He Who Listens

There’s a lot to do when you’re a partner in a professional services firm. First and foremost, you have to produce the work, which in turn leads to billing to hit those pesky revenue targets.

So, you need to retain and grow work from existing clients, whilst also keeping an eye on opportunities to bring in new clients. That would keep anyone busy, but then there’s management of the team who may be doing the majority of the work. Don’t forget admin, CPD and possibly even a management role on top of all of that. In short, it’s not looking good for reading the bedtime story to the small people (that’s your children, not the BD team).

A partner’s lot

Partners are a notoriously insecure lot, according to Professor Laura Empson’s new book[1], so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that many feel threatened by any client listening exercise, just in case the client says something negative. What they’re missing is that it is precisely when clients say something negative that the firm gets the most benefit from the exercise.

Partners can view these projects as a headache they can do without. That’s like someone suggesting the firm could save a great deal of money if it dispensed with its finance department. You could, but the result will be a mess at best and catastrophic at worst.

Very occasionally, I come across a firm that has come to client listening late and is still chewing over whether the merits outweigh the risks. In a recent post, I regaled the true story (no fake news here) of a managing partner who refused to sign off on a client listening programme because he felt it was superfluous. His firm was growing at 10% per annum without any client listening, so why bother with the investment, not to mention the hassle?

The benefits of being client focused

First off, clients like being listened to. Most people do. It makes them feel valued; they get to give the firm some home truths and more often than not, this takes the form of a plea to understand them, their needs and their business. Aka empathy. Handing out a bit of constructive criticism can be cathartic for the client, even better if the firm acknowledges it has understood and will take appropriate remedial action. That simple process builds a bond.

I’ll also throw in that by dint of having listened, acknowledged the criticism and having committed to do something about it, the firm then receives new instructions at the same meeting, convened to discuss putting right what was going wrong. Whisper it quietly, but listening is the best sales tool you’ll ever have.

There’s one more thing. However good your firm, however big it is and whatever specialists you may have, CLIENTS ALWAYS HAVE A CHOICE. You may think that tackling why a client doesn’t understand that a fixed price isn’t necessarily fixed, is frankly more hassle than it’s worth. You may regard listening to clients’ views generally as ‘superfluous’. That’s fine, but if you don’t listen and they do walk, you won’t know until it’s too late. ‘Prevention is always better than cure’ (and in most cases, cure won’t be an option).

If ‘cure’ turns out not to be an option, a client that exits right is going to cost you. Replacing them with another, is easier said than done and also comes with a cost attached. And existing clients are more profitable than new clients. Logic dictates we should guard against losing any clients we want to continue doing business with, which means we need to get closer to them and that begins with listening. Apologies for stating the blindingly obvious.

So, for all those partners out there who recoil at the idea of client listening; who say it’s fine for everyone else but not their clients; who aren’t prepared to take the risk that the client might just say something critical or even personal about them, I say, time to man up.

He who listens, learns. He who learns, wins.

About the author: Tim Nightingale

Tim founded Nisus Consulting in 1996 with the aim of helping professional services firms become more client focused. Tim has an MBA from Cass Business School, is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and a full member of the Market Research Society. See Bio… 

[1] Empson L., Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas, Oxford University Press, August 2017.