What does innovation mean to firms when managing client relationships? Disruptive and incremental innovation is making waves across the professions as we discovered at Ambition’s recent BD & Marketing Directors’ breakfast event, attended by many leading client relationship and business development professionals from legal, accountancy and property sectors.
Together with my expert co-panelists Louise Field, Head of Client Relationships at Bird & Bird and Anne Blackie, Head of Bids and Client Care at Grant Thornton, we debated the role of innovation and how to put the client at the centre of our firms.
The wide-ranging discussion covered what we might call the 5 Ps of Innovation:
Purpose - “Be bold, brave and different”
Innovation was described as “creativity with purpose”, an opportunity to make a difference in reputation, relationships and revenue. I described how innovation delivers ROI – or Return On Ideas. By being bold, brave and different firms could develop ideas that travel further. But it’s not just about the big ideas, Anne highlighted opportunities to make a difference with small incremental changes, rather than a complete overhaul, and Louise drew attention to the innovation of legal business models in recent years. The panel agreed that the key to innovation is strategic problem solving, not innovation for its own sake.
Personalisation – “The right systems or the right people?”
The panel discussed the pressure to create personalised client communications and experiences versus the challenging reality of bringing together people, processes and systems. Far from an enabler of innovation the panel agreed that marketing automation was only as good as the quality of data and content they put into it. While effective systems and structure may be key, the right people and behaviour are critical to making personalisation work in practice.
“Good systems can quieten the noise and allow us to collaborate on what matters”
Louise saw the effective use of client service tools at the heart of collaboration with lawyers - “our role is to translate between the client and fee earner”. She argued there is a place for efficiency in all of our work, paving the way for more value. Whilst it’s easy to focus too much on hygiene factors, the effective use of good systems and processes can quieten the noise and allow us to collaborate on what matters when it comes to innovation in client relationships.
Productisation – “Disrupt or Be Disrupted”
Coming from an agency background, I shared examples of the drive towards productising high value services, with digital business models enabling professional services brands to access and service the mass market at low cost. Far from relationship-led selling, these new business models have marketing at their heart and create an opportunity to educate the whole firm about the commercial power of brand and marketing.
Pedantry – “Can Innovation Co-Exist With A Culture Of Excessive Pedantry?”
I acknowledge that while pedantry has its place – after all, who wants to put their business in the hands of a professional without that attention to detail – it presents a huge challenge for innovation in the professions. Firstly, decision by committee weakens the integrity of big ideas, and secondly with today’s rapid publishing cycles, the old approval cycle is far too slow for a digital world. By contrast, technology firms make decisions more autonomously and spin up and test ideas at rapid pace. There is hope for the professions, however. Take creativity advice from John Cleese around creating barriers of time and space. Expansive thinking isn’t a special power, it’s a muscle everyone can use. By designating expansive thinking sessions as separate in time and space from analytical thinking sessions, we are able to greenhouse ideas without judgement, and evaluate them later.
Anne discussed an idea successfully implemented at Grant Thornton of a shared enterprise that celebrates shared ideas, responsibilities and reward. From both focus groups and individual submissions, more than four hundred ideas were generated; some sensible, some not so much! But the opportunity this created was a culture of innovation, where you have the openness to hear new ideas and choose the best ones to take through.
Louise described how she is able to reflect the voice of her firm’s innovative client base to drive the firm closer to innovation and efficiency, mentioning secondments as invaluable to understanding the client’s perspective.
The panel discussed the critical role of Managing Partner championship and partner engagement in delivering a culture of innovation – how could we get partners to feel more fully invested in the future of their firms and making the bold decisions now that will enable them to be competitive for the long term. Managing Partners need to lead from the front and grant marketing and BD the autonomy they need. The panel also agreed on the critical role of associates in championing fresh thinking. As one of the key origins of innovation, retention of marketing and BD stars was recognised as a further challenge - the new generation of business development and marketing professionals do not always want to stay within professional services. As one of our audience members highlighted, innovation must come from within, and if innovation is to stand a chance for future generations then successors must be in place to fly that flag.
In this fast paced world where new trends or crazes seem to appear on the market faster than it takes you to finish your morning coffee, professional services are, by their nature, stubbornly resistant to corporate innovation. But by putting the client’s needs and expectations at the centre, marketing and BD have the business case they need to lead the charge.