Have client relationships changed forever?

Article seldon-rosser-have-client-relationships-changed-forever

Recently, we held a roundtable for 11 senior law firm BD professionals directly responsible for managing their firms’ client programmes including strategic account management and client feedback.  The session was facilitated by Vivienne Corcoran, an independent consultant who has over 20 years’ experience in professional services and who is currently completing a PhD in how clients value professional services and feedback.

The participants came from a mix of global law firms, boutique firms and national firms and were located in Brisbane, Melbourne & Sydney.

All agreed that there had been a change of pace and focus on clients and that lawyers were now open to more innovative ways of communicating with clients. Here are some takeaways.

How have things changed?

Training lawyers online (on account management) is having better results and more engagement than previous in-person training “more open communication”.

It has been both “challenging and amazing” to see how lawyers have responded to clients working from home with most settling into a rhythm quite quickly and feeling more confident about holding video meetings with clients.  The first couple of weeks were hard – but now people are settling into a good rhythm.

Interestingly some said there has been a negative impact on work life balance for lawyers and their clients with some spending all day in front of their screens.  Not having the physical breaks that go with meeting clients off-site has been a downside – and there has been some loss of spontaneity with client engagement.

How are firms communicating with clients? How often? What is working and what is not?

There was agreement that clients are more accessible – more open (especially in the early days of the shift) – and more receptive to working around challenges together.  There has been more willingness to have conversations.

Lawyers and BD professionals are gaining more insight into the individual clients they are working with and having more conversations about personal issues which brings them closer, meaning there is more of an understanding about their personal drivers.  However, most agreed that there is a narrow window to get this sort of engagement.

Video meetings present a real opportunity to pull clients together who couldn’t previously connect physically (because of geographical location or time) but can now.

Now people are getting better and more confident about using technology their appetite to conduct group meetings / webinars etc has increased enormously.

How are lawyers feeling about talking to clients?  What is working and what is not?

Most agreed that at the start of the crisis they needed to spend a lot of time training lawyers on using the technology but also in how to start a conversation.  This was more the case with junior lawyers than the partners.  There has been a real improvement as time has gone on and it is evident that lawyers are now building more personal relationships with clients.

Some commented that “we have seen less pitching because clients prefer to reach out to lawyers they already know”.

Others said they had seen a “steady flow of pitches” and that whilst most at the beginning were COVID-19 related, there are now more general requests coming through.  Some said they had definitely seen clients contact lawyers with a “flight to quality and a flight to relationships”.  One said, “some clients are not focussed on fees” they just want the best advice/solution.

Are BDs still involved in client relationships?

The work from home phenomenon has meant that partners are more accessible and therefore available to have more direct conversations with clients.  It was agreed by all that business development still had a very important role to play especially as there was more time to meet more clients.

Some said that their involvement was becoming more targeted and they were able to suggest groups of clients to meet.  The increased accessibility of partners also meant that BDs have more opportunity to work more closely with them on client focused activities.

Another great consequence of moving client meetings to video has been the opportunity for more junior members of the business development team to join and gain experience of client meetings

“this is an amazing baptism of fire”

“on structured client listening meetings it’s easier to have them attend”

“no one minds how many people are on a Zoom call”

Is client feedback going on as normal?

There was a range of responses to this question.  One person said:

“If anything it has increased”

Others shared the view that:

“partners don’t feel that now is a good time to do client listening”.

Many agreed this view should be challenged

“Don’t buy it, this is partners self-editing the situation … clients want to hear from their lawyers – especially now – and it’s always good to have a chat”.

Some also said this had been an excellent time to stop online feedback and questionnaires and move to ‘face to face’.

There was a view that Government clients are still very happy to engage in conversations but that some corporate clients need to be assessed differently.

Now that most clients have been spoken to at least once, how are you going to follow-up?  What are the next steps?

Most agreed that whilst initial client conversations helped them understand what was business as usual, the challenge now is working out what post–COVID (if that’s even the right term) looks like for each client and getting lawyers to step out of their area of expertise to offer broader advice/perspective.  This is where business development can step in and help give them pointers via sector research etc.

“We are having some rich conversations that can lead to more work.”

There was an opinion shared by some that follow up conversations had not been as easy as the initial ones; as clients move to the next phase of recovery some partners are hesitant to call if they don’t have something valuable and specific to offer.  There can be a resistance for partners to use calls/video for an informal ‘checking-in’ conversation so BD can help give pointers (such as market trends/sector trends) to facilitate the follow up.

Providing these pointers means there is a need for more targeted content such as ‘What’s next for your business?”. Most agreed there had definitely been a spike of content in the market – “it was saturated very quickly”, now there is a need for more facilitated conversations with clients, more collaboration from across the firm.  There was “More of a practice approach initially but now this is being consolidated with sector insights”.

What is everyone doing with what they hear from clients? How is it recorded or communicated internally?

Most agreed that business development had to be quick to take a lead role in consolidating client insights / issues into simple documents, structured under common themes and given back to lawyers as sounding points.

Others said that already their lawyers were becoming more concerned with the administrative details of reporting, process & structure instead of capitalising on the opportunities.

“There have been lots of task forces set up.”

“Everyone is so interested in data analytics like “whose article got more views?”

“Clients told us they felt they were drinking from a fire hydrant, so now we are trying to be more bespoke with communication”.

How will you balance communications when some staff continue to work remotely?

As we all navigate the new way of working and the return to the office it was agreed that firms would need to adapt to a multiple working environment with some client meetings being a mix of physical and virtual.  This presents opportunities especially as there will be a significant decrease in travel for national/international firms.  “It’s a real opportunity to get the right partners in front of clients regardless of their office location.”

Others commented that it will be an interesting period when it’s a multiple working environment

“It could get clunky again”.

Also, as some clients will be working from home, things like delivering CLEs efficiently will have to be mapped out.

“We will need to pay attention to clients’ personal preferences.”

Whatever the individual’s experience over the past few months it was commonly accepted that client relationships had changed forever and perhaps for the better.


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