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How (and why) to set your clients to autopilot

I don’t have to tell you the professional services landscape is changing fast. Over the past decade we’ve watched larger professional service firms regroup, rebrand, merge and demerge. We’ve also seen skilled partners and their teams transfer their practices to rival firms or sometimes into new firms altogether.

But what does this mean for those professionals who’ve stayed the course, stuck to the same firm and have built their own business within their existing partnership?

Some call them ‘traditional’. To others they’re resilient. Or loyal. Or stubborn… But I think these professionals have at least one competitive advantage over their shape-changing competitors. 

The advantage of incumbency

That’s because they’re the ones who, more than most, have usually built an understanding of what makes clients stick. While their new competitors may offer something different they still have to convince clients that the difference is enough to get them to pack their bags and leave.

Meanwhile, the traditional firms only have to build on the cumulative advantage of a longstanding brand. They can do this simply by improving on the things they already do well and innovating within their existing structure. In other words, while their rivals start from scratch, they can tinker with the small things and get everything working together so that they get close to giving the client the best experience possible.

But to do this, they first need to know what would make their clients’ lives easier. And they need to do this, not by intuition or guess work but in a routine, thoughtful and systematic way.

And that’s where techniques such as Client Pathways, Journey Mapping and Empathy Mapping come in. These let firms plot the changing needs of their clients in an analytical way.

But before we get too far into that, let’s explore why this works.

How we make decisions

When we make material changes to the way we work, who we work with, or the way we brand ourselves, we’re disrupting people’s thoughts and asking them to look at and perceive us in a whole new way. Sometimes you need to do that. For instance, if you’re a new firm you need to let people know you exist and that you offer an alternative to the established players.

If, however, you are one of those established players, asking people to reconsider what you stand for can go either way…

You could have a roaring success on your hands just like Apple in the nineties or Old Spice in the noughties. Or you could end up doing more harm than good, like say Kraft's iSnack 2.0.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review recently, A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin were critical of businesses that rush to become something new. The authors say that’s because they have:

“..forgotten, or... never understood, the dominance of the subconscious mind in decision making. For fast thinkers, products and services that are easy to access and that reinforce comfortable buying habits will over time trump innovative but unfamiliar alternatives that may be harder to find and require forming new habits.”

So what exactly does that mean? It means that if you’re the incumbent your first focus should be to defend your position as the ‘go to’ or default provider, not to rebrand just to keep up with your competitors. It means doing what you can to stay - or become - the person that people pick up the phone and dial when they’re not really thinking at all.

After all, as Lafley and Martin also point out: “the brain loves automaticity more than anything else”.

Getting to default

 Generally speaking, there are two ways to become the default provider that Lafley and Martin talk about. The first is to be easy to work with, so easy that your clients wouldn’t think of heading elsewhere. The second is to home in on the job the client is trying to get done.

The only way you can really tell if you’re doing either of these is through client listening, observation and feedback. And, if you do it properly, you’ll uncover what it is that will set your clients to autopilot.

At the recent LMA Conference I attended in Las Vegas, a session addressed this very thing. David McLune, Chief Marketing Officer at Shearman & Sterling in New York (my Aussie readers no doubt remember him as the former Marketing Director at Allens) set out five insights about what clients want from you.

By asking questions about - and measuring - these five factors, you’ll go someway to getting to default.

Those five insights

David says that generally your clients want:

●     Leadership. They want you to be a thought leader who’s known as the ‘go to’ person for work like theirs.

●     Skills/results. They want your skills to be obvious for all to see and for you to be confident your expertise and abilities. But they also want you to work with them collaboratively and be consistent in delivering high class results

●     Pragmatism. They want you to be commercially focused and to have their bottom line in mind. They don’t want an egghead.

●     Engagement.  They want to feel like you’re invested in their business and understand it. They also want you to make them look good, not just yourself. And they want the value you bring to be obvious.

●     Personable.  They want you to be passionate but approachable and, above all, proactive. Oh, and they also want you to focus on keeping their costs down. (No surprises there.)

So what does it mean for your firm?

First of all, I think the only way you can find out whether you measure up to each of these five factors is to ask, measure and ask again. That means, if you don’t have a Client Listening Program, start now.

Second, make sure the questions you ask your clients cover a range of measures of the relationship dynamic. 

Third, it means you should be making your questions comparative. Ask how you’re tracking compared to this time last year. Over time, you’ll see trends starting to emerge.

A final note : The Facebook effect

Lafley and Martin also point out that a great example of a business that has focused on cumulative advantage is Facebook. Although Facebook is one of the most innovative businesses on the planet, its platform doesn’t look too different to a decade ago. It has also stayed loyal to what it has always done. Instead, through its whole existence Facebook has focused on finding out what makes its customers tick and then introducing the incremental changes that will make it the “go to” social platform for everyone. And, in doing so, it has taken over the world.

Client feedback gives you the same information you need to implement the Facebook effect at your firm. So long, of course, as you find out the right information and then use it to refine your processes in the right way.

Want more?

If you’re having trouble building a Client Listening Program that lets you become the “go to” firm for your clients, get in touch. We can show you how to get engagement from your clients, what questions to ask, and we can even carry out the whole process for you.

Sue-Ella attended the 2017 LMA Conference in Las VegasGet in touch if you would like to find out more about the insights from the session.