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Three characteristics of professional services firms that win

September 1st, 2013 |

A winning professional services firm may be defined as one that consistently out-performs its closest competitors over an extended period of time. Winning firms have three characteristics:

1. intense client focus

2. a high performance culture; and

3. consistency in how they behave.

Removing the barriers to growth

These hallmarks are illustrated by a case study of a mid-size Australia professional services firm serving clients in the built environment. With three main lines of service in 2006 the firm was struggling to grow, let alone make an acceptable return. At that time our research showed the firm enjoyed a low awareness of the range and depth of its expertise.

The Managing Principal was heard to say in a moment of frustration: Even our own clients don’t recognise us as expert leaders in the services they use”. The data showed he was right.

Leading Firm Status

The chart reveals the extent of the firm’s difficulty. Despite having some of the best practitioners, Beaton's research indicated the firm’s reputation for expertise was well behind that of its competitors in its key disciplines. (The analysis is presented with the firm regarded by the market as the very best in each service line indexed to 100. In Service 1 the subject firm in this case study scored 27, in Service 2 it scored 31 and Service 3 the score was 7; compared with the averages of its close competitors of 62, 57 and 37, respectively.)

These indices explain a large part of the firm’s poor growth. It was not seen as particularly distinctive in ways that appealed to prospective clients–or that justified any price premium for existing clients. In other words the firm was undifferentiated.

From data to action - with focus

To remedy the situation the firm decided to focus its break-out strategy the largest of their specialist service lines and on its culture. In brief here’s what was done.

The firm communicated its recent involvement in several iconic projects to the market and systematically promoted the thought leadership capabilities of their “gurus” in carefully selected media. Further, every few months they presented one or more unsolicited proposals centred on this service line to key existing and prospective clients. This was done to demonstrate their deep knowledge of the clients’ industries and businesses and their superior technical expertise.

Internally, a program was implemented to create a high performance culture in which everyone was helped to be at the top of their game in serving external and internal clients. The six principals led the way as role models.

Within a year awareness of the firm’s expertise in the selected service line, and others, lifted measurably and RFPs from new clients more than doubled. Staff engagement rose and growth and profitability were progressively restored.

The moral in this story is that winning professional services firms are the very best in the ways they serve their clients and in turn in the way they nurture a high performance culture.

Professional services firms that win

First, all their people know that clients come first. They understand the primary reason for the firm’s existence is to meet clients’ needs effectively and efficiently. As the legendary Jan Carlzon stressed at SAS in the 1990s, you either serve clients or serve someone in the firm who is directly serving clients. Carlzon famously said, if you can’t work out where and how you fit in this chain of service, then you don’t belong in the firm.

Second, winning firms regard their culture and their people as being as important as their clients. They know how people, including principals, feel about their treatment by the firm is how they in turn treat their clients. This is a variation on the now famous service profit chain in which happy staff lead to happy clients and in turn to happy owners, i.e. the firm makes good profits.

And third–most importantly–winning firms are consistent. Again Beaton’s research shows consistency is the key to being truly excellent in how the client service experience is managed and a high performance culture is built. In the medical profession there's a saying ‘there’s no such thing as a minor operation’. This is also true in the business professions. Clients have very high expectations, so the slightest of errors, delays or brusqueness is noted and is damaging. Every touch point, by every person in the firm, every day with every client adds up.

Winning firms actively and distinctively manage their cultures to make excellence their mission. And it shows in their passion of their people.

A version of this post originally appeared on page 41 of the June issue of Consulting Matters, Consult Australia's quarterly magazine for the built environment consultant.

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