So What is Added Value?
The last of three articles on adding value to client relationships
In the first of these three articles we observed that added value from a client’s perspective is individual and personal – and sometimes the factors that make up added value are intensely personal. I have never had this observation challenged by professionals. They recognise that generic ‘solutions’ to the question of how to bring added value to a client relationship are no solutions at all.
So, to whom do we want to deliver this added value? The answer is not “the client”. The client is an amorphous collection of hundreds or possibly thousands of people, most of whom have no interest in their business’s advisers. We need to be specific and identify those individuals whom we believe are critical with regard to the way we are seen by the client organisation and are important from the perspective of us winning on-going work. The bigger we make this list for any client organisation, the more difficult we make the task and the more likely we will fail to embark on execution. So keep the list short and focused.
If we were asked, “What brand new invention would make your life better and easier?” most of us would struggle to provide any form of coherent answer. We are more likely to respond by saying, “If I knew the answer to that then I would become an inventor and be rich. I don’t know what my answer should be – but when I find that thing I will recognise it!” And so it is if we try the shortcut approach with clients. There is no harm in asking the question, “What could we do that would provide you with some form of added value?” but don’t expect a string of blindingly insightful answers. Expect to hear, more often than not, “I’m not sure, what do you think that you could do for us?” That could be tricky to deal with if we haven’t thought through some ideas or if our ideas are distinctly ‘me too’.
Asking the client
I have observed teams of fee earners sitting in meeting rooms trying to brainstorm ideas for a brilliant new way to differentiate their firm through providing some extra benefit to the client. But generally speaking, the solution is not in a firm’s meeting room, it is in the client’s head – which most of the time is on the client’s premises. The key to the solution is so obvious. We have to engage in real in-depth dialogue with the key people to whom we wish to bring this magical added value. The best place to do this is in a Client Service Review Meeting. This is not a meeting to discuss progress on the latest project or an opportunity to overtly cross-sell more of our firm’s capabilities (although through good listening we may find further ways we can help the client and earn money at the same time). It is meeting to review the whole of the relationship between the two businesses – past, present and future. The purpose and content of a client service review meeting is outlined on the sidebar below. And no, it’s not lunch.
By really, really listening during a Client Service Review Meeting (and not jumping in with half thought-through suggestions before we totally understand the client’s situation) we may well identify situations where an appropriate response may be, “Given what you’ve told me to this point, would you find it useful if we were able to ……”
When one considers the value that could emanate from such a wide-ranging meeting we still find it amazing that so many professionals agree to the concept of Client Service Review Meetings but, when pushed, have to admit that they have no form of regular client dialogue that covers the suggested ground. Of course, some clients will reject the idea of such a meeting – if they are the ‘shop’ clients referred to in article two in this series.
The soft stuff
Sometimes the factors that clients consider added value are somewhat intangible. We call this the ‘soft stuff’. Soft or not, when it is important to a particular client contact it can make a huge difference to their perception of our overall delivery as a firm.
Examples of soft stuff are:
That you know and really understand my industry and where our business fits into this. This makes your advice more fitting and tailored and it saves us time having to ‘educate’ you.
That you make the effort to really know the people in my team. This means that when we have to work together quickly on a big case or project that we hit the ‘performing’ button straight away – dispensing with the forming, storming and norming stuff that eats time, energy and money.
That you understand the demands made by my internal clients. If you know the kinds of people that I have to work for then you, as an external adviser, can present your work / recommendations in a way and format that I can immediately put in front of my internal clients. This saves me the time and effort of having to re-work your submissions in order to make them politically, as well as technically, correct.
That you spend time with us – even when there is not fee-earning work to carry out or supervise. This makes it easier for me to select you again. I am putting forward a ‘known face’ – someone who has attended important management meetings and who has rubbed shoulders with us at the bar at our annual conference. Also (and this is intensely personal) I just might believe that you actually like us – and as a differentiator and piece of added value I cannot think of anything more important.
That you provide me with information that helps me to carry out my role more easily or more effectively. This could be technical information, intelligence that you have discovered about my marketplace or general information that you know to be relevant.
That you help me to develop my own capabilities and the capabilities of my team so that we can become demonstrably more effective over time.
There may be many more. In short, help the client to be successful over time, without demanding anything in return and he/she will become the ally and advocate who will really cement our relationship with their organisation.
Finally, don’t expect the client to remember all of this added value next time they review their advisers! They may do, but then again they may not. It is important that we find time (and the right opportunities) to remind clients regularly of the benefits and added value they are receiving when they buy our services. This is especially true if they have to justify using our firm – at higher rates than some competitors – to the dreaded procurement department.
There are three golden rules to delivering added value:
- Understand what added value would mean to each person in each client.
- Find time to deliver this added value – the client cannot read our intentions, only our actions.
- Measure, demonstrate and remind our clients of this added value regularly.
Client service review meetings – purpose and content
- Understand what the client likes about what we do and plan to do more of it.
- Find out how the work is going from the client’s perspective and update plans for the next stages.
- Understand what the client is less than happy about in how we are delivering our services (‘the soft stuff’) and agree plans to improve this.
- Agree what the client can do to help us to deliver more effectively.
- Find out what is going on in the client organisation – current issues, people movements etc. – so that we are better able to defend our position in the client.
- Explore the future as the client sees it so that we are in a position to discuss any expertise we have which might be of value to the client in the achievement of their future plans.
- Identify opportunities outside of the expertise we are currently providing and, if appropriate, introduce the services of other parts of the firm.
- Build a more secure relationship with the people we know on the client’s side.
- Meet more people on the client’s side and bring in more people from our side thereby increasing the contact surface which is critical to the strength of the relationship between the two organisations.
- Make the client aware of the benefits we are bringing to their organisation / department. They may be fully aware and they may not. Unless the benefits we are delivering are in the front of their minds we will tend to be starting from scratch in selling our services with every new piece of work we try to win.
- Generate referrals into other parts of the organisation and into other organisations.
- Show that we care