Navigating key challenges to optimise the client experience in Professional Services

by Chris Mellish

Professional Services firms are facing the familiar challenge of sourcing growth in a market with softening business sentiment, continual downward pricing pressure and increasing demand for tighter fee structures. In this current environment, leading firms have recognised that optimisation of the client experience is a critical source of differentiation.

However, there are several nuances in professional services that have led many of these programs to falter early in the process. This blog will explore three of the biggest institutional challenges in enhancing the client experience, and how leaders can effectively navigate them.

Challenge #1: Time is literally money
With practitioners in the business of trading their time for money, it is hard to dedicate the necessary attention to non-client facing activities. This is exacerbated in periods of high utilisation when the availability of billable work exceeds the working hours in a day. 
Given many Professional Services firms operate as partnerships, the key decision rights ultimately rest with a small cohort of senior leaders, however the operationalisation of client experience initiatives will depend on buy-in from a much larger group.
Therefore, senior practitioner engagement and endorsement – which means time away from clients and billing – is critical throughout the design and implementation of any client experience program. If they don’t believe this time is well spent, or can’t trade-off the longer-term benefit against short-term billings, the program is doomed to fail.

Challenge #2: Senior practitioners ‘eat what they kill’

Remuneration structures at Professional Services firms are often based on the principle that senior practitioners should be rewarded for the work they win independently. Whilst these ‘eat what you kill’ structures may encourage ownership for driving business, they inhibit collaboration.

As a result, both the client and the firm can lose out: the client may lose the opportunity to have their
needs met in a synchronised way, and the firm can lose the revenue from the additional opportunity.

Challenge #3: ‘We don’t have to sell’ mindset
With a legacy of being deep technical experts, leaders at Professional Services firms have long been ‘product-centric’ in believing that the quality of their work alone will attract new business without the need for ‘selling’. This mindset can be further entrenched in busy periods when the opportunity cost of business development, rather than billing, is at its highest.
In order to sustainably improve the client experience, firms must be proactive in identifying and addressing changing preferences. This information is essential in designing the client journey and the target experience at each of the key ‘Moments that Matter’.
So how can Professional Services leaders address these challenges?
Anchor the CX program in a compelling change purpose

To embed a strong culture of client-centricity across the firm, the change narrative must emphasise and continually reinforce the ‘why’. Understanding and articulating what the change will mean for interactions with clients, will enable a powerful platform for engaging practitioners. Additionally, alignment with the firms strategic priorities and values will ensure cohesion within the broader change agenda.
Quantify and track the benefits
To ensure the change program gains and sustains momentum, a balanced scorecard of lead and lag metrics should be tracked, enabling course correction if the program goes off track.

These metrics should be a mixture of qualitative; such as expected improvement in client satisfaction and advocacy, along with quantitative; such as additional revenue expected from senior practitioners engaging in collaborative behaviours or having more capacity to bill.

Communicating and demonstrating early benefit to employees – whether it be simplified ways of working, saving time, and/or improved commercial results – will drive increased buy-in and commitment to the change agenda. 
Promote meaningful change leadership in influential senior practitioners
The senior practitioners within Professional Services firms are often both the owners and leaders of the business, so are naturally invested in the status quo.  To get genuine traction in the change program, it needs to be led visibly and practically by culture-carrying senior practitioners. These leaders must hold positional authority coupled with the internal credibility, to change entrenched mindsets and behaviours.
Invest in the people capabilities required to be client-centric
Senior practitioners are generally experts in their field and have proven success in leading and working within these traditional business models. It is rare to find individuals who inherently possess or have been exposed to best-practice skills, capabilities, mindsets and ways of working for client-centricity. Therefore, firms must invest in building the capability and providing coaching on understanding and anticipating client needs – ultimately working ‘outside in’ rather than inside out’.
Professional Services by nature requires client focus and intimacy. The changing marketplace has elevated the need to be more deliberate in uplifting the client experience, however there are several institutional challenges they must navigate. These can be overcome through a deliberate four step strategy which starts with ‘why’.

Co-authored by Chris Mellish and Jemma Dickman.

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