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.

Is the client buying you or the brand?

For as long as I’ve been marketing professional services this question has been one of the most fiercely debated. Does the client buy the anticipated relationship with the practitioner, someone they need to trust implicitly and actually enjoy working with, to get the best results? Or, do they need the name of a Big 4 or top-tier law firm to provide the level of comfort that comes with the reputation of the brand?

I believe the answer is both. Clients do make unconscious decisions about you and how they feel about you personally. However, they will also make unconscious decisions about your firm, based on their recognition, or unrecognition, and perceptions of your firm (i.e. the firm’s brand). This is the power of branding and brand positioning. Both your personal brand and the brand value of your firm will influence the prospect’s decision to put their trust in you and your firm.

Your reputation as a practitioner in the market will affect the number of quality referrals you receive as well as your sales conversions. When the prospect meets with you they will make very fast decisions about how they feel about you. People want to work with people they like. They don’t need to become your best friends, but clients will be prepared to pay more for service they perceive as excellent value. Part of the value equation is trust and you need to develop rapport with a client to develop trust.

There are many books and articles about how to develop rapport and trust, including David Maister’s “The Trusted Advisor”, first published in 2000. The article “Becoming a Trusted Advisor – the Ten Behaviours”, by Michael Fleming is a good short guide:

“Lawyers spend a lot of time constructing complex, technical, logical arguments to persuade their clients why they should engage them for particular work. I’m not saying that logic doesn’t have a role to play but too many professional advisors spend too much time polishing their logical arguments and not enough time thinking about how they might better connect emotionally with their clients. Trusted advisors understand that it’s vital that they try to make an emotional connection with their clients. The good ones do it by using stories, anecdotes, examples, analogies, imagery, visual aids, and even some light humour.”

Your personal brand, your ‘reputation’ in the local market, your online (digital) personal brand, and your behaviour in-person, all influence your success. Your firm’s brand also influences this success. A brand is an implied promise (to existing and prospective clients) that the level of quality people have come to expect from a brand will continue with future purchases of the same brand. Strong brand management can increase a firm’s perceived value to the client and thereby increase brand equity. This can increase future sales by making a comparison with competing firms more favourable. It can also enable the firm to charge more for the service.

There is evidence that a firm with a strong brand, i.e. a good reputation in the market, will attract higher yielding clients and can demand a higher fee for services provided. Some clients actively choose a firm based on their brand, for example a publicly listed company choosing a Big 4 accounting firm for a financial audit, as they perceive the need for a certain level of experience and resources. Other more cost-conscious clients may perceive these firms as too expensive, but they will have perceptions of other firms.

According to Lee Frederiksen from Hinge Marketing in his article “Brand Strength and the Halo Effect in Marketing”:

“The concept of a strong brand is something that we all understand on a very intuitive level. From our own experience, we know that firms with high brand strength do better in the marketplace, whether they need new clients, business partners or employees.

So what exactly is brand strength? While there is no universal definition, we describe the brand strength of a professional services firm as the combination of a firm’s reputation and its visibility. Firms that have better reputations coupled with higher visibility have stronger brands.”

Prospective clients are searching for answers online, so firms that have a solid content strategy, to help build a strong brand, will feel the benefits of more enquiries, but if the culture of the firm and the personal brand of its front line does not align with its external brand it won’t be growing at the speed it would like to.

If you are a senior member of your firm, a principal or senior staff member, you need to be developing your own personal brand, as well as supporting the development of your firm’s brand. You can no longer rely on reputation alone. To achieve positive personal branding and powerful firm branding you need to be strategic and proactive.

  1. Develop your personal brand by becoming a thought leader. Becoming a thought leader involves specialising in a sector of the market or providing a niche service, and developing content (articles, white papers, events, speeches, etc.) that demonstrates your expertise in this area.
  2. Develop your personal brand by developing your emotional intelligence. This includes how you build rapport with clients and prospective clients. Train everyone in the firm and arm them with the interpersonal skills to make better emotional connections.
  3. Develop the firm’s brand by actively working on your brand’s presence in the market. This can be done online with a sophisticated content strategy. Support your firm’s marketing team or engage an external marketing consultant to spend time developing and executing a strategic content plan to proactively position your firm.
  4. Develop the firm’s brand by ensuring that your external brand activities align with your internal culture and client service standards. It’s not enough to say that you help your clients achieve their business goals if your staff do not know how to do this and just revert to the comfort of compliance work.

In a post-GFC professional services environment, where clients are demanding more of everything, you can differentiate both yourself and your firm, but it needs to be done with intent and with discipline. You need to plan to develop your own personal brand, as well as your staff members’ personal brands, and your firm’s brand. Prospective clients are making decisions based on their perceptions of you and your firm, your personal brand and your firm’s brand, so you need to actively develop both.

Branding internally at HLB

The biggest branding challenge for us as a professional services firm is to engage our external market with our brand promise, by making it unique and distinctive. Professional services brands struggle with differentiating their brand from all the others, as our service offerings are usually very similar. Also, professional services organisations will often work extensively on their external branding and marketing, but neglect to include their internal stakeholders in the process. By “internal stakeholders”, I don’t just mean the partners, as they are usually involved in this process, I mean staff at all levels.

Home Team

At HLB Mann Judd, we started with the knowledge of what we were known for providing and what we thought of ourselves, through the use of external research and an internal brand auditing process. We recognised that, in order to stand out from the crowd, we needed to not only develop our own brand personality externally, but, more importantly, engage our staff with our brand and branding messages. After all, our staff are going to be the ones telling people where they work and what we are all about.

Staff also need to deliver on the brand promise. We are well known for providing excellent service. We have been finalists in the BRW Client Choice Awards, for Best Accountancy Firm (revenue between $50-$500M), and we won this award this year. We are working hard to win it again next year. This doesn’t happen without a clear understanding from our staff about what is expected of them as they provide our services to clients.

To help deliver our messages internally and engage our staff with our brand we developed an internal brand called Team HLB.

Team HLB as a vehicle for sustainable behavioural change

We wanted to develop an internal identity that would support the key internal messages, such as our Vision and Team Values (which are now consistent across the Association), as well as engage and excite our staff. Team HLB is essentially a marketing vehicle to assist HR in building real, long term employee engagement.

The Marketing & BD Team and the HR Team regularly collaborate on various internal engagement projects and use the Team HLB imagery and key messaging to assist. The Vision and Values are now included in recruitment, onboarding, performance management and throughout all that we do.

We also use the Team HLB branding for internal communications, internal events, team building activities, internal competitions and other fun and engaging activities.

We are surveying staff annually to measure the level of engagement with Team HLB and the Vision and Values.