Client listening should be always on, writes Paul Roberts, CEO of MyCustomerLens.
January is the month for predictions and there has been no end of prognostications about 2023 being a crunch time for many professional services firms.
Instability abroad and the threat of recession at home means UK companies are bracing themselves for a tough 12 months ahead, and the fate of many could hang on how they adapt and respond.
In this climate, informed decision making is key, and the businesses most likely to suffer will be those which make the wrong choices.
The good news – if you can call it that – for those in professional services is that they have already had a trial run for what they’re likely to face.
In many ways, 2020 was a tipping point for the sector, in particular regarding how they engaged with, and listened to, their clients.
Before the Covid pandemic, partners in firms would typically chat with clients about how they were performing and, depending on what was said, they may or may not share that information with those in their departments.
Perhaps once a year, the most flattering comments might be included in a presentation to the board. It was that haphazard.
During lockdown, when everyone moved to hybrid working, partners suddenly realised they had to make decisions about what services their firms could and should continue to offer, and how those would be delivered.
Necessity being the mother of invention, they started to talk to their clients in a different way, inquiring more searchingly, as though the survival of their firms depended on it. In many cases, it did.
Having been used to receiving sporadic and disjointed feedback from clients, boards were suddenly receiving daily updates from several areas of their firms, with real-time information about what clients and competitors were doing, and what was expected of them.
Rather than feedback coming patchily from a handful of partners, it was now also being provided by salespeople and business development teams who were asking different questions and offering fresh perspectives.
After lockdown ended and the tide had retreated, people across these different departments went back to what they were doing before, but partners missed the flow of information and, in particular its immediacy, which had helped them to make more agile, and better informed, decisions.
Since then, some firms have reverted to pre-pandemic methods of employing external agencies to tell them what their clients think of them. Typically, this will involve consultants conducting official interviews and sending out survey questionnaires, before writing up their findings in PowerPoint reports to be presented to boards.
This process can take several weeks, or months, by which time, much of the information might already be out-of-date, and the next opportunity to collect feedback will be next year, when the process is repeated.
Client listening strategies are changing
However, with other firms, strategies are changing. As providers of client intelligence, we have noticed a large increase in the number of Requests for Proposal (RFPs) being sent out by legal and other professional services firms in the past 12 months.
In most cases, they refer to the need for automation in their client feedback analysis operations, and crucially, the need for scale.
There also appears to be a newfound recognition that useful sources of customer feedback are often informal – in telephone conversations and emails – as well as through survey questionnaires and official interviews.
These firms recognise that the quality of customer feedback is unlikely to improve simply by asking different survey questions or interviewing more people.
Rather, they are starting to rethink how to engage with their clients, so that they get more frequent and more accurate information, to facilitate more agile decision-making.
Rather than commissioning a customer feedback report every year or two, the more progressive firms acknowledge that it should be a continuous process.
In the modern, digital world, they need to know immediately when to review existing products and services, recruit new talent, and alter pricing strategies.
A recent report by Thomson Reuters showed that last year, profit-per-partner in US law firms – the gold standard measurement of success – dropped for the first time since 2009. With prices continuing to rise, there is now a cost for doing nothing.
Whereas previously, investing in IT and automation was seen as an expense, now it’s regarded as a necessary investment.
In addition, partners are making greater use of their staff as a source of market intelligence. The lessons of the pandemic have taught them that, when their firm is experiencing pain, friction and frustration, their staff are best placed to explain why and to offer solutions.
The most common conversations currently taking place in boardrooms are around service delivery – what products and services firms are offering; do they need to evolve and change; and how can they improve the processes behind their clients’ journeys?
Only by having answers to these questions – backed by reliable evidence – can partners make properly informed investment decisions.
The most forward-looking firms are looking to ensure that offering a better client experience is how they differentiate themselves from their competitors. Everyone expects a reputable firm to have expertise, networks and offices around the country, and only those that offer a higher level of customer experience will stand out from the crowd.
In an effort to demonstrate transparency and quality, some firms are publishing customer feedback because, they say, they’re confident in what they are delivering.
Solicitors are held to account by online customer reviews on platforms such as ReviewSolicitors. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) ran a pilot with several review sites, to test whether greater transparency led to better experiences for customers. They are now seeking to mandate all firms to collect online reviews, although they haven’t made a final decision yet.
Of course, firms will demand that they have control over the process, so that a customer who has had a bad experience, may not be asked for a review. It may be useful as a marketing tool but it’s unlikely to provide an accurate guide to what customers really think, because the results may be skewed toward only those who have had a positive experience.
By December, the full effects of this challenging year will be known. The casualties – and we hope there will not be many – will be licking their wounds, and those who emerge with least damage are likely to have listened to what their customers have told them and made properly informed decisions.
Paul Roberts is CEO of MyCustomerLens, an AI-driven, always-on client listening platform for professional services firms.