Do you really care about your clients? Professional services | Nigel Clark | 17 February 2017

If you go to the heart of most professional services firms and look at what they focus on and the language they use, I think you will find it is not about the client.

‘Client-focused’ - ‘Client-centric’ – ‘Client Care’ - ‘Clients are at the heart of our business!’ 

Do you recognise those phrases? How many times do they feature on your website or in your marketing literature? How often does someone at your firm talk to a prospective client and proclaim that what sets you apart from the competition is your focus on client service?

This reminds me of some research that two strategy professors at the INSEAD business school conducted a few years ago. They looked at the stated vision and mission statements of some of the world’s largest and most admired companies. They then anonymised the statements and asked classes of their students to reconnect companies with their aims and words. Of course they couldn’t do it. Every one of the statements said pretty much the same as any other, so what chance did the students have?

I wonder if we did the same thing for the largest professional services firms and their claims on client service it would be any different. I doubt it.

But I fear the problem might be worse than that. It is not just that the claims on client service are not differentiators; it is that they might not be true.

Set aside the website and marketing literature. If firms really cared about their client first and foremost then surely the interests of those clients would dominate the language and behaviours within the firm, not just their public professions.

If you go to the heart of most professional services firms and look at what they focus on and the language they use, I think you will find it is not about the client. As with most businesses, you find what really matters and drives the firm are the interests of the business, its professionals and its partners (or owners). The focus is on revenue, profitability, growth, professional development, cost efficiency, and so on. The language is of utilisation or billability, charge-out rates and prices, partner profits, technical disciplines, qualifications and professional progress. Most firms use the term ‘fee-earner’! How client-centric is that?

It is the language, measures and behaviour of production, not the needs and demands of clients.

Now consider again our opening question ‘do you really care about your clients?’ Next replace the last word with ‘money’. Do you really care about your money?

Of course, the answer to that question would be a definitive ‘yes’ and we would see evidence across the business to show that. That is all largely fine (except for the ‘fee-earner’ part), because all businesses obsess about such things. What is important then is what drives a firm and its professionals to do what they do. Is it really about how much money they can make? Or is it about how they can connect professional capabilities, talents and interests in the pursuit of solving client issues?

So the real question then becomes do you care about your clients as much (or nearly as much) as your money. Because, of course, you won’t have any money if you don’t have any clients. And if all your metrics, behaviours and drivers are really set up to maximise the former, then what should you do to balance that better to promote the interests of the latter. And honestly meet – without crossing your fingers behind your back - your externally stated professions of love, devotion and dedication to your clients.

To help build a true client-led culture, ask yourself or your team the following question:

‘What actions / measures / rewards / behaviours / language do you see in this firm which either supports, or do not support, a truly client-led culture?’

If you are feeling very brave, you could run this session with a mixed client group, but you might want to do it with your team first, just in case you’re not ready for the shock!

You could list the responses as strengths and weaknesses or extend it further and go on to build a full SWOT. Either way, this feedback will reveal whether or not you have a client-led culture - irrespective of what your website and marketing material says!

The next step, of course, is to think how you can accentuate and reinforce the positives. And what you can do to counter the negatives.

Even if you cannot unpick a central plank of your firm’s culture and make-up e.g. utilisation measures or a practice-based structure, is there a counter-weight you can introduce? For example, could you share more client data alongside ‘production’ measures such as utilisation?

Pursuing an exercise like this and acting on the feedback should help you decide whether you do really worship at the altar of client-centricity and, if not, what steps you can take to put you onto the promised path.

Nigel Clark @nigelgclark