There are numerous, clear benefits in seeking feedback and insight from clients. However, relatively few professional firms use a formal client insight process as an evidence base to guide strategic change in their business.
Successful professional firms, therefore, recognise the need to operate in a client-centric manner. That entails driving strategy inwards from clients not pushing it at them: hence asking them questions and not second-guessing their responses.
Your best clients will be keen to be involved in developing your strategy and in its implementation because it has a direct benefit to them. By shaping the future direction of your firm around clients they receive a better quality service focused on the areas in which they will need the greatest external support now and in the future.
At a time of major market disruption, how else can you ensure your firm’s strategic decisions are on the right track if they haven’t been tested and validated by clients? In addition, building the evidence base for strategic change directly from clients greatly helps to silence change-antagonists internally.
Most professional firms capture some form of feedback from at least some of their clients. However, very few actively use the insight gathered to inform strategic decision such as launching new services, investment in technology or building new areas of technical capability. This is because feedback has tended to be exclusively retrospective (i.e. what did we do well / what could we have done differently?) rather than forward-looking (i.e. how are your needs changing / what more can we do to service your changing needs?).
Another untapped source of strategic insight is intermediaries (those that refer work to your firm such as banks, wealth managers, and other professional advisers). They typically have a good feel for how their sector or market is changing, and the likely impact on your firm. They can also provide a frank assessment how well placed your firm is to respond to these strategic changes compared with your competitors.
There is real value, therefore, in conducting a personal conversations with key clients and intermediaries when considering strategy for your firm. Not only does it cement the relationship, it gives valuable insights and helps to avoid unexpected landmines.
The Big Questions
“If you want great answers, ask great questions.” So goes the mantra for executive coaches. Whichever method you decide to capture strategic insights from clients, an effective discussion guide or set of questions helps to ensure that you gain maximum value from the interaction.
We start by co-developing with our clients a “Decision Grid”. This comprises a number of strategic hypotheses to be tested and the questions likely to elicit relevant information to validate current thinking and extend the internal knowledge base. The “Decision Grid” is then converted to a discussion guide that can be used to frame conversations, whether face-to-face or by phone.
Filling in the blanks: additional sources of insight
Alongside in-depth conversations with clients, there are other sources you can utilise to support strategic decision-making. A lot can be gained through desk research on market trends and issues relevant to your clients. For example, data on capital flows, M&A activity, hiring trends and regulatory changes will provide a proxy of which markets are growing and likely to spend more in future.
Short surveys sent to clients and prospects can be used to build a larger data set about their changing future needs and what this mean for your firm. The data obtained can be used to model spending patterns, buying behaviour and anticipated future demand. This can also be used to gather direct feedback on ideas for new service propositions that can be iterated further in the light of client feedback.
Surprisingly many firms neglect the source of wisdom at their own fingertips: the views and experiences of their internal terms. On some of our recent projects, internal surveys have revealed new opportunities for firms to build joined-up propositions, and have identified points of strategic consensus or contention that leadership need to factor into their strategic thinking. These insights have come from seeking views from managers, associates or directors, not just the most senior partners in the firm.
Once the insight base has been gathered the findings needs to be collated and synthesised. The findings can then be related it back to the original “Decision Grid” hypotheses. Have these hypotheses been validated? What new insights have been gained? How can these be turned into action?
The results should provide a solid evidence base for marketing and organisational strategy. It is solid information that is incontrovertible and hence far more powerful and relevant than the anecdote or hearsay evidence that forms the basis of too many strategic plans in professional firms.