Managing a great client experience

In the final part of their series on the characteristics of a really great firm, PACE Partners look at how firms can improve the client experience they offer.
Back in 2007, we started this six part series on the characteristics of a really great firm. These businesses build an enviable reputation with their clients, employees and peers. As advisers to the professional services for the last 16 years, we are often asked what is the difference between a reasonably successful firm and a really great one? We would describe a really great firm as one that:

  • Achieves significant sustainable profitable growth
  • Has the right type of client base providing the right type of work at the right fees
  • Attracts and retains great people In our series of articles, we have looked individually at five of six key characteristics that we have seen produce these successes.

We have examined the goals and focus these firms set themselves, their leadership approach and choice of people, their service lines and product offers and also how they win new and repeat business.

In this final part of the series, we look at the last attribute. When professional services firms succeed here their clients not only stay very loyal, they rarely quibble about fees and they often act as ambassadors for the firm – referring and helping their advisers to win new clients. This attribute is the management of a great client experience and initially it comes from recognising how a client interacts with the firm and its people.

From this recognition often stems a quest to understand clients’ expectations and how they should be surpassed or exceeded in the service delivery. The ultimate aim being that each interaction the client has with the firm delivers a positive and beneficial experience.

Satisfying Expectations Profitably

The firms who really succeed here recognise that each client has different expectations and they respond to these differences in a profitable and efficient way.

In contrast, some of their less successful peers feel that responding to individual client expectations is both difficult to manage across their client portfolio and expensive.

The really great firms prove that actually the opposite is true. By taking the time to understand their clients they begin to identify ‘clusters’ of similar expectations across the portfolio. One law firm we worked with used this analysis of similarities to make simple tweaks to its service model.

The tweaks, focused on particular groups of clients, enabled the firm to stop investing resources in several service features that were not valued. The savings they made outweighed the time and energy investment required for the service ‘tweaks’. Over time, this firm found that client loyalty improved amongst these client groups and the way they serviced those relationships was more profitable.

Uncovering Expectations

But how do you uncover client expectations in the first place? Many professional services firms are very good at agreeing the ‘technical deliverables’ of an assignment when they work with a client. Frustration on both sides is sometimes caused by a failure to agree the softer elements, for example:

  • How the two sides are going to work together
  • How they will communicate
  • The roles and responsibilities of client team members
  • How meetings should be run
  • What the personal agendas are of the people inside and outside the team
  • The internal clients the client contacts have and need to keep happy
  • How information should be presented.

Great firms invest time identifying a client’s preferences to these elements and do so at different points in the relationship’s development. This is because expectations change and a firm can then respond quickly to changes that could affect the client experience. 

One accountancy firm we’ve worked with is very good at uncovering client expectations and monitoring changes to them. They have trained their people in good questioning and listening skills and have defined key avenues of exploration which their people use:

  • while selling to the client
  • in their final negotiations with them
  • at the start of their work with the client
  • at regular stages in the execution of the work
  • at the end of the project/time period.

This has enabled client service teams to solve specific issues as they arise and delight clients more quickly and responsively. One long-term result of this has been greater innovation in the packaging and delivery of services across the firm. The firm’s clients are so delighted with the pro-activity and responsiveness of their advisers that they have been more willing to purchase expertise from other practice areas of the firm and cross-selling is now more effective too.

Looking beyond current projects

Another firm, this time in the property sector, has been very good at using its client review meetings to explore client expectations. For this firm, these meetings – which are held regularly with clients (the exact frequency is decided by each client) – enables them to explore a whole range of service delivery components. They too train their fee-earners in good questioning and listening and coach them on client review meeting management. 

In doing so they have been able to explore what clients like about what they do, so they can plan to do more of it. This firm also explores how specific pieces of work are going from the client’s perspective and updates the plan for the next stage accordingly. They are not afraid to investigate what a client is less happy about and often agree plans to improve this. 

Looking beyond the factors relating to current projects, this firm regularly explores what is going on in the client organisation – its current issues, people movements and the like. It often extends its focus beyond the here and now to ask the client about how they see the future and the opportunities and threats for them on the horizon. 

This approach has led the firm to identify any weak spots in the service delivery that a competitor could exploit. It also develops a strong position to discuss any expertise they have, which might be of value to the client in the achievement of their future plans. 

The clients really appreciate the energy these advisers give in trying to understand them and their world. Increasingly, client feedback and satisfaction studies label this firm as one ‘that cares’ and this has become a very powerful message in attracting new clients too.

Tremendous Touch Points

Delivering a great client experience isn’t just the responsibility of the client service team. As a client, we experience many ‘touch points’ with different parts of a firm – there will be reception staff, the people in accounts, fee-earners, marketing efforts, to name but a few. Each of these touch points can sweeten or sour a client relationship and so the greatest firms put a lot of energy into communicating, training and managing their people to deliver a consistently good client experience. 

We have seen some firms analyse all the different touch points they have with clients and then look at them from the client’s perspective. This is a bit like using a mystery shopper in the retail sector, but with the firms testing different variables in their client interactions. 

Such firms are the ones who usually have a strong client relationship culture – they have defined values focused on the client experience and these are very much evident in all they say and do. These firms don’t pay lip-service to client experience management – it is something they do with a passion and this is evident throughout the firm. They structure their reward and recognition programmes to demonstrate their commitment to delighting clients and they are very focused on the people they recruit into the firm. Their people often demonstrate similar values to the firm, which makes a great client experience easier to develop.

These firms are a delight to work with and their clients often describe the experience as very comfortable and enjoyable. Their buzz and passion is infectious and as a result their clients are very loyal. In doing so they often rave about the small, simple things that these firms do.The client experience here is not built on grand client corporate hospitality, swish client gifts or the like. Instead, it is created through:

  • attention to detail
  • efficiency
  • great communication
  • genuine interest in the client and their people
  • simple personal touches that don’t necessary incur masses of time or cost but do generate significant value from the client’s perspective

One niche engineering firm we came across found that increasingly its clients were demanding more meetings at their (the firm’s) offices. We thought this a bit strange and so asked why this was the case. The firm said that they would really like to meet their client contacts at their (the client’s) offices – it would help to build an even greater understanding of the client’s world. However, more and more clients were preferring to come to these advisers rather than bringing their advisers to them. They loved the experience so much. They really liked meeting the firm’s people, they appreciated the welcome they received and the buzz they gained as a result.They felt this investment of their time and energy was really worthwhile.

What’s your client experience like?

When asked, each of us can usually describe a great client experience we’ve had – for some of us it was a stay in a great hotel, a meal at a restaurant, the purchase of a car, etc. Rarely do we associate great experience in the context of professional services, but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. There are some firms doing very well here and their clients can’t get enough of them. These are the firms who invest time in understanding their clients’ expectations and the nature of the client experience at every touch point. They then pro-actively manage their service delivery and client interactions to surpass those expectations profitably. In return for this energy and investment, their clients reward them by:

  • talking passionately about them
  • recommending them to others
  • purchasing additional services from them
  • having them ‘front of mind’ when they face a challenge or opportunity
  • wanting them to develop service lines that they don’t currently offer
  • staying loyal and resisting competitive advances