Following are samples of the kinds of comments made by corporate executives during their participation in Client Interviews that were conducted for the purpose of seeking feedback regarding one of their company’s primary professional advisors – either a law firm, accounting practice, or management consulting firm.
- Would Your Clients Recommend You to Others?
- What Client Surveys Have Revealed About the Lead Partners
- The Client's Key Expectations
- How Does Your Firm Compare to the Competition?
- Key Clients at Risk of Feeling "Taken for Granted?"
- Examples of Where the Partner Was Not Aware of Important Client Perceptions
- Well Positioned for Expansion — Or Contraction?
- Turning "Bad News" to Good Use
- "We Won't Learn Anything New from Client Interviews"
- View from the Top: Senior Executives' Reactions to Third-Party In-Person Interviews
- Why Clients Value Third-Party In-Person Interviews
1. Would Your Clients Recommend You to Others?
Beyond mere "Yes" or "No" answers, here's a sampling of client executives' responses that add considerably to revealing just how satisfied and how loyal they really are:
- "… however I don't know how many [similarly qualified Partners] they have to run such projects."
- "I go out of my way to wipe out the competition for [the Firm] as I can't see anything for them to improve on."
- "… so long as [the Firm] doesn't take its people away from me to work on the other's projects."
- "… but I wouldn't want them to work for one of our competitors."
- "I love them."
- "But [the Firm's] relevant industry experience could be stronger."
- "[The Firm] completed the assignment successfully, but they are probably not the best at this type of work."
- "[The Firm] is a good company, but I wouldn't recommend this team."
- "I'd recommend [the Firm] selectively. It depends on the area [of service] … and the country."
- "I don't wish we had selected another firm, but I didn't know that you could spend millions of dollars and not get great stuff."
- "They haven't blown me away, so I've got to feel there's something better out there."
- "We enhance our brand by associating with others who are comparable in their field to us – and I don't feel [the Firm] is."
- "… based on what I felt they could have brought to the table but didn't."
- "I get better service from others."
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2. What Client Surveys Have Revealed About the Lead Partners
- "[Partner] has great mental prowess, welcomes complexity and has a large appetite for details. His mental acuity and ability to remember all the aspects of very complicated situations have made a lasting impression on us. He always brings a helpful, different perspective."
- "[Partner] is too doctrinaire instead of thinking like a businessman. He tends to be very technical and focus more on the minute aspects of the engagement rather than the bigger picture of what is the right strategy for us."
- "I can't say enough about [Partner]. She is outstanding and was a great addition to the team. She can frame issues at 50,000 feet and also roll up her sleeves and deliver on tactics and execution – she has a rare combination of these two skills."
- "[Partner] is not service-oriented. He's more of a cop, with a gotcha mentality. He has been on the engagement too long and has stopped viewing us as a client. And we now view him as a regulator."
- "[Partner's] role has now evolved into acting as a personal advisor to me and the other executives. She serves in the capacity of an honest broker – and it's working nicely. She is well suited to this personal counseling role and to being a professional in general."
- "[Partner's] interpersonal skills are not honed to the point where he can conduct himself with those having a different point of view without appearing adversarial."
- "[Partner] is very responsive to our needs. He stays on top of the people he brings in. He follows up with me on how things are going. And he is not a pain in the ass who always pesters you – he knows when to come by. This has allowed him to eke out several new business opportunities for his firm."
- "[Partner] has a tendency to take strong positions to the top level, going around those below, including me. In a meeting with the Chairman, she blurted out an answer which she hadn't discussed with me or others."
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3. The Client's Key Expectations
During our Key Client Interviews for professional services firms, we ask each executive toward the end of the interview, "What are your one or two key expectations for [the firm] going forward?"
The resulting responses are sometimes used by the interviewee to prioritize and possibly rephrase his/her most important recommendations to the firm. Alternately, the interviewee's comments can represent a call to action for the firm to modify its behavior or focus so as to better accommodate what the interviewee perceives as his/her most important evolving future needs. For example:
- "Improve the communications with our senior executives by better navigation and vetting of issues."
- "Provide a replacement for [the Lead Partner] – as opposed to having more of his time – as I've noted no improvement in his performance over the past year."
- "Provide better execution on assignments and involve more of the Firm's senior people to make sure it happens."
- "Have a passion for being efficient with [the Firm's] resources and with our money – and have us perceive that to be the case."
- "Bring to the Audit Committee anything that [the Firm] has concerns about."
- "Continue to keep us aware of best practices at other companies within and outside of our industry."
- "Continue to help provide guidance to me as to the important issues in the various overseas locations."
- "Assess the skills of my people and how they measure up with what I'll need in the future."
- "Have a high level of interest in our success."
- "Be a constructive force by acting more like a colleague and a partner while maintaining the proper degree of objectivity."
- "Understand where our business is going and be more proactive in pointing out and anticipating issues that we'll have to address."
- "Treat us with a high level of priority because we're not only an important client but also a highly complex client involved with international operations."
- "Engage in more substantive discussions with me and my reports about meaningful ways to impact our regulatory compliance and control culture. We're decent at it, but how can we be better?"
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4. How Does Your Firm Compare to the Competition?
Firm-to-firm comparisons made by client executives can be used to capitalize on a firm's perceived positive attributes or to address perceived competitive weaknesses.
- From a COO: "The Firm should continue to deliver on its greatest competitive advantage when compared to the competition – namely, its depth of personnel."
- From a CFO: "With regard to the Real Estate area, the Firm seems to be struggling, whereas I'm getting terrific service from [another firm]."
- From a General Counsel: "The Firm's strengths are in the areas of Litigation, Antitrust and Tax. But, we think the Firm is weak – so we wouldn't hire them – in M&A, divestitures and Corporate Finance."
- From a VP: "The Firm wasn't afraid to give good, blunt, objective advice and provide constructive disagreement with those of us who have been here for some time. In other words, they did what they are supposed to do, but most firms don't."
- From an EVP: "We can normally get an answer from [the other firm we use] with just one phone call as opposed to the Firm's approach of having a meeting with six people just to debate the issue."
- From a CFO: "The primary firms we work with are all in the same class. The differentiating factor is whether or not a firm can assign the right Relationship Partner to an engagement because I assume the supporting cast of characters will be equivalent."
- From a Director of Litigation: "The Firm is better at budgeting than other firms. While all firms provide a very detailed estimate, they normally veer from it and then don't update it – and nobody likes surprises."
- From a Board Member: "I would say that, of all the firms we use, this Firm is the worst at dealing with our top management, and they are not close enough to the CEO."
- From an EVP: "If the current high volume of work that we give the Firm continues, I know of other firms that will offer discounts to get it."
- From a VP: "The Firm is able to put together and maintain a high-quality team from wherever they are located, whereas other firms supply staff based on their own needs and their personnel's availability."
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5. Key Clients at Risk of Feeling "Taken for Granted?"
Consider your firm's largest and longest-standing clients. Among them will likely be Fortune 500 companies that share relationships with the Firm going back more than one generation of partners and conceivably representing an irreplaceable slice of the firm's annual revenue.
During our in-person Client Interviews with executives of such key clients, we have frequently encountered feelings of being "taken for granted," attributable to any of a number of reasons, such as:
- Bumbled Transitions — Including overdue replacements, unaddressed succession planning or diminution – for various reasons – of the lead partner's effectiveness.
- Relentless Competitive Intrusions — Initiated by other firms attempting to get their "nose under the tent" and providing comparatively superior service when they do.
- Communications Shortfalls — Such as failing to remind and comfort the client regarding how hard the Firm is working on the client's behalf and how much the client is "loved."
- Low Proactivity — Including too little effort to "surprise and delight," introduce new ideas or show interest in enhancing the relationship and maximizing the value of services.
- Suspicions About the Firm's Culture — Such as compensation systems that underpay work for established clients and instead over-emphasize the acquisition of new clients.
- Resentments About the Firm's Priorities — Including management's greater interest in mergers, laterals and new offices than in providing outstanding service to existing clients.
- Lack of Face Time — Including partners' not meeting often enough with their clients' executives, resulting in some competitors' partners achieving more effective relationships.
- Attitude of Entitlement — As one client executive said, referring to the partners at his company's primary firm: "They should treat us like a new account they had just won."
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6. Examples of Where the Partner Was Not Aware of Important Client Perceptions
- The Partner's Assessment Was 100% Wrong, But the Firm Prevailed — The lead partner mentioned that he was reasonably well regarded at the client. However, the first executive to be interviewed began by saying, "I have a message for the Firm. We want a change in the lead partner." The change was made and the firm's relationship was maintained.
- An Early Warning Resulted in the Development of a Contingency Plan — Although highly satisfied with the large volume of work the firm had performed over several years, the client felt that the situation was becoming "incestuous." Accordingly, a key executive observed, "It's good to keep people on their toes – we need to give more work to other firms." The firm responded by identifying the "strategic" work they felt they had to retain and then adopting an approach to mollify the client's concerns.
- It Was Confirmed That the CEO Was One of the Partner's "Strongest Supporters" — While a number of executives had positive comments about the partner, he was very interested in ascertaining the CEO's viewpoint. During his interview, the CEO stated that the partner "is very business savvy and acts like a business partner – I think the world of him."
- "Other Firms Are Knocking Down Our Doors" — This is how a key buyer introduced a discussion of the activities of the firm's competition in a specific area of expertise where the firm thought it had been diligent in pursuing the relationship. However, according to the client, the firm had been much less aggressive than several other firms that had made significant inroads. Based on this competitive intelligence, the partner developed a revised business development strategy.
- The Client's Candor Regarding the Partner May Benefit the Firm — One senior executive stated that some people at the client perceive the partner as "wily – that is, he works the organization and the personalities here to his own advantage to get more business for the Firm. So, at times, people are suspicious of his motives." The partner took this feedback to heart and is attempting to modify how he is perceived.
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7. Well Positioned for Expansion — Or Contraction?
- Candid Input on Why the Firm Was Being "Marginalized" — The interviewees from the firm's key client attested to the decrease in the amount of work sent to the firm in recent years. Some of this work has gone to other firms with partners who seem more expert or responsive or are actively marketing the client. Also, as partners and associates have left the firm, a significant amount of work has followed them. Additionally, it was estimated, almost a million dollars of the firm's potential work is awarded annually to other law firms as a quid pro quo for business deal referrals.
- The Need for a Dual Image — The lead partner's prior work is highly regarded and the firm is positioned as one of two firms the client would use in future major corporate transactions. However, the firm is viewed as appropriate only where lawyers with a style characterized by "civility" would best fit the involved parties, whereas if it is determined that a "street fighter" is needed, another firm would be chosen.
- Overcoming the Competition — For major transactions, the client looks to one of three firms, all of which it considers to be excellent and, therefore, "in competition with each other." If any one of the firms "slips," the client shifts work to the remaining firms. The client's key economic decision maker discussed how "slipping" can occur: "professionally, such as by screwing up a deal or making a deal cost too much" or "personally, such as by assigning inexperienced or incompatible team members." Client personnel interviewed identified six ways in which the firm could increase its chances of winning work away from the other two firms.
- Sometimes the "Differentiating Factor" Is Not Enough — Generally, the interviewees acknowledged and were impressed with the firm's considerable technical competence, which provided the firm with an edge over the competition. But a note of caution was raised that this advantage should not lead to complacency. The interviewees made it very clear that, for any prospective engagements, only the "A" team would do. There were also comments implying that the firm's role on future assignments would be more effective if the lead partners were more forceful and assertive.
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8. Turning "Bad News" to Good Use
The partner on an important client thought things were going fairly well. This was based upon not only the observations of the client team but also the results of a written survey that the client had recently completed. Nevertheless, the Partner desired further confirmation and wanted to know how well the client team was positioned for additional work.
A few minutes into our in-person interview with the President, he said, "I'll never hire them again." And the Senior VP stated, "Not only did they pull a bait and switch on me – which I resent – but if the current engagement doesn't get more attention, it will fail."
Our Client Survey Report detailed the client's four key complaints together with a list of recommended actions, one of which was that the partner devote more time and attention to the client.
Nine months later, our follow-up interviews with the President and the Senior VP revealed that the partner satisfactorily addressed the four complaints, the prior engagement was completed successfully and the firm had been awarded two additional engagements.
A rather dramatic, but true-to-life example of how a partner's perceptions can be at variance from those of his or her client. Also, it revealed an interesting contrast between written questionnaires and face-to-face interviews – in the written survey, both the President and the Senior VP had provided a fairly good rating (a 4.0 out of a possible 5.0) on the firm's overall performance. So, even if most interviews do not disclose such sharp contrasts, how many surprises can your firm afford among its "key accounts?"
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9. "We Won't Learn Anything New from Client Interviews"
This is a common misconception held by many partners. But, even if the above comment is valid, the interviews will at least confirm that the partners' impressions were correct. However, as one of our clients admitted:
"In many cases, the partners had previously heard what was said to the interviewer. But the big difference was that it wasn't in black and white so they didn't have to deal with it – and no one else was aware of it. There were also a number of cases where what was heard was a big surprise."
Some examples of a "big surprise" follow – and these come from "good" key clients. How many "big surprises" can you afford among your key clients?
- "We are no longer considered a ‘Class A' client. The key partners no longer devote the necessary time and are not as knowledgeable about our business."
- "The Firm should market me more."
- "A competing firm is all over us."
- The Firm's work in one of its specialty areas "is not as excellent as its other services."
- "While another firm has historically done this work for us, it's now so critical to our financial performance that I could use the Firm's help in this matter, this year."
- "They were too intent on trying to sell the next job instead of paying attention to the matter at hand."
- "The Firm seems like a generalist, not a specialist in our industry and, for that reason, is not anticipating our specific needs."
- "Some of the partners' infighting was apparent to us."
- "There were shortcomings related to the worldwide coordination of their services."
- "I'd prefer a replacement rather than having more of the present partner's time."
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10. View from the Top: Senior Executives' Reactions to Third-Party In-Person Interviews
- The Chairman and CEO commented, "This is a good experience for [my Company]." And, at the conclusion of his one-hour interview, he remarked, "This has been a good discussion for me."
- The Vice Chairman remarked, "This is far better than a written survey. I would have spent no more than five minutes completing a written survey." (His interview took over an hour.)
- The President and CEO mentioned he had never participated in an in-person survey of this type, but had been interviewed on the telephone once before. He added, "The personal touch is the right way."
- The General Counsel claimed, "If it weren't for this interview, I wouldn't have said all that I said."
- A Group President stated, "This survey is a great testimony to the fact [the Firm] cares about [our Company] and – even though they are doing well – they still want to improve."
- A Division President was pleased that the Partner "included me on the list of those to interview."
- The Chief Information Officer said, "It's particularly appropriate that [the interviewer is] independent from the Firm. It wouldn't work if I were being interviewed by [in-house personnel]."
- The President and COO closed his interview by saying, "This was easy and fun."
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11. Why Clients Value Third-Party In-Person Interviews
- In-Person Surveys Are Preferred Over Written Surveys — "I throw out written surveys. I can't take the time to write out appropriate responses. I'd rather spend the time being interviewed. So I commend the Firm for doing it this way."
- Third-Party Involvement Eliminates Difficulties Inherent in Being Interviewed by Firm Personnel — "It was very good that [the Firm] hired an independent group to get this feedback. Otherwise, the discussions between client and [professional] would be circular, that is, lots of rationalization and excuses."
- Periodic Assessments Are Viewed Positively — "[The Firm] needs a continuing mechanism to test client service…every couple of years they need some help [from a third-party] with a relationship review."
- Clients Realize the Benefits to the Firm — "This Client Survey is a good thing. It really provides good feedback on how professionals are performing."
- Inclusion of Appropriate Client Personnel Is Critical — On reviewing the list of interviewees for the survey, the client's president observed, "This is an excellent sample of people that will cover [the Firm's] entire relationship with our organization."
- Some Use the Interview to Express Appreciation — "I was going to write [the Firm] to tell them how happy I am with their work, but I haven't done it yet. So, I'm pleased to have this opportunity to do that and provide an avenue to express my gratitude."
- Clients Appreciate Participating — "I enjoy providing helpful feedback."
- These Surveys Can Create a Competitive Advantage — "[The Firm's] competitors don't do an in-person survey like this one. This suggests to me that [the Firm] is more business-like than the other firms."
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