture of client listening across the firm, and it doesn’t always have to be business development led.
Senior associates can undertake case reviews; finance, learning and development, corporate social responsibility, diversity and inclusion, and administrative teams can talk to their peers in client organisations. Communicating a clear strategic vision or relationship objectives throughout the business ensures everyone understands the role they can play. Deploy your crack team of intelligence agents into the field to gather as much information as they can.
Moreover, client listening doesn’t always have to occur in the context of relationship management. Maybe you are trying to shift behaviours and mindsets. It can be hard to influence change, particularly in a business services role, so asking clients what works for them and what they would like to see gives extra weight to your recommendations.
“It’s vital to strike a balance between being the voice of the client within the business as well as demonstrably being on the partners’ side. We are all working towards the same goal and the more you can do to make their lives easier, help them to look good in front of their peers, and deepen relationships the more traction you will get.”
For example, you might be thinking about a leadership programme. This is a hot topic for most businesses who are often more than happy to share what matters to them and how they have navigated similar challenges. The mere act of seeking opinion firmly positions your organisation as a client-centric business partner.
You might be considering a new product or service line so using your ready-made focus group to test a concept can bridge the gap from hypothesis to solution. Win/loss reviews can help you refine your pitch process, and matter reviews are a great way to develop process efficiencies. Digging deep into specific projects provides an opportunity for quick wins through immediately actionable feedback as well as an ongoing data gather for continuous improvement models.
So, what’s more important – getting it done, or doing it properly? Though it chafes my natural preference for completeness, ultimately something is better than nothing and as with any change programme it’s important to bring people on the journey with you.
For firms new to “formal” feedback, overprocessing can be off-putting. When trying to get buy-in it’s important to emphasis the benefits and simplicity of what you are trying to achieve, so starting small and building up can be a great way to win hearts and minds. As these rich insights are uncovered and acted upon - with inevitable operational improvements - you’ll find the results do the talking and you are no longer in sales mode.
It’s vital to strike a balance between being the voice of the client within the business as well as demonstrably being on the partners’ side. We are all working towards the same goal and the more you can do to make their lives easier, help them to look good in front of their peers, and deepen relationships the more traction you will get.
Is there any reticence try to find out what might lie at the root of the issue. Is the process or the outcome the problem? If it’s the process, work with your stakeholders to figure out what an effective workflow might look like. If it’s the outcome, reassure them insights are confidential and those insights will give them power to transform average relationships into flywheels.
Fear of the unknown can be paralysing so start with baby steps, over-communicate and simplify. Working on a client where you know the feedback will be positive, or with an influential partner who can advocate on your behalf can be a great way to kick off.
I’d love to hear what works for you.
Specialising in forensics, corporate finance, debt, restructuring and pensions, FRP Advisory deliver strategic solutions across a broad range of situations, getting under the skin of businesses in complex and difficult situations. With more than 530 people including 80 partners, the firm has a deep understanding of why crises happen and how to find a way out.