My favourite session at each year’s PM Forum Annual Conference is the final plenary session where a panel of professional service clients are invited to give their view on the marketing and sales approaches that they receive and to answer questions from the floor.

This year the panel comprised:

– Jonathan Pearl, Corporate Vice President and General Counsel at Sony Ericsson
– Jon Moulton, Chairman of Better Capital (formerly managing partner of Alchemy, UK based private equity firm)
– Krista Lindsay, Vice President, corporate real estate EMEA at JP Morgan

Here are some of the highlights of a most entertaining and interesting discussion.

Q: How can firms be better at pitching?

JM – Find out what we might be interested in and pre-qualify so that you know the relevant decision maker
JP – Most law firms seem to be embarrassed to sell and pretend that they are on a social visit. If they were good at selling, they’d be dangerous
KL – Having previously been involved in architecture and design, I find that they are generally very good salespeople. The professions provide similar services so they need to be clear about what differentiates them – this takes time and research to demonstrate appropriate expertise

Q: What tips or best practice have you seen in building good professional relationships?

JP – Be upfront about fees. Bill on time. We scrutinise every bill to see if there are areas where we do not get enough value from the relationship. Most lawyers are not good at handling relationships – they are good at giving advice, but not so good at the commercial side of things. One firm even got my company and another Sony business confused – I wasn’t very impressed. All touch points are important – brief your telephone and reception staff – I expect them to recognise me when I call or visit. What impresses me is responsiveness – I had an injunction late on a Friday afternoon. I called five firms and the one that answered got the job – and we have had a good relationship ever since
JM – Show your understanding. Do Google searches before pitches or make a short telephone call asking “What would make you change your supplier?”
KL – Know your client. Suppliers must be prepared to roll up their sleeves and work with you, really get to know you. Be interested and inquisitive – no “cookie cutter” service.

Q: What are the alternatives to billable hours?

JM – In the private equity field we are used to contingency fees which make lawyers uncomfortable. But in essence we need firms to provide a budget for fees and stick to them – as they do in the construction industry. So, provide an accurate quote and hold to that price. Chargeable hours are just stressful to everyone.
JP – Budgets and staged payments. Law firms should rethink the whole model as the billable hour is outmoded. If one firm were to drop it, they would be a serious contender.
KL – Just no surprises please

Q: What are the most novel ways people have used to get in front of you?

JM – I’ve had a whole bookcase of rubbish books, business books, coffee table books with images of slums – these don’t work very well. I have been offered a three day cruise and been invited to a dinner to celebrate the opening of an office – where it was just myself and five lawyers. One of the most satisfactory relationships I had was with a lawyer in a small firm who used to say to me, at the end of a transaction and before posting the bill “What do you think it was worth Jon?”
JP – If you have done your homework and call me. Lots of emails don’t work. If someone calls with a compelling proposition I will be thinking “How can I find some work for this person?” What is it that you have that is unique to offer – a very qualified lawyer with no trimmings, someone with a lot of experience, someone who can get on with the project who knows your organisation well and can be up front and commercial. We’re looking for value.
KL – When a person contacts me and they know what I am interested in and have some of value for me.

Q: Do you think that next year’s LSA will have an impact on relationships?

JM – I can’t see people investing in law firms. If you take the cash out of a law firm, the troops will be less well paid. The accountants tried it and it just about worked (although one recently went bust). I don’t think it would be a stable model. Perhaps where a firm is just processing low end work it may. But the bulk of law firm work would not operate well with external shareholders.
JP – I am of the same view.

Q: Returning to the fees question?

KL – Most clients are financially astute. You need to be open – if the fees are discussed up front and there is open discussion then there are no surprises. But often fees are not transparent – projects move quickly and then is no opportunity to alert the client to the changing costs.
JM – Early notification. Unlike the construction industry, the professions have a love of extras. I want firms to admit if they make a mistake and a reduction in rates is the best form of apology.

Q: Has any firm ever provided a startling insight?

JP – Some have tried – but they pitched it badly. Telling a client that they are wrong at a pitch is wrong. The best insights are from advisers who are working on a job – we have had some very good advice and solutions. We remember these occasions and return to those advisers. There was one firm who had a young associate who proposed a quick and easy solution – it was a brilliant idea.
JM – It’s rare. I just want advisers to recognise my needs. If they can offer some better ideas – for example in tax, that’s fine.
KL – I am always interested to hear what others in my industry are doing…

Q: What are your views on professional firms’ marketing?

JM – It means very little to me. Entertaining doesn’t make a difference to me. I just want the basics – field good people, show your credentials, perform well and set the fees right. One firm had a partner who failed to recognise that he had been at the same school as me.
KL – There was an awful situation where a potential supplier sent two people in to a panel of 15 – the presenter who was speaking was really good and clear but the colleague started to fall asleep. When architects and designers present they always come along as a team. The problem is when those who present are not those who are actually going to do the work.
JP – Technology let one firm down – they didn’t know how to hide slides and kept turning the machine off. Lawyers need a lot of help selling.

Q: Should professional firms invest if professional sales people?

JP – I tried to find a lawyer online for a mediation in a niche area. I received a call form the marketing director and we had a good conversation – they followed up with a pitch.
JM – Too many sales professionals can be a turn off. Probably what we want is a client relationship person. Quality control calls after a transaction are appreciated. It is important that whoever was at the first meeting remains in touch.
KL – I want to see who will be working with us

Q: As people buy from those they like, how important is rapport?

JM – If that were the case, no one would ever hire an actuary! Body language, words and attention are important. People playing with their Blackberry is a turn off. I need people to show that they are interested – with eye contact. Empathy isn’t essential but respect, interest and communication are. And no matter how much rapport there is there can be no “rapacious charging”.
JP – I know a number of litigators – and divorce lawyers – that I wouldn’t want to spend time with
KL – Research indicates that we must engage with people on any number of levels as an individual

Q: When you put work out to tender, how do firms prove they provide “added value”?

JP – This is partly due to culture. Access to their library and training is fairly standard. Seminars are helpful – partly for the networking opportunities and also the opportunity to learn – at a high level – for example, with a good economist. These sorts of events impress me.
JM – On a particular topic – for example, corporate restructuring – three or four people from our side and three or four from the advisers over a bottle of wine to consider what can we do that is different. Obviously not charged for – this is easy and good to arrange.

Q: Do you have any views of firms’ web sites?

JP – Mostly I am looking for the telephone number of a particular specialist. I don’t want to see shots of exotic premises.
JM – Email and telephone details.
KL – In property we are used to more visual stimulation and like to see previous projects and case studies.

Q: What do you think of subscription web sites?

JP – I would pay others to do the research
JM – Most of the information we need is there for free

Q: What are your views on low balling fees?

KL – If it’s very low it will sound warning bells. We would worry that the firm might come back later and ask for more. Or we may suspect that they will field junior staff.
JP – If it’s comparable service then we will go for the lowest price.

Q: So how do you choose which firm?

JM – Back to the basics – are the people able? Do they have the time available? Are they competent? Does it provide value for money? All the other aspects – fees, physical environment, quality etc are secondary.
JP – Fees are not the determining factor
KL – The relationship and chemistry is important – you need to know that the teams will work well together