Client relationship management (CRM)

Client relationship management (CRM) remains topical. At a recent MBL course on “Getting more work from referrers and intermediaries”  I was asked about the number of relationships that any one professional could expect to manage successfully. Relationship marketing is the primary method of business development in many professional service firms – both those providing commercial and consumer services – so it seems an obvious question. Most professionals need to manage the following types of relationships:

  • Key clients (if marketing to clients directly for ongoing advisory work)
  • Key referrers (if marketing to intermediaries for a steady flow of recommendations in transactional or litigious situations)
  • Existing clients and referrers
  • Current contacts
  • Targets and prospects (both end clients and referrers)
  • Internal relationships (for cross-selling purposes)
  • Family and personal relationships (including friends)
  • Former colleagues from education and former employers
  • Peers in professional, business and trade organisations

Psychology theory suggests that the cognitive limit to the number of people you can maintain a stable social relationship with is 150. The number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. He extrapolated from human brain size that humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships.

Other researchers have put the number between 100 and 290 and identified long term memory size as a factor. Social grooming may not be something we consider relevant to today’s business relationships but it is worth considering what is feasible for a busy professional who has to complete a significant amount of fee-earning work as well as various administrative, supervision, financial and business development duties whilst maintaining a family/social life as well as nurturing existing and prospective client and referrer relationships.

As a rough guideline, I suggest that professional identify between five and 20 critical existing client and referrer relationships and a further five to 20 prospective relationships as they plan their relationship management and business development. Those that have sole responsibility for managing critical or key (global) client relationships limit their focus to as little as two to five relationships – although there may be hundreds of individuals within those couple of organisations.

Modern digital marketing methods make it possible for people to remain in touch with an infinite number of clients, referrers and contacts. Social media such as LinkedIn also allow professionals to stay “on the radar” with large groups in an unobtrusive way.

So whilst there may be a limit on how many personal relationships you can manage, at least you can stay in digital touch with a somewhat larger number of your digital tribe now. Although interestingly recent studies have indicated that Dunbar’s number is applicable to online social networks and communication networks. So who’s your priority 150?

Future MBL course dates for “Referrer and intermediary management”

Future PM Forum course dates for “Towards KAM – Helping fee-earners with client relationship management”