One of my favourite elements at each annual Professional Marketing Conference http://www.pmforum.co.uk/events/conferences.aspx is the final session (which I call “the clients bite back”) where clients are invited to give their views on where their professional advisers are getting it right – and wrong.
This year, the panel was led by Elliott Moss – the business development director at Mishcon de Reya solicitors – and the legal and accounting client feedback was provided by Helen Armstrong (HA), a senior lawyer at Santander, Shalini Sequeira (SS) in-house counsel at Argus Media and Graham Patterson (GP) CFO of Aframe (cloud collaboration platform for video).
The underlying message appeared to be that advisers need to invest in long term relationships and get to really understand the client’s business to ensure that they provide appropriate advice and insight.
Q: Are you serviced well by the professions?
HA: Over the last five or six years, lawyers have become more competitive and transitioned from technical to business advisers. A “trusted adviser” means being pragmatic, engaging and proactive and knowing the regulatory framework and risks to our business and thinking outside the box.
GP: As a start-up seeking investment advice we needed the relationship to be proactive – to guide us through the transition which has seen our business change unbelievably over the last two years. We’ve had brilliant advice but had little money to buy it. So we need advisers who are with us for the long haul.
SS: We are in a similar position to GP – we are still in a start-up mentality. It is hard for professional advisers to understand our business model – we need them to invest time in us in order to give us insights.
Q: How do you find service delivery?
HA: We use panel arrangements but there can be issues when firms might low-ball fees to get past the procurement process but then fail to provide the required support. Some adopt an uncommercial position. We need to trust in advisers for the long haul but many are not interested in our processes – just in ticking boxes. Firms need to understand our systems and processes and what makes us tick – it makes the relationship a lot more simple.
GP: Firms should offer incentives like providing ad-hoc advice. Start-ups don’t always have the funds to pay for advice initially but as they grow the fees will flow. More firms are finding novel ways to help us – they make a strategic investment of time in us. They need to invest time to understand our technology business – which is in a growth market. My experiences have been largely positive – I know that advisers track us.
SS: Firms need to really get under our skin and look under the bonnet. Few have succeeded. Those in niches who have clients in similar situations have an advantage. Few come to find out about us as they don’t see the huge pipeline of future fees. We’re not made to feel special.
Q: You seem underwhelmed. What good things can you report?
SS: We are a small team and some advisers have learned how to communicate with each individual person – being good at gauging different personalities. Some firms just deliver their advice without deploying their human skills to be aware of different personality types. Some advisers think we are not all decision makers – but we all have a say!
Q: Do you think that you will use robot advisers in the future?
HA: There is a partner in a City firm who is technically gifted, a great strategist and a good salesman. It’s not just about the technical advice and not everyone has all the required skills.
GP: Usually we work with a team – it is rare that there is just one person who can deal with all of it. Technical advice is one thing, relationships are another.
SS: Advisers need to be aware of the long term relationship and have the right team ready for each piece of work. Often there is no contact between work and no sense of advisers being hungry for it. How are lawyers trained to meet our needs? That would be an interesting discussion.
Q: Do you think there is a gap in how firm train their advisers?
SS: It’s an interesting question. Advisers always say that they understand our business but often that knowledge is quite superficial. There are different ways to get information and think about a client’s business – perhaps some advisers are innovative in this area.
GP: Advisers should give recommendations – not just list the options. To do that they really have to know our business
HA: It’s not ideal at the moment. Advisers need to have a genuine knowledge of the client’s business and understand the appropriate approach to risk-return.
Q: Have you had engaging conversations where you gain new ideas and insights from advisers?
SS: I would love that – whether it was about technology or the future of the business. It would be refreshing if they opened a dialogue about these things.
GP: We want advisers to be proactive – to say what’s coming next and how we should prepare. But that advice must be specific to our business – not general.
HA: I get a lot of updates on case law but what would be really helpful is market trends and what’s happening on the international scene – that would be helpful.
Q: When buying or choosing advisers is it the individual or the firm/brand that is more important?
HA: A bit of both. We are cost conscious when allowing firms onto the panel but when there is a serious regulatory issue, money is less important and we will look at the reputation of the firm.
GP: When at a larger organisation it was all about certain brands. But at a smaller firm it is totally about the individual and we couldn’t care less about the firm. Brands bring comfort but in a small firm you are just concerned about value for money. There are some brands that do more in the small technology sector.
SS: It’s all about the individual. We may choose to use a particular firm but if the individual and the team we want are not available we will go elsewhere.
Q: What are your frustrations with law firms?
HA: When they just turn up not knowing about our business and expect me to do their internal marketing for them.
GP: Not doing their homework – expecting me to pay fees to explain our business.
SS: Providing a long list of options and no recommendations. Even if we disagree with advisers, it’s good to see that they are applying strategic thinking.
Q: How do you perceive price versus value?
SS: Value is more important. We do not have a specific budget and can ask for more funds if needed – as long as we can show that it is money well spent.
GP: A good accountant is worth their weight in gold. Fees are secondary.
HA: We have separate companies to deal with cost control. Where there is perceived legal risk we will invest heavily.
Q: Any perceived differences between large and small, legal and accounting firms?
GP: Lawyers and accountants are very similar – they are relationship-led businesses. There’s no discernible differentiation. In a small business we do more work with lawyers early on – there’s no differentiation in how I’m marketed to or serviced. Partners will hog relationships and juniors will not have many touch points. They should encourage the juniors to establish appropriate relationships.
My report of the conference was published in the November 2015 edition of Professional Marketing magazine http://www.pmforum.co.uk/magazine/ and there are also blogs providing an overview of the event and a report on the talk by futurologist Chris Yapp.