PSMG Centrium: With the “new normal” comes a new playbook for relationship building that will be vital

Even before Covid-19, there was a growing realisation amongst professional services firms that focus on the client experience was key in driving differentiation and loyalty. Tikit’s Simon Elven reviews the state of play.

Last year’s study published by Lexis-Nexis in conjunction with University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School identified the client experience as an emerging battleground for law firms. Those firms who had a strong posture towards the client experience were identified as being more likely to have long term, higher margin clients and less likely to be affected by client cost pressures.

By contrast, those firms who had a weaker approach towards the client experience were more likely to have a greater number of transactional clients who are cost driven and hence less loyal. These firms have a long tail of clients with whom it is difficult to maintain and develop relationships.

Our recent experience with Covid-19 has caused firms to re-evaluate their approach to doing business.

There are clearly many tactical responses that have happened, indeed have had to have happened, as firms have dealt with the ‘survival’ phase of the crisis. Now, in addition to moving into the next phase of crisis response, consideration is being given to the longer-term strategic view of ‘what does a resilient firm look like’?

The ‘resilient firm’

Organisations have always given consideration to disaster recovery and business continuity but these thoughts in the past have centred around destruction of, or denial of access to, single, centralised buildings.

The Covid-19 experience has shown these strategies are not sufficient in themselves to guarantee survival in all circumstances and that certain underlying principles of the professional services firm will have to change.

The following principles are emerging as central to the shape of the firm of the future:

  • Reduction in ‘fixed assets’. These are things that have to be paid for regardless of how much business the firm is doing. The larger these are, the less likely the firm is to survive a time of crisis.
  • Less emphasis on the large, city centre presence. The prestige office location has long been a defining characteristic of the large law firm. These offices are a significant fixed asset regardless of whether they are owned, leased or rented. Such offices are likely to be replaced with smaller, flexible spaces where lawyers can meet clients as and when required.
  • Distributed agile workforce. Covid-19 has demonstrated people can work effectively from home. The benefits this brings in work-life balance is one which will be hard to convince people to surrender. It is not likely, in most cases, for the entire firm to move to a remote model. Many people want to work in an office but we will see an overall reduction in the number of people who work in an office every day. Dove-tailing with the reduction in the large city office presence, more people will work from home or small satellite offices with less frequent trips to the larger location.
  • Flexible working. Again, the experience of the Covid crisis has shown the need for flexible working hours as people have to juggle family, home schooling and work. Early starts, late evenings and flexibility in the day have become the norm.
  • Agile technology. The systems that a firm uses must support an agile workforce. That means simplicity of access from any internet enabled location without complex requirements for connectivity. It also means not sacrificing the security inherent in working within an office location. One of the more obvious steps here is for laptops to become the standard piece of desktop equipment for everyone.
  • Reduction in on-premises technology. One of the larger costs for a firm is the maintenance of its technology stack. If this is largely on-premises, then not only does this represent a large capital cost but there is a significant on-going cost for people to run the systems and in terms of power and services. This also means that IT staff have to have access to the location at which the servers are stored to maintain them.
  • Scalable technology. With a traditional model of IT delivery, the costs associated with its delivery are largely fixed for an extended period (typically a year) with little ability to increase or decrease those costs. As firms respond to a crisis they would require the ability to flex their system capacity, and therefore costs, on a more frequent basis.
  • Scalable workforce. With salaries being one of the larger ‘fixed’ costs for a firm, many will be asking the question as to whether it is possible to deliver the same service with a smaller permanent workforce. This would mean access to a pool of flexible, qualified resources who could be employed on a contract basis to augment permanent teams.

A number of these principles are technical in nature and are likely to accelerate the move from on-premises to cloud solutions. As these solutions are already mature and functional the simple move to a cloud platform is unlikely to directly impact the experience the client receives. Some of the other principles, however, do provide some interesting challenges.

Relationships and perception

Professional services businesses have always leveraged the relationship as the key mechanism for obtaining business, particularly when providing services to an organisation. The aim is to identify the contact, develop the relationship, demonstrate credibility, engender trust and, as a result, undertake work.

Following this, the same process is used to expand both the range of services provided and the frequency of engagement. What does relationship development look like in a world where personal contact cannot take place in quite the same way as it used to?

Having got used to working remotely and through video chat it’s clear existing relationships can be maintained effectively this way. Where it is necessary to form a new relationship, though, it gets trickier. Without the sort of understanding that develops through personal interaction, such calls tend to focus much more on the business reason for the meeting than the subtext.

Again, while this superficially sounds like a good thing, it is the non-verbal communication that makes people human and the subtext that helps build the relationship. While the future will be different from the current situation, it’s unlikely to go back to being the same as the past given the likely responses already mentioned.

With flexibility being the key driver for firms in the future, that is having the ability to support everyone in the office five days a week or everyone out of the office for five days a week, it is probable that individuals will be able to pick a balance that works for them. There will, therefore, be less opportunity to meet and particularly to meet casually with a greater proportion of people working more flexibly. The ‘let’s grab a quick coffee’ will be less likely and where meetings take place they will necessarily be more formal. In such circumstances a new playbook is going to be required for relationship building.

This has some interesting consequences. Clients with less investment in a personal relationship with their advisor are going to be less loyal to them and, consequently, more likely to stray – or at least review their options when the need arises. The personal relationship therefore becomes a smaller part of the whole client loyalty equation and the overall client experience assumes greater importance.

What is being driven then is loyalty to the firm rather than loyalty to the person. It is the relationship with the firm, which itself has multiple facets, that needs to be worked on, developed and deeply understood.

Experience shows that most firms do not have the understanding they need of the range and depth of relationships that the firm holds. The perennial issues that plague CRM systems, and which firms have put up with for years due to a lack of a viable solution, are really impacting their ability to leverage the totality of relationships the firm as a whole actually holds.

Leveraging technology to help surface those hidden relationships that the individuals quite happily hold without ensuring that that information is in the CRM will be key to driving the overall firm level relationship.

As important is the ability to monitor this overall relationship over time so action can be taken if this relationship shows signs of weakening. This, in turn, implies the ability to monitor and alert based on defined triggers (i.e. more than a 10 per cent drop in ‘relationship capital’ over a three month period for a particular organisation).

The delivery experience

With the end to end client experience assuming greater prominence in the future, firms will have to adopt technology and processes to ensure that this experience exceeds expectations rather than simply meets them. It is likely that, as firms respond to the current crisis and modify their structure in the ways previously described, challenges will appear that will need careful thought to overcome.

One of the major impacts that a decrease in office-based activity will bring is how a team of individuals working on a matter (or matters) can be coordinated in their delivery of work. If everyone can work in a more flexible way, not sticking to ‘normal’ office hours, the focus needs to move away from the work day to task based measurements.

It no longer matters if you work eight hours at a stretch provided you complete the tasks you are assigned in the time allotted. Given the somewhat chaotic ways of working that characterised some legal teams, this implies the assistance of technology to assist those in charge of the engagement.

Similarly, tools and techniques to allow effective, secure and accurate collaboration will be key. In the same way as remote rather than face to face meetings affect the way in which relationships are formed, the same type of issue can be seen in remote collaboration. When a whole team is in a room, focused on a particular task and with the advantage of non-verbal cues, it can be easier to work as a cohesive unit to solve a particular problem.

Being remote from a collaborative environment can engender feelings of remoteness from the responsibility of contributing. There is clearly going to need to be some changes to the way in which work is scheduled, controlled and monitored in order that the professional in charge of the engagement can feel in full control of work progress.

It’s not just them, however, that needs to be fully aware of the current status of a matter. It’s clear that, where there is transparency between the firm and the client, the client is much more likely to be in a position to trust that firm.

In order for transparency to be demonstrated the client needs to be proactively kept up to date with the progress of the matter. In order to achieve this, better solutions need to be in place to allow automated feed of progress, where appropriate, to be delivered to the client via an appropriate mechanism.

This could be an app, a dashboard or via alert. Which of these mechanisms is most appropriate may well depend on the transaction type and the preferences of the client.

Consistency

The emphasis above has been on systems and processes that allow for a positive client experience. Naturally it is possible to achieve this ‘manually’, that is without systems that specifically support this process and there will be some people within the firm that can give a great client experience without this support.

This will not, however, be true of everyone and the requirement is to have a consistently excellent client experience delivered across the firm regardless of location, practice area or team assigned to a matter.

This is a significantly greater challenge if a robust client experience programmes does not exist in the firm. Such programmes are, according to the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School study, characterised by the firm:

  • Being invested in studying client journeys
  • Giving attention to client experience
  • Seeking regular feedback and undertaking regular account reviews
  • Having a clear process for reaching resolutions
  • Measuring and using client engagement as a KPI
  • Making client engagement integral to recruitment

Underpin with an inclusive feedback system

Developing a client experience programme is not a simple undertaking. It can, however, start relatively simply and the starting point is to give the client a voice. There are, of course, nuances even to this simple step, with possible solutions ranging from an email address for feedback on an invoice through to an extensive matter debrief by a dedicated function.

These mechanisms tend to be selective rather than inclusive either for reasons of time and budget or because they do not actually encourage feedback to be given. An inclusive feedback mechanism needs to have the following characteristics:

  • Simple and cost-effective to allow it to be used across all clients
  • Automated to reduce the overhead on users
  • Automated to avoid cherry-picking
  • Integrated to allow automated sampling at different milestones along client journey
  • Automated to alert on negative feedback
  • Feedback delivered to the point where it was generated – i.e. not a centralised department
  • Generates useable KPIs

The feedback mechanism must, crucially, be constructed to elicit from the client verbatim commentary on the experience to allow an understanding of what was important to them about their experience.

Simply stacking up a questionnaire with questions on what the firm wants to know will not give any indication on which of those elements was actually the most important. The fact that they reported the initial welcome they received was not the warmest might be more important than the fact that they were not always updated with the progress of their matter.

Of course, it might be the other way around. If there is no way to gauge this you simply have a whole set of data points that are tricky to process and impossible to rank in terms of their relative importance.

As firms move into the new normal and, as they get those processes and systems in place to better support their chosen method of work, it’s important to have a continual feedback process from the client base.

With this in place the work methods can be influenced by the impact they have on the clients and the clients’ reaction to them. One thing you don’t want to do is to spend a lot of time and money implementing a system that fails to give them an experience that exceeds their expectations.

Conclusion

Naturally, in lean times, firms with a strong recurring client base are better placed to survive than those who have to continually hunt for new work. A strong client experience is shown to result in more recurring work and higher margin work.

Having the discipline to implement and maintain a client experience programme is tough at the best of times – and we are in far from those at the moment.

It is clear, however, that as new firm structures emerge and new ways of working are developed, the most successful firms will do this in conjunction with their clients rather than in the absence of them. Firms must do best what matters most – and only their clients can tell them that.

Tikit is offering PSMG members the opportunity to try out the viu platform free of charge and without obligation for three-months. Go to this link to register your interest.