This post follows beaton’s successful joint webinar with APSMA on 22 November 2016. During this webinar, Paul Hugh-Jones (Partner, beaton) and George Beaton (Executive Chairman, beaton) discuss trends in client buying behaviour, best practice in client centricity and why becoming more client centric will improve your firm’s financial performance. To watch the full webinar, please click on this link.
Few would argue that clients’ expectations and buying behaviour with respect to professional services have changed. These structural changes reflect a transition to a buyers’ market, where clients have increasing levels of sophistication and expectation of value. Firms also face demand for better, more client-centric service delivery.
Consequently, client centricity is a key strategic imperative for many firms. However, becoming more “client centric” can be a vague goal. While anyone can intuit generalities about client centricity, few focus their efforts on attributes that are empirically proven to be valuable and important to clients. Fewer still have feedback systems which allow them to put the client centricity into competitive context.
This post illuminates what client centricity means, how to execute on what clients really value, and outline the business ROI.
beatonbenchmarks™ data collected in our annual professional services benchmarking studies over the past five years demonstrates why clients are becoming more demanding. Figure 1 shows our findings in the Accountancy profession (Figure 1) as an example.
Perception of fee levels has remained stagnant since 2011, while ratings of Overall client service and Perceived value have steadily increased. This plays out similarly in beaton’s large-scale studies of the legal and consulting engineering professions.
These trends have two important implications. Firstly, they corroborate a large body of evidence that suggests clients’ perception of value does not mean cheap pricing. There has been no perceptible fall in prices since 2011, yet Perceived value has increased by 14%. Improving your client service will make your clients feel that they are getting better value without the need to reduce price or discount. In fact, firms that lead on client service build price-setting discretion, enabling them to charge a price premium.
Secondly, because profession-wide client service levels increase each year, any firm that has not improved its client service, and as a result the value it delivers to clients, is actually going backwards.
This can make sellers of professional services feel snookered. Their clients are enjoying more choice, more price-based competition and commoditisation of services. Combined with the rise of procurement, loyalty is no longer the norm. The result is that profitability of incumbent firms declines.
Counter-intuitively, these trends are your firm’s biggest opportunity if you recognise them in the context of client choices. These choices are:
Improving your client-centricity will minimise your clients using choices 1 and 2 and encourage 3 and 4. While 3 may not be palatable, complaints are far better than 1 and 2, and give you an opportunity to resolve issues and retain your client’s business.
To improve your firm’s client-centricity you must know how and when you are ‘moving the dial’ on your client service. The key to this is measurement.
Client centricity can be measured at three levels.
Using standardised client service metrics is vital as it allows you to put your results into a competitive context.
One such metric is the Net Promoter Score®. Seen as a key outcome metric because of its important microeconomic implications, NPS® is calculated by asking clients the extent to which they are likely to recommend your firm to a friend or colleague on a scale of 0-10. Those scoring 0-6 are ‘detractors’ who are unhappy with your service, and likely to vocally recommend people NOT to use your firm. Those giving scores of 7-8 are ‘passives’ who are neither particularly happy nor unhappy. Those giving ‘9-10’ are ‘promotors’ who are likely to actively promote your firm. The NPS® is calculated by subtracting the percentage of ‘detractor’ scores from the percentage of ‘promoter’ scores.
While a strong NPS® score bodes very well for your firms’ financial performance, it is not in itself actionable. Firms with a weak or average NPS® often lack a road map of how to improve their score. You should therefore measure the biggest statistical drivers of NPS®, which beaton has derived during a decade of research studies.
At a brand and client relationship level, beatonbenchmarks enable firms to measure Relationship NPS® and key attributes, set strategic goals for your firm’s improvement in specific areas of client service and track your progress against competitors. It is a valuable, but incomplete method of ensuring that your firm is client centric. It lacks the immediacy of transactional feedback required to minimise your clients’ Exiting and Neglecting choices and to encourage them to Complain constructively and to remain Loyal.
Best practice transactional measurement programs gauge your firm’s key attributes in near real-time. They alert you to detractors to prevent Exit and Neglect, while giving you important intelligence on growth and promotion opportunities with promoters. Measuring Transactional NPS® and its drivers is thus valuable in improving your client centricity and financial performance. This was fundamental to the design of beatondebrief; our granular, interactive tool for client feedback at a transactional, i.e. project or matter level.
Choosing metrics and method for measuring client centricity is important. However, for client feedback programs to succeed they must have good governance. For example, removing sponsor bias will result in more accurate results, as clients have been shown to be more candid when giving feedback to an independent party. Further, it is vital to prevent your program being gamed. In the context of a partnership, for example, allowing your partners to choose which clients get surveyed (or don’t get surveyed), i.e. cherry picking, will yield highly biased results.
Finally, internal buy-in is vital, especially from firm leaders, who should act as role models and follow up promoters and detractors This will firstly reduce the likelihood of people trying to game the system, and secondly ensure that your commitment to securing client feedback is adhered to. A part of ensuring internal buy-in is developing a culture whereby there is shared commitment to improving the firm’s performance.
Careful consideration is needed in governing client feedback programs, but the returns on client-centricity are significant.
Client centricity, as manifested in NPS®, can explain as much as 20 to 60% of the variation in organic growth rates. This is not to say NPS® is a panacea – rather, it is the result of strong performance in client service attributes which leads to common-sense results. These are demonstrated by the schema in Figure 3, below, which gives a picture of the benefits of fostering and retaining positive client relationships.
NPS leaders more easily recoup fees, get more repeat business and can charge more. Further, acquiring clients is cheaper because of less churn, and because clients do BD work for them. The economic case for measuring and improving your client centricity is compelling.
Maersk is the world’s largest container shipping company. The shipping industry is highly commoditised and plagued by over-capacity, price wars and stagnant sea traffic. In this industry, volume vital to economic success.
Through providing a comprehensive, top-down approach to improving client centricity, in which all management had to spend a ‘day in the life of a customer’, Maersk was able to improve its NPS® from -10 to +30. Every 4 point lift in NPS® resulted in a 1% increase in shipping volume. This had huge flow-on effects for Maersk’s operational efficiency and its profitability. More can be read about Maersk’s success here.
Maersk differentiated itself on its customer service. With such a profound effect on the profitability of a firm in an increasingly commoditised industry, improving client centricity is a big opportunity for professional services firms.
Knowing how to execute on client centricity, track progress and drive real time improvement is crucial for professional services firms that want to excel in the buyer’s market.
For more information on how to improve your client centricity through beatondebrief, click here.
Thank you to Ben Farrow for his contribution to writing this post.
Dr George Beaton is a Partner in beaton and has guided clients through a variety of strategic decisions as a researcher, adviser and consultant. George’s experience includes executive director roles in marketing research and advisory firms. George is a senior fellow in the Law School at the University of Melbourne.
Paul Hugh-Jones is a beaton partner with a wealth of experience in B2C and B2B marketing. Paul led global brands for Mars, British Airways and Bacardi before becoming CMO at King & Wood Mallesons and Ashurst.