The relationship still matters – Why you’re not going to be replaced by a robot

The professional service relationship, between the client and the practitioner, is a special one. Whether it’s a client’s financial freedom, their family’s livelihood, or their professional reputation, the stakes are high. The client needs to implicitly trust the professional service provider. This trust is built over time and can’t be easily replicated, and the human face-to-face interaction is not likely to be replaced any time soon.

Building a trusted relationship is still a crucial element in the selling and delivery of professional services. A critical element of trust is reliability. In Hinge Marketing’s e-book Inside the Buyer’s Brain:

“The number one reason buyers gave for continuing the relationship was that their professional services provider actually did what they said they would do. In short, they delivered on their promise.”

You may say reliability will be improved by automation, and I think that is true, but human delivery of the promised service will always be required. There may some aspects of a service that can be outsourced, numbers that can be crunched by a computer, or even decisions made with the help of artificial intelligence, but there is always going to be a need for face-to-face interaction to build the necessary trust in the relationship. Research conducted at the Beijing Normal University, and published in The Journal of Neuroscience, found that “face-to-face communication, particularly dialog, has special neural features that other types of communication do not have” and that something called “neural synchronization” occurs between the people in the face-to-face conversation.

“The current study showed that, compared with other types of communication, face-to-face communication is characterized by a significant neural synchronization between partners based primarily on multimodal sensory information integration and turn-taking behaviour during dynamic communication. These findings suggest that face-to-face communication has important neural features that other types of communication lack, and also that people should take more time to communicate face-to-face.”

In her book Trusted: The Human Approach to Building Outstanding Client Relationships in a Digitised World, Lyn Bromley talks about the five building blocks to building trusted relationships.
These five areas are:

  1. Mindset: You can manage your mindset to be more confident, positive and set you up to be more successful.
  2. Communication: Active listening and knowing when to allow the other person to talk about their goals and objectives, issues and concerns, is one of the most valuable skills you can learn.
  3. Interaction: Dedication, energy, and thought are needed to create strong, lasting business relationships. Interactions with colleagues and partners are as important as those with clients and prospects.
  4. Behaviour: In professional services, behaviour is one of the most important differentiators of a business.
  5. Professional image: How we dress not only affects how others perceive us, but also how we perceive ourselves.

The RAIN Group, in their e-book Your Guide to Insight Selling Success, say that:

“Relationship building, the personal side, is still critical to earning trust and winning sales. What has changed is the way buyers form relationships with sellers.”

The RAIN Group have extensively researched the professional services selling-buying relationship. They have found that clients of professional services still need their professional service provider to build a genuine relationship based on trust. In the buying process, insight sellers establish themselves as trustworthy sources of value, so buyers open up to an exchange of information and ideas. If the buyer likes and trusts you, they’re more apt to take your advice and this continues throughout your business relationship. It increases your business value, along with the frequency and depth of your business interactions. According to the RAIN Group, the world has changed. The rhythm has changed. The order in which we do things has changed. But what hasn’t changed is the need to build strong personal connections with buyers (prospective clients) and clients.

This innate human need to build strong personal connections, particularly in a highly trust-based professional services relationship, is the reason why you won’t be replaced by a robot. Well, not until AI technology becomes so advanced that it can create ‘neural synchronization’ between a client and a robot. Some of the services you provide will be automated and performed by a computer, probably sooner than you think, but your abilities to build trust and a genuine human connection will not easily be replicated by a machine.

What’s in a name? – Who is Nike and why is it relevant for professional services?

In Greek mythology, Nike was the goddess of speed, strength and victory. Also known as the Winged Goddess, Nike is most often pictured as having beautiful large wings. She flew around battlefields rewarding the victors with glory and fame, symbolised by a wreath of laurel leaves. She was worshipped because it was believed she could make humans immortal and was able to grant them the strength and speed needed to be victorious in any task they undertook.

Headquartered in Oregon, the company Nike has been the world leader in sports equipment and apparel since 1978 and is estimated to employ over 44,000 workers around the world. As of 2017, the Nike brand is valued at $29.6 billion. The name Nike was chosen by company founders because of the goddess’s attributes of speed and victory. The ‘Swoosh’ symbol logo that appears on all Nike products was designed in 1971 by Carolyn Davidson, a graphic design student at the time. Carolyn designed the logo with the wings of Nike in mind. The logo is not only meant to represent motion, but to also represent the wings of the goddess Nike. The logo has become one of the most well-known images of all time. The logo is not only iconic, but carries a great deal of meaning.

What does this have to do with professional services?

Professional services firms have traditionally been named after the founding partners of the firm. Originally, this naming convention was a means of acknowledging the training and certifications of the practitioners, and legitimising the services offered by these certified individuals. Also, firms thrived on the personal reputations of the principals and relied on word-of-mouth for new business. If your new business was entirely based on your professional reputation, it makes sense that your name was inseparable from your brand.

Beyond the necessity of this practice, professional services practitioners saw the addition of their own name to the corporate moniker as a sign of having ‘made it’. The formation of firms and merging of multiple firms meant partnership names needed to describe multiple professional reputations. This resulted in the tradition of the Deloitte, Haskins & Sells type brands. Of course this firm is now officially Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd, but is branded simply Deloitte. The status associated with a firm’s masthead meant that when practices merged, so did their names. Alternatively, the acronym route has been equally popular with the likes of KPMG and PWC etc.

Firms now have the flexibility to choose just about any name for their practice. In an increasingly digital and competitive world, the traditional naming convention is no longer advantageous. Traditional firm names are certainly unique, and some even famous, but, for the vast majority, this no longer spells distinction and no longer assists with positioning.

The apprehension toward letting go of the classic ‘my-name-is-on-the-door’ mentality is most likely in the belief that the brand equity, and the success attained, will all go out the window when you let go of the name. However, successful firms these days involve many more than the one or two people who happen to run the place. If the future of professional service firms lies with the talent they attract, then a more inclusive and future-proof identity for the firm is a necessity.

1.     The firm’s name needs to mean something to employees.

The name needs to have meaning for all staff members, not just the founding partners. For an engaged workforce, meaning is crucial. Employees want to know that what they’re doing day to day has meaning and purpose and provides something meaningful for clients. I haven’t worked at Nike, but I’m certain Nike staff members know the story of their name and logo and why this matters to their customers.

2.     The firm’s name needs to mean something to clients and potential clients.

Now, more than ever, brand positioning for a professional services firm is vital for strategic growth. Firms need to differentiate themselves from other firms or risk becoming commoditised. The story of Nike the Greek goddess of victory is not likely to be known by the majority of the customers of Nike, but because the original meaning of the name and the ingenious slogan “Just do it” are both now synonymous with the brand, it has surpassed its initial significance for customers.

3.     Your name can be a powerful positioning statement.

If you’re rebranding, or forming a new firm, you have an opportunity to build some valuable meaning into your firm’s name. It can be a powerful positioning statement and tell the market exactly what you do. We are now starting to see more firm names like It All Adds Up Accounting and Your Financial Solutions, both accounting firms in the US. Here in Australia we have firms like IP Solved and businessDEPOT breaking the traditional mould. You do have to make sure it’s distinctive and unique and that you’ll be able to build a solid digital marketing strategy around it.

So, what’s in a name? In professional services the stakes are now higher than ever. Better employee engagement, better brand positioning, and a crucial competitive advantage, can all be gained by simply choosing a more meaningful name.

The new world of professional services

Teamwork

The good old days are gone. Post the GFC, professional services clients now expect a very different service. Increasingly sophisticated clients expect professionals to be more responsive and have a better understanding of their business and the commercial pressures they face.

Service must now be truly client-centred and professionals need to be creative and empathetic. They must work with, not just for, their clients. They need to create solutions, not just present solutions. Innovation is about changing cultures within the organisation, engaging and collaborating with clients.

In Katherine Tower’s article “Culture Shock”, Paul Jenkins, Managing Partner of global law firm Ashurst, says:

   “It’s not about law firms choosing to innovate, it’s about being required to innovate by sophisticated clients. Clients now have the expectation that processes will be simplified, that we will make life easier for them and that they will be given greater accessibility.”

So why is it so difficult to innovate? The focus for many firms continues to be billable hours, with ‘today’ as the main focus. If ‘today’ is the dominant focus, what is the encouragement for professionals to innovate? While there is nothing wrong with making money today, what about building for the future?

Also, with most firms there is no alignment between innovation and compensation. You will never have innovation unless you allocate some time and reward to making it happen.

Often, the firm’s leadership does not see the value in innovation. The theory is, “Aren’t we successful now, so why do we have to change?” Leadership in the Big 4, global law firms and consulting firms see this issue differently and are constantly looking for ways to innovate. While they can spend more time and more resources than smaller firms, it does not mean that smaller firms can ignore this issue completely.

When it comes to the sales process, this is the new reality. According to the RAINGroup, in their “What Sales Winners Do Differently” research, there are three levels of selling behaviours and outcomes that set sales winners apart:

Level 1 is Connect. Winners connect the dots between client needs and their company’s services as solutions. Winners also connect with people. They’re perceived to listen and connect personally with buyers more often.

Level 2 is Convince. Winners convince buyers that they can achieve maximum return, that the risks are minimal, and that the seller is the best choice among all options. In other words, they are masters at making the value proposition case as compelling as possible, and communicate it effectively.

Level 3 is Collaborate. Winners collaborate through behavior – they are perceived to be responsive, proactive, and easy to buy from (collaborative in how they work). At the same time, it’s not just how the seller interacts; it’s what they do. Buyers believe that winners actually collaborate with them during their buying process (collaboration in the sense of working with the buyer to achieve a mutual goal), and that they educate buyers with new ideas and perspectives. Indeed, buyers perceived these sellers to be integral to their success.

It’s the third level, collaboration, that is now so critical to every step in the client journey, not just during the sales process. Client service should now be delivered as a collaboration between the professionals and the client. Solutions are developed and delivered by collaborating with the client. This means the professional must thoroughly understand the client’s industry and business. There are now far more professionals specialising in specific industries or categories of clients to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Professionals have known for some time that the best profit is not in the compliance services, but the broader advisory and consultative services, adding value by building and enabling. Firms do not want to become commoditised. To be able to charge premium fees, and grow the firm, it is vital that professional services firms master consulting and collaborating skills. In order to be truly innovative, firms need to enable and engage their people and the primary focus must be on genuinely engaging and collaborating with clients.