The Client/Partner/Manager Needs Dilemma

There is often a dilemma facing professional services firms when it comes to meeting the needs of Clients and Partners/Senior Managers. This has a marked impact on culture.

Clients clearly expect firms to:

• understand their business and sector;

• provide partner/senior management level contacts;

• deliver a certain level and quality of service;

• deliver better value than competitors. Partners/Senior Managers expect:

• to understand their Client's business and sector;

• to service many Clients;

• their Clients to think that they understand their business and sector;

• an increasing, profitable fee income from their Client portfolio;

• engaged employees that deliver excellent service and care.

Client Expectations Model Client Expectations

Figure 1.2 Client Expectations Model

Client Expectations

So what are Clients' expectations from a professional services firm? They may not articulate these openly but they probably expect Client-centricity to be part of the firm's DNA. Clearly Clients want results from their suppliers in everything that is done for them. Many Clients insist on having regular partner contact when other levels of management could probably provide the solution. This is particularly relevant when firms appoint Client relationship and business development managers. We can consider Client expectations under three subset factors of performance, people and processes, as shown in Figure 1.2 and Table 1.2. These factors are drawn from interviews and discussions with Clients over many years.

Table 1.2 Client Expectations

Performance Factors

People Factors

Process Factors

Innovative solutions

People that go the extra distance

They are focused on Clients rather than on internal administration and bureaucracy

Pragmatic solutions

Highly engaged employees

Data analysis procedures

Meeting the agreed budget

Accessible partners/managers when needed

Data security

Meeting the agreed timescale

Easy to get on with

Presentation of information

Meeting service quality expectations

They understand our business issues

Reviews of future commercial opportunities

Providing competitive advantages

Reliable - they keep their promises

Project management skills

Providing evidence of similar assignments

They recognise how we do business

Business reviews at appropriate intervals

Offering attractive value added services

Understanding of cultural differences

Speed of recommendations

Being effective at short notice

Are available when needed

Clear communication channels


Can make and take decisions

Mechanism for resolving queries and problems

Giving pragmatic advice

Are trustworthy

Rapid response to adverse feedback on satisfaction

Changing their delivery team to improve results

Are confident

Responsiveness to change

Willingness to negotiate on fees

Are competent in their skill sets

Data on performance achievements versus other suppliers

Speed of implementation of solutions

Regularly challenge our decisions

Easy to understand, no unexplained jargon

Having a high level of responsiveness

Well-supported by their team

A well-managed firm

Consistency and seamlessness across jurisdictions

Are well-known in their sector

Qualitative performance measures

The Firm's Culture: Do Partners, Profits or Clients Come First?

Many professional services firms have a culture that, often by default, focuses on the reputation and technical prowess of individual partners or senior managers. These firms rely on Client relationship partners to provide feedback to their colleagues on how the firm is performing. However, this feedback is likely to be biased towards that particular partner's strengths or practice area. This rather narrow channel of communication, if typical within the firm, can also lead to the occurrence of service line 'silos' that operate almost independently of each other. Even in today's competitive environment, many partners admit that they are reluctant to share 'their' Clients with other parts of the firm, especially at the early stages of a relationship. They feel that they 'own' the relationship. In many instances this seemingly selfish, ring-fencing, behaviour can result in sub-optimal fee income and narrowly defined relationships. One comment often heard internally is that a firm's equity or owning partners think about 'me' rather than 'we'.

The more enlightened firms try to move from this rather narrow-based culture to a Client-facing mindset by encouraging more sharing of Client information and contact possibilities between partners from different service lines. This is facilitated by regular cross-functional discussions. As mentioned earlier, this broadens the potential fee income stream through a more holistic team approach and is more likely to foster an increase in revenue over the longer term. It also helps to build stronger Client relationships and raises the barriers to entry by competitors. A culture of sharing of Client information is essential within a firm for optimum business growth. Many professional services firms, realising this situation, now aim to create a 'one firm', joined-up approach when dealing with their Clients. When a firm's Client database is reviewed, it is not surprising to find that any one Client might have multiple contacts over time within the firm. Unless this contact with Clients is coordinated and sensitively managed, each partner may be pushing their own agenda, sometimes causing confusion for the Client. A good test of whether your systems are joined up (or not) is to ask how much income comes from a multi-serviced Client and see if you can access the answer with the touch of a button!

Many firms would admit that a key cultural factor is profitability. 'We must have a profit per employee, or profit per partner, mentality' is often said. Of course profitability has its place in overall performance objectives, but those firms that put Client focus further down the agenda may eventually find that they lose their direction in terms of market performance.

So, given all of these factors, it is worth considering what is meant by culture in a professional services firm. Many firms find this a little difficult to define or articulate to outsiders. A firm's culture embraces the attitudes, values and behaviours that follow in everything that the firm does. If your firm is trying to change its culture to a Client-facing one, what steps have you taken to assess the current situation? You can rate your firm on its Client-centricity by asking all employees questions to determine the extent to which the Client dominates people's thinking and actions. If the scores are low to medium in favour, there are clearly some issues to be resolved if the culture is to become truly Client-centric. As we will read later, the type of culture relates directly to the level of employee engagement. You can also ask your Clients to define your firm's culture and compare the results with the firm's thinking.


A large construction company had eight divisions, each handling different aspects of the design, build, maintain and operational functions. As the company grew, the heads of their divisions became increasingly more competitive and their behaviour became highly political. Divisional profitability became a critical key performance indicator in managements' objectives. When group performance started to deteriorate, the board was advised by one of its non-executive directors to create a new role of commercial director with the aim of removing potential barriers to progress.

A commercial director was appointed and after a short period of induction decided to conduct an audit of the Client base and the processes in place to manage Clients. This started by convening internal meetings with top management to determine how they ran their businesses; they discussed which Clients were considered 'key', the most important in terms of income and potential. It soon became evident to the new incumbent that the company's top Clients were hardly mentioned on board agendas. Clients were not represented at board level. The commercial director decided to conduct some external research, involving meetings with their top revenue Clients to discuss all aspects of dealing with their supplier. At first, this listening project caused internal ripples among top management. There seemed to be a reluctance to allow a new face to meet 'our' Clients.

However, the response from Clients was extremely positive and supportive. A number of key points arose from discussions with over 50 people in these 10 companies. The work carried out by the various divisions was generally of an extremely high standard. However, there were some unresolved service issues. One thing that stood out was the fact that the company's divisions did not appear to communicate with each other about their Clients and in particular those that they had in common. On a number of occasions Clients discovered that they were having separate meetings with people from different divisions in the same week. Those Clients dealing with more than one division were receiving separate invoices from each. It was clear that the company culture was focused within divisional boundaries, inward looking and highly competitive between divisions. One or two Clients remarked that the company was not 'joined up'.

The commercial director reported on the outcomes of the research and recommended that the company should organise itself around its Clients, retaining the divisional competences, but showing one face to its Clients. This would require different attitudes and behaviours towards Clients, both inside and outside the company. Clients were grouped in order of income stream. Each strategically important Client would have a relationship manager responsible for monitoring the company's performance with Clients. Workshops were held to discuss Clients and became a regular occurrence, involving all fee earners and support staff. People from those divisions serving the same Client would be required to meet regularly to communicate, discuss and air issues and work together to solve problems. Clients supplied by multiple divisions would now receive one invoice from the company in the appropriate detail.

After six months, a pilot Client Satisfaction Programme was launched with the top income companies that were originally interviewed by the commercial director and the results were reported to the group board. Apart from the many service issues that needed resolving, the feedback was used to support the reorganisation of the company around industry sectors, each with a leader responsible for a portfolio of top Clients. After another year, group profitability was stabilised and began to grow; many Clients commented that the company's operations seemed much more integrated.

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