One of the most valuable sessions at the annual Professional Marketing Conference  is where a panel of clients are asked questions about how professional advisers can improve their services and market more effectively to them. Client feedback is always useful.

This year’s line-up – moderated by Elliott Moss, Director of Business Development at Mishcon de Reya – included:

Rachel Emerson (RE) – Senior Legal Counsel – Thomson Reuters Financial & Risk

Giles Wilson (GW) – EVP Finance – Menzies Aviation

Jodie Williams (JW) – Principal – The Marketing Hub

The key themes that emerge are: innovation, differentiation, single point of contact (account management), open communication and good management.

Q: What influences you to instruct a particular firm?

RE – A common thread is innovation – where firms constantly adapt their competitive advantage. A good example is Obelisk  – a virtual law practice that uses the talents of mostly part-time female City lawyers. We instructed them because we had to deal with lots of different markets and jurisdictions – they have lots of local language experts

But the specific factors I take into account when choosing a firm are:

  1. Value proposition – We are under constant pressure to deliver more for less to our business
  2. Innovation – Thinking outside of the box to find different ways to deliver advice and services. For example, Obelisk offers stand in, stand out and stand by services which includes short and long term secondments
  3. Flexibility – The ability to scale up and scale down and to cope with unusual situations (e.g. providing 24/7 on call support when all of our lawyers were out for a week)
  4. Point of difference – There needs to be something different – which could be in the areas of shared values or innovation
  5. Responsive and communicative – There needs to be an on-going dialogue – particularly with regards to fees. And if there is any deviation from a quote then this must be addressed early
  6. Be less like lawyers – In-house lawyers have to translate legal issues to be meaningful to non-lawyers such as those in the sales team. Our external lawyers must do the same

GW – Price is key – as it is in all business-to-business situations – but price is just one part. There needs to be communication and flexibility. There was a recent situation where an accountancy firm declined to do some work because it was outside the scope of the initial agreement – I would have been happy to discuss an additional payment. If we ask for more stuff, we’ll pay for more stuff. But we must never be surprised.

JW – When I recently moved house my primary concern was that it all happened smoothly. Price was not the key issue.

Q: To what extent are the leadership and management teams at professional firms important? 

GW – It is one of the most important factors for me. Ours is an international business where we often have three to four overseas acquisitions taking place. Where, for example, PwC does the due diligence it is co-ordinated by the same partner in the UK – and they are very good at the role of relationship partner. They have 20,000 or so people but there is one individual who I can turn to. It is key for us that there is one point of contact and that they take ownership. When anyone from our organisation calls, the relationship partner will find someone and get them to call us. It’s a real person with accountability.

They need to understand the business – one partner spent a day watching what we do – moving baggage and stuff from planes. That culture and approach needs management support. Furthermore, in a market where people change roles a lot it is important that there are the same people at the top – who have made a commitment to the business.

Things sometimes go wrong but advisers are judged by how they deal with it.

RE – Dana, the CEO of Obelisk, was passionate about what she was trying to achieve in its infancy. It resonated with me. Its point of difference is intrinsic to its proposition

There has to be a link between what people say and what they do. So you should under promise and over deliver.

I need my advisers to encourage us to be realistic about time frames – I hate it when people work all day and all night on our behalf. But once a timeframe is given, it must be adhered to or there must be early and honest communication. Management must foster a culture where advisers are confident to talk to the client about when it might take more time or cost more money to fulfil an instruction or complete a project.

Q: There were some comments about “creation of shared value” – is it important that professional advisers also do something that benefits society?

RE – It is not essential but it is an important added bonus

GW – It is never just about price. We are a listed company and many of our people work with children to give something back. For me, professional advisers should provide a menu of things for clients to pick from including issues such as relationship, values, price and quality. The “business with a conscience” disappeared in 2008 – they all reverted to delivery of the service in a back to basics way with a focus on how to deliver value to the clients.

Q: Is the partnership model sustainable or do we need a new delivery method?

RE – I don’t think it makes any difference – there is flexibility in the model. The structure shouldn’t make a difference

GW – It’s good to work with a partner in the business