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Identifying the 'management gold dust' – giving clients a voice in strategic decision making at Saffery

By Peter Vaughan-Fowler
Insights

Identifying the 'management gold dust' – giving clients a voice in strategic decision making at Saffery

By Peter Vaughan-Fowler
Accountancy
Identifying the 'management gold dust' – giving clients a voice in strategic decision making at Saffery

Client listening may be becoming more widespread among professional services firms, but there are still many fee-earners who are reluctant to grant CX teams – and even senior leadership – access to their clients. Jonathan Fox, founder of College Road Consulting, knows this keenly. Drawing upon his experiences as Managing Partner at Saffrey, Jonathan met with us as part of Meridian West’s Client Listening Maturity Index Benchmarking (CLIMB) campaign to examine client listening from a leadership perspective, discussing why it’s important, why fee-earners resist it, and how to bring them around.

For Jonathan, client listening is a search for “management gold dust” – key, insider knowledge that can inform positive, profit-maximising change across an entire firm. “Before embarking on a new strategy,” he advises, “consult top clients to validate direction. It helps avoid groupthink and blind spots that arise when you're only talking internally."

Client perspectives gathered through feedback initiatives can be an essential tool to help validate a firm's strategic plans. Decisions concerning expansion into new markets, new service offerings, strategic partnerships, and even changes to the firm’s ownership structure can all be enhanced by incorporating the client voice. As Jonathan summarizes: "Client listening is the only way I know of doing that."

Treating client listening as a strategic undertaking can also encourage fee-earners to approach their clients with a big-picture mindset. Here are some additional tips from Jonathan Fox on how firms can use client listening to deepen their client relationships:

  1. Earn trust by being transparent and responsive: Jonathan emphasized the importance of open communication, setting proper expectations upfront around services and fees. "There are no hidden costs. No nasty surprises. I'm being proactive and responsive," he said. This reliability builds confidence.
  2. Show interest beyond the transaction: Fee earners should feel empowered to ask the big questions that look beyond the matter at hand: "Where do you go next in your career? How can we support your goals? How's business?” Firms can facilitate these conversations by investing in data and research on key topics of interest.
  3. Introduce a breadth of expertise: Client listening programmes can help uncover over-reliance on key contacts, identifying ways to widen the relationship by making connections to others in the firm with relevant expertise. Jonathan also emphasized "consistency across geographies" to ensure clients experience aligned quality and branding.
  4. Evolve the relationship over time: Like friendships, client relationships investment to maintain. "It's that proactive approach - noting I haven't met with you in 2 years, or introducing a new team member,". Advisors should use listening programmes to continually look for ways to add value, solidifying loyal client relationships as trusted advisors and "friends for life."

Winning over a sceptical partnership

So, how do you bring reluctant partners on board? In Jonathan’s experience, partners often resist the process for two main reasons:

  1. They are too busy to engage clients for feedback. “If you look at the working day and the responsibilities particularly of client facing partners, they've got client relationship management issues. They've got the work delivery issues, they've got team management, they've got compliance, they've got BD…. And it's finding the time.” But understanding what clients really think about the services they receive should be a priority. There may be opportunities for improvement or growth that only client feedback can uncover; as Jonathan points out, “you don't truly know, so make some time and funds available to do that."
  2. Partners may resist participating due to insecurities about deficiencies being exposed. Jonathan explains, “I haven't met anybody, even the most supremely confident individual who isn't actually insecure about something.” To ease concerns, Jonathan suggests providing reassurance “that feedback is delivered in a safe haven, usually to the person who has the client relationship first and then deciding how best that is used.”

Jonathan recommends starting small with a core group of supporters willing to pioneer the programme, rather than mandating participation from the get-go. Feedback should ultimately be led from the top, but grassroots support is key to get momentum with reluctant partners. Jonathan says, "If it's done collaboratively, led from the top, and you start small with a pilot group, you can win over sceptics." The programme can then be expanded as its value becomes evident. “You then want an internal sponsor to say, ‘Look, I gave it a go and it actually was quite useful for me.’”

The biggest advocates for a client listening programme can be the clients themselves. As Jonathan says, “I was actually staggered, because everybody's very busy and you’d think the last thing somebody wants to do is talk about the service they're receiving from their lawyers. But particularly with major clients, they actually appreciated it. Some of the responses were ‘Actually this is the first time your firm has ever come and asked me how things are, and I'm really surprised that none of my other professional providers have asked.’”

The client as the silent partner

The key to getting partners to buy in to a programme is to remind them of the importance of the client voice. As Jonathan says, “I used to communicate it this way: remember that we have around this table some silent partners. Those silent partners are our clients. We can be as vocal as we like, but we're not listening to the people who ultimately are round our table. And we depend on them – they’re paying the bills.”

Client listening is ultimately a question of mitigating risk to revenue. “We might think that all clients want to be serviced in a particular way. But actually… do they? Have we ever actually talked to any of them? If the top 20% disagree, then that's 80% of our revenue.” It’s also about testing growth strategy. “It’s a good way of getting in to see people to say ‘Look, the firm’s thinking about its business plan for the next three to five years; before we embark on it, we really want to find out what we’re doing well, or not so well.’” As Jonathan summarises, “You get clients involved in your own strategic direction. That’s what I’ve always done.”