Know your client

Property advisers need to keep their wits about them in a downturn if they are to fend off competitors. Romey Ghadially and Gary Williams advise on how to keep clients happy and forestall competitive advances. It is being said that 2008 is presenting more in the way of challenges than opportunities for business, especially in the property sector. In difficult times, property firms have historically expended greater energy on protecting vital client relationships and building loyalty.

How, though, can a property adviser protect its clients from competitive advances and ensure that it is retained? This article sets out five strategic options for consideration.

Strategy 1: Go back to basics

It may sound obvious, but getting the basic service components right is the key to successful client protection. Some property advisers fail to recognise that, in many cases, a client relationship is being undermined and frustration caused by one minor element in the service. This often stems from an assumption of what a client wants, rather than directly ascertaining its needs. Left uncorrected, this may create a weak spot that competitors can exploit.

In nurturing client loyalty, the most successful property firms understand their clients’ different expectations and meet these in a profitable way. By investing time and understanding, they establish and agree the expectations at each stage in the relationship. These stages include:

  • While selling to clients
  • In final negotiations with clients
  • At the outset of the work
  • At regular stages in the course of the work
  • At the end of the project/time period.

These firms ask for feedback and do so with genuine interest and in such a way that the client feels able to say what it really thinks. As well as the main point of contact, they will also approach all those in the client organisation who are affected by their work. They do this at regular intervals – not only when they think the client will say complimentary things.

Successful property firms make it as easy as possible for the client to complain or give constructive criticism. They will record the client’s views and check that their understanding is accurate. In this way, they can build a service around the key components required by their clients.

Although property advisers are usually very good at agreeing the technical elements of a project, frustration on both sides is often caused by a failure to agree the “soft stuff”. This invariably includes how the firm and client will work together – such as, for instance, the regularity and format for communication. It is therefore advisable to check clients’ likes and dislikes in respect of service delivery and to make the necessary changes.

Strategy 2: Shore up defences

It is necessary to develop a strong relationship with each client. Nurturing and protecting client relationships and analysing the strength of these will help to identify any weaknesses or gaps that a competitor could exploit. In many cases, such weaknesses will result from a lack of adequate relationships with sufficient key decision makers in the client company.

By analysing relationships, it is possible to enhance relations with key individuals. In doing so, the property adviser should select people in the firm who will best “fit” with a specific person in the client organisation play to strengths and match interests, personalities and styles of working across the two businesses – do not choose people because they have spare capacity.

Strategy 3: Deliver real value

Clients that receive good value from their property advisers not only display greater loyalty, they also tend to be useful advocates.

Delivering value does not mean offering discounts or doing something for free, and what one client sees as added value may not extend to the entire client portfolio. Added value will vary from client to client delivery of this requires an understanding of what each client perceives it to be.

This is not as onerous as it sounds, since there will inevitably be clusters of similar needs and desires. Different added value options can be offered that contribute to profitability. To appreciate what a client would perceive as added value, it is necessary to consider what could make its operation easier. This may come directly from the client, or it may require the use of sources such as client research, feedback after each project and in-depth dialogue with key people in the client organisation.

In some cases, the factors that clients consider to constitute added value are intangible. 

For example, clients require their property advisers to:

  • Know and understand the industry and where their business fits into this
  • Make an effort to know their people
  • Understand the demands made by internal clients
  • Spend time with them – even where there is no fee-earning work to carry out or supervise
  • Provide them with information that enables them to carry out their roles more easily and effectively
  • Help them to develop their capabilities and those of their teams, so that they can become more effective.

By responding to and developing these elements, property advisers can help a client to achieve its goals. Eventually, key client contacts will become advocates of the adviser within their organisation.

Strategy 4: Repositioning in the client’s mind

Many property firms find that clients pigeonhole them as providing only a particular range of expertise. Some also worry that, in trying to position a new service or sell a colleague’s capabilities, they may come across as being pushy and at risk of damaging the relationship.

The key to altering a client’s perception, while remaining professional and valued, comes from understanding the client, its business and its situation. Widening a client’s view requires a comprehensive knowledge of that client to establish tailored solutions that draw upon the wider capabilities of the firm. The motive is not to sell more services. It should instead be a genuine desire to provide the client with greater support and value and thus help it to achieve its business objectives.

This attitude becomes apparent in the property adviser’s actions. It will target clients with activities and correspondence that relate to their specific interests and issues. The clients become more disposed to listen and the adviser is able to introduce additional expertise by stressing its direct benefit and value to the client.

Strategy 5: The same hymn sheet

A client manager may deliver excellent client management, but their enthusiasm alone is not enough to build an impenetrable relationship.

The client may deal with a number of property advisers from the firm and the service experience may vary enormously. It is therefore important to ensure that the advising team has clear goals, strong leadership and highly motivated members. 
The more successful firms ensure that staff adhere to defined best practice. Staff should be adequately trained and appraised.

None of this can be achieved unless client management is taken seriously, and this motivation has to come from the top. Client loyalty is earned through having a thorough understanding of the importance of client management both from fee-earners and support staff.

It pays to protect

Competitors will always approach clients. However, if clients believe that their property adviser has an up-to-date and comprehensive understanding of what is important to them and if it provides real value, they will remain faithful.

As with any business activity, achieving this will require careful planning, but the rewards for doing so are immense: namely low client turnover, increased fees, client referrals and recommendations and the prompt payment of fees.

In planning the protection of clients, property advisers should not merely focus on managing their fee-earning work. The relationship has many more facets than this and indivi dual client plans should reflect these.

Nurturing the client

  • Reassess your services and question whether they fully meet your client’s expectations.
  • Ask the client what it wants, agree what is feasible and put plans in place to deliver the promise.
  • Defend your client relationship by building more key contacts in the client organisation. Uncover the needs of different key decision makers and design a plan to satisfy them.
  • Develop your client relationship – consider what is going on in the client’s world and identify new areas that would offer them greater benefits and added value.
  • Project manage and plan your client relationship activities so that all those working on a particular account offer a consistent approach to client management.

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