Before adding value, first of all…

The first of three articles on adding value to client relationships

As consultants specialising in working with professional firms we have been asked on many occasions, “How do we deliver added value to our clients?” We learned long ago to resist the temptation to produce two sheets of A4 that provide examples of possible actions. The response is usually underwhelming. “I tried that once and……..”, “I don’t think that my clients would……”, “I was looking for something new and………..”.

There is an almost naïve belief that there must be a sensational solution that has just eluded people until now but that is just about to be discovered by this group of professionals – or will be provided by an unscrupulous consultant who will divulge the secrets of the one firm that has discovered the formula. It will be original, easy to implement and will result in clients who are loyal for years. And we know that when we see it, we will recognise it! Silver bullets!!

If such a solution existed we would not be working as a consultant to professional firms. We would have been on the beach long ago – our lack of scruples paying for our retirement.

In our experience professional firms genuinely do have a desire to provide added value to their clients. Fee earners want to be recognised as working for an outstanding firm. They want to work with great clients that say great things about them and their firm and who provide wonderful references about the added value that they derive from their advisers.

In this series of three articles we will explore:

  • If providing added value is the first issue that the firm should be tackling
  • Which clients really appreciate added value
  • How to ensure that we deliver added value.

If the temptation is to skip to the third article and ignore the first two, then join the ‘naïve’ queue!

Added value from a client’s perspective is individual and personal – and sometimes the factors that make up added value are intensely personal.

We have made this statement on scores of occasions when addressing groups of professionals. Of all the things that people are prepared to challenge this is not one of them. Intuitively we recognise the truth in the proposition. At a very simplistic level if we believed that providing sporting event hospitality was a way of delivering added value, it would take only a nanosecond to realise that not everyone likes rugby. Not everyone likes F1. Some people within our clients don’t even like sport. Some are unprepared to give up working time for ‘frivolous’ activities (that they figure they are paying for in any case). Some are even less inclined to give up their personal time.

Yet so often when we have listened to discussions that are about the people who work within clients and who interface with external advisers, the conversation is dotted with the word “they”. “They” do this. “They” think like that. “They” prefer to …….. As a wise ex-colleague of mine says, “The most dangerous word for professionals is the word ‘clients’ – the plural”. As soon as we utter the word we are in danger of categorising a whole population – imbuing them with common characteristics, preferences and behaviour patterns. The paradox is that if we think about it, we know that this cannot be true. Clients are people and people are individuals and individuals will have differing views on any number of issues – including what constitutes added value.

Before we jump to the position of believing that what we need is to provide added value to our clients, we should first be thoroughly certain that we are providing value. Forget the advanced ‘added’ stuff until we have mastered the basics. Some professionals may find this proposition insulting. If this is the case then they should join us in an exercise that we have conducted on scores of occasions. The most common setting for this exercise is during a workshop when we are working with a team of fee earners who are responsible for managing the relationship with one of their firm’s most important clients.

In the exercise we select up to five of the people from within the client’s organisation for whom we carry out fee-earning work. For each of these individuals we get the team to consider:

What, exactly, does this person believe constitutes excellence in:

  • The way that a professional plans a client’s work? 
  • The execution of fee-earning work?
  • Communication in relation to his/her matters/issues/projects?

The team’s conclusions are written down in a column against each element. In the next column the team then has to write down what the client would (or preferably, does!) say about their firm’s performance in relation to these requirements.

There are strict rules for this exercise:
  • No guessing
  • No surmising
  • No using the words “they” and “them” – we’re talking ‘him’ or ‘her’
  • If we don’t have evidence then we have a question – so enter a question mark
  • No using expressions like, “If he wasn’t happy he would have told us by now.” We’re not talking about ‘happy’.  We’re talking about aiming to be at our very best in the execution of the very thing the client is paying us for. If we can’t get this bit sorted in the client’s eyes then seeking to provide added value is a ‘Christmas Tree’ activity.

This exercise can be very challenging but we have found that client teams that approach this as a learning exercise and not as a criticism for what has gone before derive much from it and begin to form an action plan aimed at filling the gaps and sorting fact from assumption.

Six weeks after having run a program that included this exercise, one of my client’s Client Partners related the following experience.

“I had dealt with this client contact for over five years. I had known him from my previous firm and the relationship moved with me. That probably indicates how strong the links are. After our first session I decided to raise some questions with him – to confirm that I was doing the right things. One question that I put was, ‘How do you find our communications?’ My client replied, ‘I wish that you wouldn’t ring me’. I was stunned. I had a picture in my mind’s eye of me telling my team members to pick up the phone and talk to this client if there was anything that they believed he should know. And here he was saying, ‘Don’t ring me’!! Before I could reply the client said, ‘Every time you and your people call me and pass on a piece of information, our rules demand that I make a file note. You make a lot of work for me. If you want to e-mail me then ring – or vice versa – then you’ll make my life a lot easier.’ I’d been making this guy’s life difficult for five years. And I believed that I was being proactive and helpful!”

Too often professionals claim that they, “know how my clients want to be treated”. This ‘knowledge’ is often based on the professional’s view of how they would like to be treated if they were the client (which of course they are not) and is also spread evenly across all clients.

The starting point for any endeavour is to build on really sound foundations. If our aim is to provide clients with real added value then we must first make sure that we have got the fundamentals right – from the client’s perspective.



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