This week we virtually meet with Derek Howard, CEO of The Customer, to discuss his experience of helping professional services firms to drive profitable revenue growth, create value-focused client relationships and build high-performing engaged teams.
Q. Derek, what trends do you see facing the professional services sector?
A. We’re in a very interesting transition period as we wait for vaccination levels to rise. Opening back up the economy post pandemic will accelerate some of the broader trends impacting the sector. Digital transformation will continue at pace, making it easier for clients to do business with firms.
Great service, value for money and relevant insights will remain key for clients given limited virtual networking opportunities. Client loyalty is not a given, particularly where clients have experienced poor virtual service levels or a reduction in communication over recent months. Consider what you would do if one of your biggest clients put the work you do out to tender in 6 months’ time? Don’t wait for this scenario, make the required changes to how you work with them now!
When it comes to your people, attracting and retaining talent remains vitally important. Firms will target different demographics to fill skill-set gaps and continue to leverage external hires to support their growth and in some cases to further professionalise their support functions.
The blurring of work and home will remain a challenge as firms are tested on their openness to create a truly hybrid workforce. The willingness of firm’s to offer the full benefits of flexible employment post-Covid 19 will be a key area of focus for potential new hires, especially among the younger demographics. This will need to be carefully balanced with the benefits of onsite learning and coaching that happens so much more easily and naturally when teams work together in the same office or client site. Watch for the practical implications of this shift in the day-to-day operations of professional services firms over the coming months.
Q. What makes a great partner or professional services firm leader?
A. You have to be good at lots of things! To be accepted by your partner group you need to be respected by them. One of the first criteria here is your ability to generate and sustain a profitable client portfolio. Are you good in the marketplace and with clients? Is a ‘one firm’ mind-set in your DNA? When it comes to strategy you must be visionary but realistic. You need to be ambitious and resilient to drive change and growth; never content to settle for the status quo. You should set clear expectations and focus on critical execution metrics.
From a people perspective, you should be tough but fair. Like the manager of a football team, your focus needs to always be on improving the performance of the team. It’s not about you! You are selflessly focused on promoting and helping others to perform at their best. Open, honest, commercial communications are also key. People want to hear the good and the bad when it comes to performance updates. If everything is presented as always going well, updates are neither credible nor realistic. You must admit when you get things wrong or where improvement is needed. You should also proactively seek regular feedback from your people at all levels. Of course, the best leaders have coaches and mentors to maintain high performance levels and we at ‘The Customer’ can certainly help support you from that perspective!
Q. What is the biggest mistake you see professional services firms making?
A. The biggest mistake by far that I see firms making is ‘reacting’ rather than ‘acting’. When you react to a situation, someone else is driving you. You are not in control. The best companies and professional service firms stop and ask a lot of questions before they act. They understand why; from a competitor, client or people perspective. They then consider how that impacts where they are headed. Next, based on that analysis, they take decisions around what they should do. Winning firms have a more thoughtful process and a longer-term focus. Short term decisions won’t achieve long-term results. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the big opportunity to really win in the marketplace – is first slowing down to take the time to think.
Q. Are sales skills born or made?
A. Back when we were in the school yard, we all had the basic social and interpersonal skills required to interact, engage and play with other children. At the very simplest of levels, these skills are all you technically need! The big difference between those who are successful at winning business and those who aren’t, is a genuine interest in the personal and business success of their clients. This is the ultimate differentiator. You need to be as passionate about your clients success, as you would be about that of a family member. You need to always make decisions with the best interests of the clients in mind. At a very practical level, this means you would turn down an immediate revenue if it’s not in the client’s best interest.
Commercial curiosity is also crucial, as well as a proactivity and consistency around the process of developing and converting opportunities. So for example, even-though your specialism might be in employment law or in taxation, you are equally focused on your client’s growth strategy; how are they responding to Covid, to international trade developments etc. This depth of curiosity and a relentless focus on adding value through your own team and by bringing in other specialists, will organically drive stronger client relationships and greater sales success.
Q. How do you create a sales-focused culture?
A. A sales-focused culture starts at the top. It’s critical that the leadership or executive team set out a clear vision for growth. To get meaningful buy-in and alignment, that vision needs to address that ‘what’s in it for me’ question at all levels of the organisation. For a firm to meet its growth ambitions, you need to be clear on the expectations you have of your partners and teams. Usually firms are good at setting expectations, but less so at holding people accountable afterwards. Accountability needs to be directly linked to how your team is rewarded. A balanced scorecard approach to metrics, ties the strategy of what you are trying to achieve with the behaviours you are trying to drive. It links personal motivations with the aspirations of the organisation. A metric of less than 10% won’t get the attention you want, so pick these metrics very carefully. Use different strategies and weightings for different practice areas and even for different individuals in the same practice areas. The other vital ingredient when it comes to embedding a sales culture is around empowering people with the skills and behaviours for success. Of course that’s where ‘The Customer’ fits in and we can guide and help you in developing and implementing the right training, coaching and mentoring programmes to put the skills into practice on a consistent basis across your organisation.
Q. What’s your one piece of advice for ambitious professional service firm partners?
A. For me, it’s about consistently prioritising client relationships and business development over client delivery. Delivery can keep us busy 24/7 if we want it too. Start every day, every meeting and every agenda with a focus on developing client relationships and business development. Develop broad and deep relationships. Focus on going the extra mile to solve client needs and add value. Make ‘raving fans’ through delivering outstanding value.
Don’t get me wrong, delivery of client work is still really important. But you wouldn’t be this successful in your career to-date if you weren’t able to deliver great work on time, every time. Invest in building your teams capability and work will still get delivered to a very high standard. Refocus your personal delivery involvement now to planning, critical milestone reviews and key areas of judgement and complexity.
Very simply, when it comes to winning business, the best partners typically spend less time at their desks ‘doing’ work. They relentlessly focus on adding value to their clients and building their pipeline every day.
Q. What is the biggest challenge The Customer faces in advising professional services firms?
A. There is a misconception in professional services firms that once you become a partner that you have all the sales skills you need. This means that partners are often excluded or forgotten when sales and business development training programmes are being planned. In many cases, partners learned how to grow and win business by observing and learning from those who came before them, but never had access to a suite of sales training as they progressed through their careers. Getting partners to participate and collaborate in sales training, is key on so many levels. Firstly, it helps with their own personal learning and development. It also allows them to observe, influence and encourage the training of their team members at various grades too. Embedding confidence around the right sales practices and behaviours into the culture of your professional services firm, is absolutely key for success and growth both now and in the future.
The Customer provides sales consulting, training and coaching to ambitious professional services firms and their leadership teams. What other professional services firm topics would you like to see us explore? Drop us a note in the comments section below. Explore more at www.thecustomer.ie or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org