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How to make client care programmes work

1 August 03

Research has shown there is no direct relationship between customer satisfaction and profitability

by Mac Mackay

Even those companies with a massive management focus on customer service aren’t necessarily successful at it. Yet having happy clients seems to be a simple matter of common sense. However, the research did show that those organisations that enjoy high customer satisfaction and strong profitability had certain common characteristics; they were doing broadly similar things whatever business sector they were active in. So, what good practice should your Firm demonstrate if it is to deliver high client satisfaction and make money? Our four-point plan would include:

  1.  A thorough, even intimate, appreciation of each client and its business. What drives it; what are the service attributes it most values; what are its expectations of service providers in general and of your Firm in particular?
  2. A senior management focus and palpable commitment to raising and sustaining high levels of client satisfaction throughout the Firm.
  3. Internal consensus and action throughout the Firm in support of a thorough client service ethic.
  4. A readiness to adapt service delivery to the specific needs of each client, both through “front office” and “back office” functions.

This article explores what constitutes good practice under each of these headings. As you read on, consider how well placed your Firm is on these attributes of good service.

1. Understanding our Clients and their Business

We find all too often that reality is far from good practice, with conditions such as:

  • Only one partner “owning” the key contact, and not sharing the relationship or relevant information; or perhaps no individual having responsibility for the contact.
  • The relationship is transaction-driven, so the line goes dead when there’s no work in view.
  • Most Firms are organised along service or functional lines, and there is often far less cross-department communication than clients have a right to expect.
  • Partners take a sales – rather than a service – approach to developing client business. Planning meetings focus on how to introduce new services or new partners rather than pooling research and discussing what the team can do to help create better business for the client.

We were working with a division of one of the Scottish banks and they recognised that “if we only knew what we knew, we could double our profits”. In other words, it was realised that only by different parts of the organisation sharing information on its business customers could significant returns be achieved.

We suggest that good practice should involve:

  • Assigning responsibility for client understanding. Someone or some defined group must be in charge of the Firm’s knowledge about a client, and be responsible for ensuring that it is current and relevant. The knowledge manager may be someone other than the principal client relationship manager, especially with your very large clients where several professionals are involved.
  • Devolving responsibility for client service quality. Although client care initiatives usually start at the top of a Firm, successful programmes quickly become the responsibility of the divisions and departments, as partners adopt the process themselves. Sharing examples of good practice and publicly praising effective role models might encourage this.
  • Obtaining the client’s perspective on what service is appropriate and what standards should apply. Firms have developed various ways of collecting this information, but face-to-face is best: you have direct contact with your client and can explore what really matters to them. A banker growing his loan book aggressively found that his leading law Firm made a huge contribution by routinely turning around documents overnight, so that he could arrange more loans and spread his risk more than he had expected. The law Firm had been unaware that responsiveness was quite so critical to the client.
  • Ensuring that the client knows what service standards the Firm treats as par. For instance, one health care insurance provider sends all its clients a list of the performance standards its service teams should meet. If they fail to do so, they automatically fine themselves and send the client a cheque for compensation. It doesn’t happen very often!

One of our law Firm clients discovered that its business clients were very keen to keep hold of their existing skilled staff as recruitment of the right people in their region was becoming increasingly more difficult. They had developed competitive remuneration packages to hold on to their staff. On making the right enquiries, the Firm discovered that their top five employer clients had 3500 employees, many of whom would have an estate valued at over £255,000 owing to increased house prices and death-in-service benefits. By sharing this information with the firm’s Wills & Probate section, the Firm was able to offer each employer client a special deal for their employees. This added nearly a further 1000 new Wills for the section in the following nine months.

2. Senior Management Commitment

If you are to create a new, explicit focus throughout the Firm on something that many may already treat as routine or deferrable, you must nail your colours to the mast. In some Firms, service standards are among the core strategic measures of corporate direction and success, and are constantly emphasised by senior management on every internal platform.

Management must know and be known by at least all major clients. Good practice would also include:

  • Setting performance standards for the ‘Significant Few’ clients, and introducing a suitable system of measurement. Which factors best drive success? We discovered recently that companies reporting greater satisfaction with their advisers put it down mainly to receiving more partner attention. One Firm stood out as weak on partner availability and accessibility, which suggested an area where specific targets could be set and service performance improved.
  • A measurement device consisting of a checklist of key service attributes that the client scores. Which attributes pertinent to your sector are worth measuring? There is no one standard battery of characteristics for professional Firms, but experience and client research can suggest an appropriate set of values under headings such as: business and client understanding, service team quality, service responsiveness and delivery, deliverables, quality and value, and overall service value.

Many Firms shy away from quantification, though partners will understand the value of having a total service score client by client, for benchmarking and measuring progress over time. But they are often suspicious of aggregated results by partner or department, thinking that these could be used as sticks to beat them rather than as an aid to practice management and partner development. Management must treat such anxieties sensitively and carefully.

  • Building client service standards into partner appraisal routines, on the basis that what gets measured gets done, and what forms part of partner performance assessment gets partner attention. This is a delicate but important area.
  • Rapid and diligent management action to follow-up weak performance indicators, and to capitalise on strong performance results.
3. Internal Consensus and Action on the Service Ethic

A strong client focus needs to permeate the whole Firm. It can be stillborn if, as too often happens, partners feel the issue is trivial and hardly worth serious effort. They should lead other fee-earners by example in small detail as well as large.

Good practice will involve:

  • Fee-earners actively contributing to client service teams, which will probably be cross functional and which will share client understanding through their account management meetings and plans.
  • All staff feeling included in client service initiatives. Training and encouraging all members of staff in client problem solving and team working might achieve this. For example, one Firm’s prize-winning switchboard operation earns fees in its own right by training and coaching clients’ switchboard operators.
  • Another client of ours recognised that support staff can make a valuable contribution to client service . It redirected its secretarial function from ‘administration’ duties to ‘client service’ and renamed staff ’Client Service Assistants’. Not just Americanized playing with fancy job titles but a refocus of people’s work directed towards helping clients. Their jobs changed in as much as they were actively seeking out activity on behalf of their fee-earners to keep clients regularly and quickly informed – something that their conveyancing clients identified was a primary service differential.
  • Senior management and department heads fostering behaviour that delivers client satisfaction throughout the organisation. For example, individual and team performance reviews incorporating client feedback, recognising and rewarding good client service behaviour, and linking fee-earner performance measures to client satisfaction indices.

4. Adapting Service Delivery

Good practice here builds into the service process an initial discussion with the client, which pointedly draws out his expectations of the engagement and identifies how he will value the service provider’s contribution. This initial discussion simply makes clear what the client wants, something that is too often taken for granted. The engagement partner conducts it face-to-face. Some might prefer the service parameters to remain imprecise, but it is better to have a clear benchmark if you want to aim at delivering more.

Having established an expectations/value benchmark, the engagement team must check back with the client and review their performance during, and at the end of, the engagement.

Other good practice would be to:

  • Establish cross-functional teams to serve specific clients, from both front office and back office. The latter, for example, might handle all the billing and receivables management for a particular group of clients, so that continuity and effective relationships are established and maintained.
  • Analyse the client’s business and processes from time to time, and review the established ways in which the Firm delivers service. The client should be involved so that he can consider the service provider as an extension of his own resource, and to this end he might be linked into a team network, for example via e-mail.
  • Consider offering an outsourced capability to the client as a means of simplifying some of the client’s processes and to strengthen the long-term business relationship. Recent examples of this include the comprehensive conveyancing service offered by a consortium of law Firms to Britain’s largest house agents, and BP Exploration’s outsourcing of tax and accounting services to a Big 14 Firm.
  • Develop regular harmony meetings.  Once every six months or so, have a meeting with your significant clients and discuss the business relationship and whether both parties are profiting from the relationship. One of our best long-standing clients said to us, ‘we want you to profit from working for us because if you don’t, how can you be committed to our objectives?’

The acid test appears to be whether you really understand what your clients want, whether you are committed to seeing they get it, and whether you can obtain enthusiastic acceptance of what follows from everyone within the organisation. Put this way it doesn’t seem an unattainable ideal. Some Firms are clearly making the effort to move in this direction.