Fathoming the unfathomable

To avoid falling out, firms must understand their clients’ expectations and adapt to satisfy them. But what do you do if the expectations are unreasonable? How can firms keep clients without hammering their profitability?

When a client changes their advisers, it invariably is because the firm has in some way failed to live up to that client’s expectations. Understanding and delivering client expectations is somewhat of a quest for professional services firms – the ultimate prize being client loyalty, repeat instructions, client referrals of new business opportunities and the establishment of barriers to their rivals. Being viewed as client-focused in a crowded market place obviously has its advantages and indeed many professional services firms state the aim of exceeding or surpassing client expectations in their mission statements and promotional material.

Client’s expectations are neither right or wrong – they just are! Like any good quest, understanding and then meeting or exceeding them is easier than it sounds. The road to determining what clients want regularly needs to be adapted, tailored and frequently reviewed for each client to ensure it ultimately achieves its goal.

Challenge 1 – Different expectations
The first challenge comes in the fact that all clients have different expectations. We therefore cannot assume that how one client wants to interact with us will be the same for another. Different clients view us in different ways. Some may need basic advice to comply with a piece of legislation. Others may want their hand held or someone to consult for many business decisions. The spectrum between these two is obviously very broad and without knowing what type of adviser the client is looking for, firms can send out the wrong signals or approach the client relationship in an inappropriate way. It is therefore important to understand what type of relationship our clients are looking for in appointing us. A model we have seen a number of firms use to help with this is the Rackham and de Vincentis Supplier Segmentation Matrix.

The matrix forces these firms to put themselves completely in their clients’ shoes. They have to think how the client thinks. The horizontal axis represents how difficult it would be for one of their clients to replicate the services and relationship that they receive from them today from another provider. If the firm feels that the client would place them at the far right of this axis then the client believes that they are almost unique. On the other hand if the client places them to the far left then they see that firm’s overall offering as something of a commodity.

The vertical axis can represent two factors. One is the strategic importance of the services that a firm offers to its clients and/or the significance of the level of spend in the client’s eyes. The higher the positioning on the vertical axis the more significant the firm is to the client in terms of either overall expenditure, strategic importance or both of these factors.

The matrix enables us to see what type of relationship each client wants from us, in doing so we can organise our efforts. This could mean becoming more efficient (and perhaps more profitable) for those clients in the bottom left quadrant. This could in turn free up more time to respond to the more complex needs of those in the top right. With the matrix overview, we can also plan how we might improve our positioning from one quadrant to another. It is worth remembering that you should strive to deliver services based on client needs and wants, rather than the type of relationship you would prefer.

Challenge 2: When and how to uncover client expectations?
Managing client expectations successfully depends on our understanding, influencing, setting and agreeing those expectations at every stage of the relationship. These stages include:

  • While selling to the client
  • In our final negotiations with them
  • At the start of our work
  • At regular stages in the execution of the work
  • At the end of the project/time period.

In finding out how we are doing against the client’s criteria and the service they expect, we need to ask for feedback and do so with genuine interest and in such a way that the client feels comfortable and says what they really think. As well as our main point of contact, we need to ask all the people who are influenced by our work, we also need to ask regularly and not just when we think they will say nice things about us. We need to make it as easy as possible for the client to complain (or give us constructive criticism) and we need to record their views and double check that our understanding of them is accurate. A client satisfaction survey and one client review every year, is unlikely to achieve all this information.

Challenge 3: Determining the ‘soft’ expectations 
Many professional services firms are very good at agreeing the ‘technical deliverables’ of an assignment. Frustration on both sides is sometimes caused by a failure to agree the ‘soft stuff’, for example:

  • How the two sides are going to work together
  • How they will communicate
  • Who the client should speak to if they get nervous about progress
  • How meetings should be run
  • What the personal agendas are of the people inside and outside the team,
  • How information should be presented.

Challenge 4: Dealing with unreasonable expectations 
If the client’s expectations are unreasonable, or we are unable to meet them and we know what they are at the very start of an assignment, then we have a chance of influencing them. Whether the client will listen will depend on the level of trust we have managed to develop in the relationship. If the expectations are unreasonable and we cannot influence them, to maintain credibility we may need to walk away from this particular work. This is painful but much less so than a client dissatisfied with our delivery.

The value of client review meetings
Client review meetings are incredibly valuable in understanding and meeting client expectations. These meetings should not be seen as simply an opportunity to discuss progress on a project – they can be much more. Here some examples of what can be achieved. We can:

  • Understand what the client likes about what we do and plan to do more of it
  • Find out how any specific pieces of work are going from the client’s perspective and update the plan for the next stage
  • Understand what the client is less happy about in how we are delivering the service 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 with 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 – cross-sell 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 crucial to the strength of the relationship between the two organisations
  • Make the client aware of the benefits we are bringing to their organisation/department
  • Generate referrals into other parts of the organisation and into other organisations
  • Show we care.

Delivering to client expectations
Part two of our quest obviously focuses on our need to deliver successfully to the client’s expectations. Clients are not made unhappy on purpose. Most examples of dissatisfaction occur as a result of misguided attempts to keep the client happy. The main cause of these is a tendency to over-promise on a project and then under-deliver in the performance. Those firms that are more successful at meeting and exceeding client expectations organise themselves so they can deliver and surpass expectations in doing so.

They get in place the right client manager with the right client team to manage the relationship and execute the work. People in the firm 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. Key client plans are fundamental to this and the teams formulate them around simple SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, responsibility-assigned and timed) objectives which are based on the client’s expectations. These plans live and breathe, as opposed to gathering dust on a shelf. Information is openly communicated within the team and the firm and best practice or successes in key client management are encouraged, praised and shared.

Client expectations are not unfathomable and firm’s can reveal, manage and deliver to them. The road to do so, does need reviewing regularly and expectations change and are never static. They vary according to each and every client. However, this in itself presents a number of opportunities to professional services firms – both in managing what resources they have to delight all their clients in a more profitable way. It also enables firms to change or influence their clients’ current perceptions and need for them, so they can perhaps help them with a wider range of needs and requirements in the future.


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