The wolf at the door

When businesses start to go hungry they are forced to go out to hunt — their most desired potential prey being the clients of their competitors. Those law firms that make every effort to deliver excellence in all that they do for key clients tend to defend their client relationships more successfully and keep voracious competitors at bay.

It is unlikely that anyone really disagrees with the notion that excellent client management is important. It means that clients pay their bills, that they continue to give us work and that they include us in their thinking when new opportunities for work arise. Also, the image of being recognised as a client-focused firm is a positive one in a crowded marketplace.

Not all firms, however, claim that their client management is excellent. Those that do excel in this area tend to have created and manage a firm-wide key client management process. This process focuses on the client relationship in its entirety to deliver excellence in four key areas — managing fee earning work, defending clients, developing client relationships and client project management.

Firstly, let us look at managing fee earning work. How well a firm performs in its work can only really be judged by its clients’ perceptions. Perceptions are neither right nor wrong, they are simply the client’s views of their legal advisers based on their experience of them. For a client to remain loyal, they need to be positive. This comes from a belief that their needs and expectations are being satisfied or exceeded.

Meeting client expectations depends on fee earners understanding, establishing and agreeing those expectations at every stage of the relationship. This will be while selling to the client, in the final negotiations, at the start of work, at regular stages in the execution of the work a nd also at the end of the engagement. A client’s expectations can be gleaned from our conversations and/or planning meetings with them. While fee earners often make a good job of agreeing the technical deliverables of an assignment, frustration on both sides is sometimes caused by a failure to agree the soft stuff. This invariably includes how the two sides are going to work together, how they will communicate, how meetings should be run, and so on.

Having established and agreed the client’s expectations, fee earners are in a much stronger position to plan and execute work so that it meets or exceeds these expectations. In doing so, those firms that are very good in this area continue to communicate with the client throughout the planning and execution stages. This enables them to cross-check expectations in case they have changed. It also enables these firms to make improvements to their overall service delivery.

Managing and executing excellent fee earning work alone will not prevent a client from being interested in competitors. Firms also need to proactively defend their client relationships. When clients regard the actual relationship with their legal advisers as tremendously valuable, it is very hard for competitors to poach them.

All clients should receive excellent service in relation to the way fee earning work is managed and delivered. Key clients, however, require a more proactive approach to strengthening the relationship. These are the clients that, if they took their business away tomorrow, would have a serious and negative effect on the law firm’s business.

So what does a more proactive approach to key client relationships entail? First of all, it means identifying those key clients where proactive relationship building will pay dividends in terms of related business. It then requires fee earners to understand what these clients want and to ensure this is delivered.

Firms that are good at this also analyse the strength of their relationships with their key clients and identify any weaknesses or gaps that a competitor could exploit. These gaps could include not knowing or having relationships with enough of the key decisionmakers in a company, or not fully understanding the client’s industry. From this analysis, successful firms formulate and execute plans to address these gaps and build even stronger relationships with their key clients. They monitor the success of these plans and amend them as the relationship evolves and changes.

Many law firms often bemoan that clients ‘pigeon-hole’ them as providing a particular range of expertise. The issue is that the client does not realise that the law firm could help and support them in a much wider capacity. Client development is about promoting the totality of the law firm’s business to key clients in order that they believe the range of capabilities the firm possesses. This is not about trying to flog a range of services to get a bigger share of the client’s wallet. If this is our key motive it will, in time, become apparent in our actions and the client will resist all our advances.

Client development is about developing the client and their business. Those firms that are successful in this respect use all the knowledge and information they gather during the relationship-building process to establish tailored solutions that draw on a wide range of capabilities from within the firm.

The aim is not to get a bigger share of the client’s wallet — it is to provide even greater support to the client and help them achieve their business objectives. This requires marketing to clients with targeted activities and correspondence that correlates with their specific interests and issues.

The fourth segment of successful firms’ key client management processes comes in the form of client project management. This is not to be confused with managing fee earning work. Client project management is about the firm’s culture and approach to excellent key client management. Those firms that excel in this area create systems and ways of working that ensure all the people involved with key clients contribute to the knowledge and plans relating to them.

In doing so, these firms ensure that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to delivering excellent client service and defending and developing the client relationship.

This cannot be achieved unless key client management is taken very seriously and this motivation needs to be driven from the top of the firm. Firms that have a high loyalty from their key clients tend to have real buy-in and understanding of the importance of key client management among both their fee earning and support staff. They also generate an internal plan that is aimed at improving the way the interface with each key client is co-ordinated.

To summarise, competitors can be kept at bay if our clients believe we give them tremendous value and they truly prize their relationship with us. Just like any business activity, achieving this requires a process and careful planning. The rewards for doing so are immense — low client turnover, increased fees, client referrals/recommendations, prompt payment of fees to name but a few. In planning the protection of key clients, law firms should not just focus on managing their fee earning work. There are more facets to the relationship than this.

Finding client solutions beyond those being worked on today, expanding our knowledge of the client’s business, forming a stronger relationship with all of the client’s key people and developing our own culture to deliver excellent client service are just as important.


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