Jaci Burns, 1722 days ago

A few months ago a firm I know well lost one of its biggest clients – a multi-million dollar earner. Despite it having been appointed to a panel which was to operate for several more years, the client (an ASX Top 50 company) made the call to cut the lowest performing firm so it could extract better value for money from its other panel providers.

The decision was effective more or less immediately. The firm claimed to be blindsided by the announcement. But was it? And if it was, how could that have happened?

The firm appoints a Relationship Partner to manage each of its key accounts. For large, national clients it appoints Lead Partners in each major market.

There was a team of client-approved personnel in place to do the work. The firm has a sizeable business development team to support its practitioners.

The firm has for some years outsourced its client relationship reviews to an external consultant.

While we can only speculate about what actually took place, the process of asking questions might help others from making mistakes.

1. Did the Relationship Partner fail in his role?

A Relationship Partner is (or should be) ultimately responsible for the health of the firm’s relationship with a client. His or her overarching responsibility is to protect and grow the relationship. I regularly see nominated Relationship Partners basking in the glow when a new client is won; I seldom observe one accept accountability when a client is lost.

2. Was the right Relationship Partner appointed?

Too often when appointing a Relationship Partner firms fall under the influence of internal politics, status and ego. I witnessed this once when a CEO I was working with appointed his boorish, Baby Boomer brother-in-law as Relationship Partner for a client which was headed by a strong and controlled Gen X female. It was a disastrous decision.

The right Relationship Partner is the person who is the best fit for the role having regard to industry alignment, (absence of) conflicts, history with or interest in the client, existing relationships, personality, capacity to fulfil the role, and willingness to accept accountability.

Oh, and for the record, the omission of ‘technical expertise’ was not an oversight – a Relationship Partner does not need to be the person who will be doing or supervising the work.

3. Did the firm have a comprehensive client satisfaction program in place?

There is truth in the adage ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure’. Any firm that does not have a comprehensive program in place to measure and monitor satisfaction should make this a priority.

What do I mean by comprehensive?

In business-to-business relationships there can be dozens or even scores of touch points. Each of these individuals will make or influence the decision to buy or renew your services. Hence, to be accurate, feedback must be gathered from as many of those contacts as possible. That means through a combination of quantitative and qualitative means.

Your program should also capture informal feedback – remarks made as an aside are sometimes the most insightful.

4. Did the person conducting the interviews ask the right questions?

In the vast majority of cases, your firm will be one of a formal or informal panel of service providers. That being the case, relative feedback is as – if not more – important than absolute feedback. Being rated 9/10 is cause for celebration only until you discover your competitor was rated a 10. Returning to the example above, the firm might not have done anything wrong or inadequately – others may simply have done better.

5. Were the warnings present?

Client interviews take skill and experience. The person conducting them needs to be properly prepared, be able to quickly establish rapport, have an inquiring mind, and possess exceptional listening and comprehension skills.

In this case, given health checks had been conducted annually for consecutive years, I wonder whether the warning signs were there but not registered, or not acted upon.

One way to reduce the likelihood of this happening is to have two people attend all interviews. I will typically invite the General Manager or CEO to accompany me when interviewing their key clients. In addition to respecting their role as the steward of the business, it also raises their profile and provides a mechanism for fact checking afterwards.

6. Was the intelligence gathered during the interviews accurately relayed back to the firm?

Whether your client research is conducted in-house or externally, it is imperative that the feedback be relayed back to the business accurately and comprehensively.

Client feedback should never be censored or sanitised prior to circulation – at least not to the Relationship Partner – otherwise the message or the degree of the feedback could be lost in translation.

It is then the Relationship Partner’s responsibility to cascade the feedback down to the rest of the client team, and to take or endorse any necessary remedial action.

7. When feedback was relayed back to the firm, was it acted upon decisively?

According to leading industry research, around 50 per cent of clients switch professional services providers because of dissatisfaction. That’s a compelling business case for keeping your clients happy.

When you do receive negative feedback do you play the blame game or get on with addressing the issue? Do you put your head in the sand or set about correcting the area of poor performance?

In almost all cases, negative feedback will relate to service attributes that are easily within your control – the ease with which your clients can reach you, how responsive you are, how reliable you are. Occasional slip ups are inevitable. The key is to demonstrate to your clients that you listen and act. Do so and you will be in a strong position to retain their trust and their loyalty.


Jacqueline (Jaci) Burns is founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Market Expertise, a Sydney-based agency which provides marketing, communications, business development and associated human capital services to ‘smart companies’ such as professional services firms and companies in other knowledge-intensive sectors including financial services and ICT.