The business of the professional adviser

Just like a marriage, the quality of the relationship between a professional adviser and the client depends on both parties.

Both seek a long-term and profitable relationship; however each party may be attracted to the other for different reasons. From our work with professional firms (accountants, etc.) we have found that advisers look for clients who bring interesting work, or a need for a particular range of services; a need for a particular level of involvement; strong growth potential; specific financial rewards; ‘kudos’, that is, a high profile and the opportunity which this brings to win similar clients.

From the client’s viewpoint, the attraction of their advisers depends on the value gained from the latter.  ‘Value’ here reflects a range of benefits – such as specialist industry knowledge, cutting-edge thinking, breadth of service, the speed of response / output, or competitive pricing.  No one relationship is the same, and yet, as with marriage, the world is constantly fascinated about what makes a great one.  One thing is sure; for a relationship to be long and profitable, both parties really need to understand what each is looking for.

As clients, people’s expectations are neither right or wrong – they just are!  If advisers are to be successful, they must meet or exceed the expectations.  Blaming clients for having unrealistic expectations is futile and usually denotes a failure to understand or agree expectations of performance.  As advisers, we find that managing client expectations successfully depends on understanding them at every stage of the relationship.  These stages start with selling to the client and go on to final negotiations, the start of work, regular review points in the execution of the work, and finally the end of the project / time period.

Unfortunately advisers are not very good at this process.  Instead, they often think they ‘know’ what the client wants and base their assumptions on similar clients with whom they have worked; or on the type of work sought’ or (worse still) on what they feel the client ‘should’ want.  Inevitably, assumptions lead to disaster.

Different clients seek different levels of support.  While some may want basic compliance or ‘rubber stamping’ from their advisers, others may be looking for a greater degree of involvement in their business.  They may want their adviser as an extension of their management team who fully understands their business and who offers advice based on this understanding.  Knowing what type of involvement the client wants is crucial; it’s no good proposing in-depth client business review meetings if only basic audit compliance is wanted.

As well as seeking a particular level of involvement, clients will also have an idea of the key skills, behaviours and knowledge they need from their adviser.  They may require innovative solutions, reassurance that they are doing the right thing, or compliance – so that they can ‘tick the box’ and move on.  Without understanding, advisers will be unable to assemble the best team for clients, let alone satisfy them.

‘Understanding the client’ all sounds pretty obvious.  But while advisers are usually very good at agreeing the technical deliverables of an assignment, frustration on both sides is often caused by a failure to agree the ‘soft stuff’.  Fig 1 is a small checklist of the type of soft points we mean.  It is not inclusive.

Fig 1: A checklist of ‘soft’ points

• How are the two sides going to work together?
• Who are the people to be involved and why?
• How will they communicate, and what regularity of contact is expected?
• Who should the clients speak to if they get nervous about progress?
• How should meetings be run?
• What internal pressures on the client need to be considered?

Having understood and agreed the client’s expectations, the challenge is now to deliver.  For this to happen, everyone who is in contact with the client must know exactly what the formula is for delivering to this client’s satisfaction.  Every point of contact must be managed to ensure that what is said and done matches what the client expects.

Fig 2: The formula for client satisfaction has three key elements
1. Client project management
2. Developing the relationship
3. Managing the fee-earning work

The first element in client satisfaction, delivering excellence in the management of fee-earning work, relies on: agreeing, understanding and delivering the work to the client’s expectations; planning the work – assembling the best people for the task in terms of technical ability, their commercial ‘nous’ and / or their account handling skills; executing the work – from the technical aspect; project managing and co-ordinating the work – to time and within the agreed budget; communicating with the client throughout the planning and execution stages.  The latter element provides the necessary foundations for the relationship.  If it is not right, nothing will make up for its lack.

Developing the relationship, the second element in satisfaction, looks to ensure that the relationship passes the tests of time.  It focuses on matching the client’s wider needs and the adviser’s skills and resources.  It involves: assessing the client’s long-term growth requirements and comparing them to the advisory firm’s capabilities – is there an avenue for adding further value here?; marketing and promoting the totality of the adviser’s business to the clients so that they understand the range of capabilities the firm possesses.

For the relationship to work, the adviser (and, you could also argue, the client) needs to ensure that it has the resources and behaviours in place to fully satisfy the client’s needs.  Client project management involves: defining the goals for this client relationship; creating and marshalling the people, time and resources to make this client account a professionally managed aspect of the business; creating the technology and systems to ensure that all the people involved with this client have access and can contribute to the knowledge and plans relating to them; ensuring that everyone who works with any aspect of the client’s work is pulling together effectively as a team; measuring progress against goals.

It is essential for advisers to find out, at regular stages of the relationship, how they are doing against the client’s criteria for the expected service.  Advisers need to ask for feedback with genuine interest, so that clients feel comfortable saying what they really think.  This should be done regularly and not just when the adviser thinks the client will say nice things.  You need to record the client’s views and check that your understanding of them is accurate and then, and above all, you need to do something about them!

This article has mainly focused on the adviser’s role in building long and profitable relationships with clients.  The success of this relationship will also depend on the client and how open and honest they are about their needs and expectations; how well they recognise their role in making sure that the relationship delivers the best possible service, and how interested they are about what happens – ‘behind the scenes’.

Clients must be clear about what they want from the relationship, not just in terms of a project, but also in the behaviours and project management techniques they seek to make their lives easier.  Communicating where this project fits with other priorities will help create a better understanding between the two parties.  Just as the adviser’s project management expertise needs to be as efficient as possible, so does the client’s.  This could involve making sure that information needed is delivered to the adviser on time and in the agreed format.  It may involve ensuring that the adviser is given access to the right people.

Whatever the requirement, the success of the project will depend on each party supporting the other’s work.  Also, by developing an understanding of what is happening ‘behind the scenes’, the client can check any misunderstanding of the brief.  This will help prevent the advisers being completely ‘off the mark’, or over time and over budget.

Just like a marriage, the quality of the relationship between professional adviser and client depends on both parties.  Both sides need to understand the value that each brings to the relationship and their role in supporting the other.  If both are coming to the relationship focused on ‘what’s in it for me?’, it’s likely to be a short-lived, and (probably) disappointing affair.

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