The gathering and sharing of knowledge about key clients and prospective clients can have a fundamental impact on the success of a firm’s client plans – and in turn its long-term success and profitability. Many professional services firms put a lot of hours and much effort into key client plans and key prospective client plans. Sadly, a number of these initiatives end up gathering dust on a shelf and fail to be implemented fully, or to the firm’s advantage. Internal communication has a powerful role to play in making these plans a success. But how?
The importance of intelligence
The more useful information a firm can amass about a client (and the better use to which that information can be put to) the greater chance of winning and retaining the client in the long-term. Taking a global overview of all the intelligence gained on each client can bring great benefits. This intelligence can be used to map out the different needs of the client to identify clusters of similar needs and to tailor service offerings accordingly. Accurate intelligence (communicated well internally) can help firms put together unique ‘packages’ of services for each client, which adds real value to each one. It can ensure resources are focused on the services and methods of delivery that really matter to the clients. Providers of professional services are also able to stop wasting time and energy on things that are of no value from the client’s perspective.
For prospective clients, investing time getting to know a target organisation helps firms understand the issues and opportunities facing the prospect. This ensures that, when invited to pitch for the prospect client’s work, a firm’s solution can be totally tailored to that client’s situation. Above all, this knowledge helps to develop a competitive advantage over other firms who will be competing for the same work.
Unfortunately in this information-rich society, intelligence can become unwieldy and some firms find their client plans become cumbersome and impractical because of information overload. Collecting and sharing the right amount and level of intelligence is paramount to any key client plan’s success. Quality should always override quantity, as firms do not have infinite resources. But this is easier said than done.
Getting and sharing the right sort of intelligence depends on having four things:
- The right team in place
- The right kind of client interactions to amass knowledge
- The right Client Relationship Management (CRM) systems to share knowledge
- The right attitude to glean and share knowledge
Having the right team in place
Client relationships tend to be more profitable, more enjoyable and longer lasting when a professional services firm ‘match-makes’ the right people to be in their client service team.
We have seen some great client relationships formed and sustained when the firms in question put in place the right client manager with the right client team to manage the relationship and execute the work. People in those firms are selected for this purpose according to their ‘fit’ with the client – whether it is because of their expertise, experience, personality and/or interests. Once in place, the client team is given the responsibility of managing, protecting and developing the client relationship. Underpinning the success of this is the collection and sharing of knowledge. Good client teams (because of their passion and interest in their clients) are easily focused on gathering the information they need in order to support their clients. They also appear to be keener to share their knowledge, as they see how this can benefit the team as a whole.
Having the right client interactions to amass the knowledge.
Intelligence can be gleaned from a myriad of sources. Desk research using the web, media cuttings, client promotional material (to name but a few) can be valuable but also very time consuming. In terms of understanding the issues the client is facing, it is definitely quicker and more reliable to get it from the ‘horses mouth’!
Client review meetings, telephone calls to clients, chatting with their people when we are on their premises can all provide valuable insights which will help us understand more. This not only helps us get a better picture of the macro and micro issues facing the client, it enables us to check how the client views our relationship with them. For example, we can uncover what the client likes and doesn’t like about what we do. Such intelligence may help us identify opportunities outside of the expertise we are currently providing and – if appropriate – we can then cross-sell the services of other parts of the firm. This information should certainly be used to improve the way we do things so that the client regards our relationship with them as more valuable and irreplaceable.
Having the right Client Relationship Management (CRM) systems to share knowledge
Gathering knowledge is all very well, but unless it is shared among the people who can add value to the client relationship we risk duplicating effort, missing valuable opportunities or (worse still) annoying the client in some way. Professional services firms have invested a lot of money in Client Relationship Management (CRM) technological solutions over the years. Such systems work better when:
- They support rather than work in isolation of other reporting systems in the firm
- They do not duplicate effort in the recording and sharing of information
- The whole firm can easily see who its key clients and prospective clients are and the plans and client teams for each
- The whole firm is encouraged to feed any information it comes across on key clients and prospective clients to the respective client team – thus widening the firm’s radar for knowledge
- The systems are ‘live’ – constantly being updated/refreshed and assessed as new intelligence comes in
CRM systems needn’t be purely about CRM software. Client knowledge can be gleaned and shared through a variety of different ways within a firm. We have seen a number of different initiatives over the years. For example:
- E-bulletins about client successes, problems, requests for help/information etc
- Client sections on the firm’s intranet site
- Internal client team meetings
- Internal industry sector meetings – bringing together a number of different teams working with clients in the same industry
- Feedback from secondees once they return back to the firm
Having the right attitude to glean and share knowledge
A number of key client plans and CRM systems fail, because a firm does not have the right culture or attitude to make them work. Without the right culture, effective intelligence gathering and sharing is unlikely to get off the ground.
A key barrier to intelligence sharing is the fear of a loss of control. ‘My client’ is an all too familiar phrase in professional services firms. It demonstrates that the firm really comprises a bunch of individual fee-earners each with their own client base. In this case, there is no loyalty to the firm as a whole – if a fee-earner leaves the firm, their clients invariably go too. With this attitude, fee-earners are unlikely to share information or introduce colleagues into ‘their clients’.
The fear of loss of control is based on insecurity. It can be exacerbated when a fee-earner worries that a colleague who they put their client in contact with might be considered as brighter, more knowledgeable, more personable or more client oriented.
Where the behaviour is widespread within a firm, individuals quickly grasp that the path to success is to grab any opportunity that arises and never share the spoils with others. These problems often start at the senior levels within the organisation. The whole firm reflects the behaviours of those who run it – this is a key leadership issue.
There are, however, a number of activities that can help reduce the impact of this barrier. We have seen firms reorganise themselves to cultivate a culture of information sharing. This has been done in some respects by getting rid of physical barriers and creating a physical working environment that encourages people to talk to each other. Some have also created common areas where people from different parts of the firm can get together. Others have also defined and promoted best practice by insisting that partners and other influential individuals within the firm be seen to be role models of good communication. In the majority of firms who are successful in this field there has been a blanket ‘zero tolerance’ of information hoarding or ‘my client’ mentality – quite often dealt with through performance feedback, appraisal and remuneration systems. Such zero tolerance works well when it comes from the top and is supported and managed by the firm’s senior management.
Key client plans are vital to business development – both in terms of securing work from existing and new clients. The plans that work well are formulated around simple objectives, which are based upon the client’s needs and expectations of the firm. These plans live and breathe, as opposed to gathering dust on a shelf. To do so they require useful client intelligence to be openly communicated within the team and the firm. When information, best practice and client relationship successes are encouraged, shared and praised, the firm concerned is better placed to win and maintain valuable long-term client relationships.
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