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Conquering unwieldy client relationship programs

When a law firm’s client relationship program becomes overly expansive and complex, it can turn into a source of frustration and lead to a perception that the program is ineffective, writes Siew Fong. By adopting a proactive mindset and structured approach to continuous improvement, the BD team can contribute significantly to getting the program back on track.

The virtues of client relationship programs have long been extolled in the world of legal marketing as a means of fostering sustainable and profitable growth. Recognising this, many international law firms have taken the initiative to establish comprehensive key client programs. However, what happens when the magnitude of key clients spanning practices, sectors, regions and individual offices transforms the programs into an unwieldy endeavour?  

Battling with complexity
As a firm’s footprint expands and its client base naturally grows across different markets, those who are leading client programs find themselves faced with the Sisyphean task of coordinating efforts to ensure each client relationship receives the attention that it deserves. 

The workload involved can place a significant burden on client leads, especially when it tends to be the same group of dedicated and highly engaged individuals. For example, the volume of meetings and follow-up actions may cause the client leads to be stretched too thin and have limited time to drive meaningful progress across multiple relationships. The lack of tangible results then leads to a sense of frustration and disillusionment with the program’s viability. 

However, the very challenges posed by expansive client relationship programs present a valuable opportunity for business development (BD) professionals to add significant value.

Streamlining for success
A sensible starting approach for BD professionals would be to help streamline the program by conducting a thorough evaluation and prioritisation of existing key clients. Such an exercise involves critically assessing the firm’s client base according to strategic importance and growth potential, with a view to identifying the clients who truly warrant greater attention and resources within the program.

For example, when a client consistently emerges as a significant client across multiple areas, it justifies a key position within the client program. For the other clients, it does not necessarily mean that they should be dropped from the program altogether. Instead, it may mean less intensive relationship management compared to higher priority clients (such as less frequent touchpoints and more focused engagement activities), but overall client satisfaction and service standards must still be maintained to continue the positive relationship.

On occasion, partners may assert that several of their clients should be given priority status and this is particularly true in fast-developing markets where the abundance of opportunities makes it harder to pinpoint where to focus efforts on.

The BD team can help to navigate such situations through the following ways:

  • Using objective evaluation criteria to assess the strategic importance of clients;
  • Providing empirical data to support the prioritization process; and
  • Facilitating discussions to find ways to balance individual client needs against the firm’s strategic priorities.

Optimising resources and efficiency
Once the streamlining of key clients has been completed, it is then important to ensure that client relationship partners have a manageable number of key clients to handle, so that no one partner is overly burdened by their responsibilities. It may mean delegating or sharing relationships with other capable individuals and the BD team can help to facilitate this transition in a structured and seamless manner.

When the same client is included in multiple programs such as a sector client program and a regional client program, the overlapping inclusion can impact the overall effectiveness of the initiative. There is a risk of duplicating effort in terms of meetings and reporting, as well as lack of alignment in managing the client relationship. This is where a central client relationship manager plays a pivotal role in promoting knowledge sharing and collaboration across the various regional, sector and practice teams involved in managing the client so as to foster a unified approach.

Technology solutions should also be leveraged to enhance the efficiency of the client relationship program.

For example, communication channels such as collaboration platforms facilitate real-time communication, knowledge sharing and progress tracking, which reduces the need for time-consuming meetings. Analytics and reporting tools help to pinpoint patterns and trends regarding client behaviour and opportunities for upselling or cross-selling. Armed with such data-driven insights, the client team can make informed decisions and optimise client relationship management efforts.

Reviving and driving momentum

Even well-structured and efficient client programs run the risk of falling into stagnation or complacency, especially when they rely on established practices and past successes. The BD team is well-suited to help reinvigorate the program due to their deep understanding of client needs and broader business perspective. 

In particular, the BD team is able to generate fresh ideas and approaches, such as through:

  • Staying updated on industry trends, market shifts and best practices in client relationship management;
  • Identifying untapped markets, potential revenue streams and innovative service offerings;
  • Tapping into insights obtained from client surveys and feedback to propose tailored engagement strategies that address specific client needs;
  • Highlighting success stories of how other client teams and organisations have successfully extended and deepened relationships with their clients, and adapting such strategies to their own client portfolios; and
  • Exploring strategic collaborations with complementary organisations who can offer unique perspectives and innovative solutions.

The value of a skilled BD team
When a law firm’s client relationship program become overly expansive and complex, it can turn into a source of frustration and lead to a perception that the program is ineffective. By adopting a proactive mindset and structured approach to continuous improvement, the BD team can contribute significantly to getting the program back on track. These contributions also reinforce the BD team’s position as valuable strategic partners who drive their clients’ success and growth.

Siew Fong has led marketing and business development teams in Asia at international law firms including being a senior leadership team member of the global function. Her 20+ years experience in the Asia-Pacific professional services sector spans beyond legal marketing to include transactional law, knowledge management, learning and development, and legal journalism.

The article represents the views of author and not of their firm.

Matt Baldwin
Matt Baldwin
Co-founder – Coast Communications

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