I’ve just finished writing an article reporting on the annual Professional Marketing Forum Conference (“We need to talk about clients”) which was held on 27th September at the Congress Centre in Central London (this will appear shortly in http://www.pmforum.co.uk/magazine/current_issue.aspx).

Each year, the conference concludes with a panel comprising clients giving their views on professional firms. This year it was Liz Kelly – Group General Counsel of Nationwide Building Society and Tim Bratton – General Counsel at the Financial Times.

Q: What are the elements of a successful firm?

Liz: Nationwide focuses on our customers, and we expect the same from our suppliers.

Q: What are your reactions to the FT-MPF client-adviser relationships research suggesting commercial knowledge is important?

Tim: Advisers should subscribe to the FT!  Firms deliver work overnight – it’s well drafted and thought through but the advice needs to be in context. Two examples:

a)     In another territory we needed to respond to some correspondence. We drafted something and sent it to the lawyers in that territory. They said that in that environment it wouldn’t be approached that way and it needed complete rewriting.

b)    A year ago we were doing work relevant to the FSA. We received a 10 page memo about the law – but we wanted to know how to apply that law to an online offer. The memo was hard even for the legal team to understand.

But it is often about face time – delivering advice the old fashioned way. Ask your partners – when was the last time you rang the client for no reason?

Liz: My in-house lawyers do not just give the business options and the legal perspectives. At the end of the advice, they have to give a recommendation and I expect my panel advisers to do the same. That’s how they add value. They have to put their neck on the line.

Face time is important so that advisers can “get” the client from a cultural perspective – to understand our values and how we like to operate. I like honesty in an adviser relationship. They need to understand the role and standing of the legal department – know their key stakeholders and what the industry is up to at the cutting edge. Know our hot topics and help us learn from others. One firm got their PR agency to work with us to raise our profile internally.

Q: Client plans were mentioned in the research – your views?

Liz: Obviously there is a time requirement for service reviews. But the client-adviser relationship is a partnership. We spend a day sharing our strategy for the next year with our panel advisers. It takes commitment from both sides. But how many firms have sent partners to spend a few days walking around at client premises on the shop floor with our guys?

Q: How would you articulate “added value”?

Tim: The law is like a widget, but it’s treated with mystique. Most businesses have account managers but the foot soldiers are expected to do this in law. I am interested in firms bringing in people to do the client management role – that would be radical thinking. Another point for managing partners – there’s talk about “added” value but I’m not properly convinced about “value”. The whole professional services model is about high PEP and I don’t care about that. Hourly rates become alternative fee arrangements, but these are mostly reverse engineered hourly rates.

Liz: Think about the behaviours you want to incentivise. How do you incentivise a firm to put the customer at the heart of what you do? At every meeting you should show a pie chart of what value you have added and then we can say “That’s not what we wanted” if necessary. Tailoring is crucial for us – there are so many newsletters and no time to read them. We need advisers to tell us how it is relevant for Nationwide.

Tim: Things that professional service firms do excellently are:

  1. Know how management – they should think of this as a revenue stream. PLC is great but some firms should think of branding their own know how resources
  2. IT functions which support firms – Our IT department doesn’t know as much about document management. We could outsource aspects of our IT support to external teams.

Q: What about the importance of the perception of firms being well managed?

Liz: Projects and operational management are important. Do firms have the necessary project management skills? On one occasion we didn’t know what was going on. There’s a massive cost challenge so firms must operate as efficiently as possible. The in-house function has been through lean training last year. How do I know a firm is working efficiently – I would encourage you to think about that. The tell-tale signs would be: slick project management, impressive operations, good invoicing, IT systems that integrate with ours, a virtual client support network and support staff who know who we are and who we need to speak to. Some firms come and talk to us and hear our ideas and requests. Then we hear nothing! In terms of pricing I expect a holistic all round service – to include the work, the project management and the relationship management.

Tim: I always look at the staff – do they appear happy, motivated and enjoyable to work with? It’s easier to deal with someone who is happy. I recall a couple of occasions:

  1. I recall that I sent out a matter quite late and hadn’t imposed a deadline. But it came back completed at 1130pm. I asked why the lawyer had turned it round so quickly and they said “Well, I had some other work to do this evening”
  2. Churn in teams indicates that not all is happy and indicates that there may be a problem with management

Q: What’s the best practice in client feedback exercises?

Liz: Likeability is really important. Sometimes you might need to change the client partner. Honesty and openness is critical – you don’t need an external researcher if there is a good relationship with the client partner We expect feedback to be given to us too – how might we improve?

We have formal quarterly client meetings where we spend half a day with the client partner and invite others from the organisation. Maybe 45 minutes on what the Board at Nationwide are doing – the hot topics, then firms tell us what is happening in their environment – e.g. with ABS. Then some time reviewing the work done over the past three months. Then some time to consider what added value has been delivered and is planned.

Sometimes we might meet over lunch or dinner for a less formal discussion and we take it in turns going to the firms and them coming to us. If firms want to develop relationships with our chief executive and chief operating officer then they should check the best way to do this – possibly by inviting them along to social events.

Q: What are the priorities for marketing?

Liz: Put yourselves in our shoes. I have lots of time for the business development managers that I have worked with. Think about the relationship model – fees, communication etc. They need to “get” us and know us professionally and socially. Get lawyers to come and spend time with us on the shop floor. There are five firms on my panel – I expect them to work together and understand the trends in financial services. The most important role is to bring value that is relevant to clients.

Tim: My thoughts are:

  1. Don’t be complacent on either your market position or your existing clients
  2. Don’t be afraid to innovate through, for example, access to knowledge, on-line agreements
  3. Innovate and tell us what you have done – “law isn’t magic, it’s like selling widgets”

Q: What client service has wowed you?

Liz: When the firm gave us access to their PR agent

Tim: There’s a firm we use on acquisitions – the consistency of the excellence of their people and a seamless service.

Further information on the FT/Managing Partners Forum client research can be found here: http://kimtasso.com/ft-mpf-client-feedback-on-effective-legal-accounting-property-and-consulting-relationships

Last year’s conference report is at: http://kimtasso.com/client-feedback-on-brand-at-pm-forum-conference-2011