In working with professional services firms for many years, we have come to realise that there are five key areas in which the really great firms excel. We have combined them into what we are going to describe as the ‘circle of success’. When firms focus energy, time and resources on these five areas, they are rewarded with a steady flow of profitable work. The first area — having a vision and knowing which clients they want — contributes significantly to a firm’s long-term growth and success.
Clear vision and strategy
One firm we work with is exceptional at this. It has a very clear vision and knows exactly which clients it wants to win and protect. In creating this vision and strategy it regularly evaluates its client portfolio to identify which clients are really great in terms of the quality of work they instruct, the positive morale they create, the profitability of the work undertaken and the potential for new referrals and cross-selling opportunities.
This firm then formulates a profile that captures the essence of these great clients. The profile reflects what the firm calls its ‘great client characteristics’ and is used to assess any new clients the firm plans to target. In doing so, the firm is adopting a ‘less is more’ philosophy. It resists requests for proposals that come from prospective clients that do not fit its ideal profile. There is a degree of flexibility in the profile — this firm is not looking for a series of clones. What it does achieve, however, is avoiding time and energy being spent on the clients where a mutually beneficial relationship would be difficult to form and where valuable resources would be wasted.
Targeted and focused marketing
While having a very focused target list, the top firms also put together a tailored promotional approach. The aim in this is not to sell services to prospective clients. But instead the focus of their marketing is to position the firm positively in the client’s mind to motivate them to want to enter into dialogue with the firm’s representatives.
One firm we know well (a specialist in the media sector) took their prospective client list and invested significant time in researching clients to gain a strong understanding of the key issues each business was facing.
The research assessed potential opportunities and challenges on the horizon and several key issues were identified for each target client. These formed the basis of a targeted marketing campaign to the key people in these businesses. For each issue, the firm sent out an item of value — for example, there was one that showed the client a practical way of minimising a particular risk. The items sent included case studies, articles and ‘how to’ guides. They varied according to the target client and issues being faced. While the firm was open about wanting to enter into dialogue with the client, it did not try to sell any of its services relating to these issues. After sending several items, this firm then rang each target client to propose a meeting. The take-up rate was very impressive, as was the final conversion rate of prospects to clients.
Making it easy for clients to buy
The firms that excel in winning clients tend to adopt a consultative selling approach to winning business. These firms equip their people with the necessary skills and commercial understanding to determine what a client really wants and needs. Their people build trust with their clients and offer the right support.
Clients say that they tend to trust their advisers when they feel that they have technical brilliance to tackle the task at hand, the necessary skills to manage their relationship with the firm, an understanding of their (the client’s) business and industry and a genuine interest in what the client is trying to achieve.
Professionals who are good at consultative selling spend more time listening and asking target clients questions than telling. These fee-earners seek to understand the full picture before they make recommendations on particular solutions. This time investment is well placed — these firms experience fewer ‘failed’ proposals or presentations than their peers. The understanding their people glean enables them to know not just what solution is right for a client but how best to present that solution to the various client contacts.
Client experience management
And when firms win a client in this manner, they tend to hang on to them in the long run. They put plans in place to protect the client relationship — these plans usually come from the firm’s internal client teams. They continue developing their understanding of the client and ensure all contacts with the firm deliver a great experience and exceed client expectations. One firm we worked with was very good at looking beyond the fee-earning work at other areas in their client plans. They invested time to understand the long-term goals of their key clients. This information guided them on specific actions needed to protect their clients from the advances of another sizeable firm. They were also able to determine which other practice areas they needed to introduce to help these clients better achieve their goals and because this firm’s focus was about bringing greater value and help to their clients (rather than trying to flog a range of services), their clients were more receptive to the offer of help. This firm now experiences lower client attrition rates and its client’s act as ambassadors and refer significant additional opportunities from other prospective businesses.
Saying no to the wrong clients
Saying no to clients and services that do not support the vision is a challenging strategy and one that many firms tell us is difficult to carry out. It is a fact of life, however, that things change and relationships can fall on rocky times. A professional service firm’s business model may evolve so that it is no longer able to serve a client as effectively and as profitably as it once did. Changes in personnel on both sides may also create problems.
One firm we came across was very honest with a ‘difficult’ client. It told the client that it no longer believed that it was the best firm to deliver the service it wanted in the fee structure it was seeking. Rather than leave the client to fend for itself, the firm sought alternative providers and led the client through the transition process. The client valued this honesty and appreciated the help in finding alternative advisers — it became a valuable referrer of business to the firm through its wider business connections.
There are some really great firms that command huge loyalty from their clients and seem to find it easy to win new business. There is not any magic involved — their circle of success comes from these key points:
- Identifying the clients they want to win.
- Gaining an in-depth understanding of the client.
- Formulating tailored approaches that engage and provide value for the client from day one.
- Taking the business development process very seriously.
- Making sure they are presenting the right solution for the client and in a way that makes it easy for the client to say yes.
- Building great and mutually beneficial relationships with their clients, ones where fee-earning work meets expectations, client experience is top-notch and the firm is actively supporting the client’s ambitions.
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