Good News, Bad News

by Byron G. Sabol
(This article appeared in Professional Marketing April, 1997)

Byron Sabol discusses how client visitations open meaningful dialogues between service firms and their clients

There is good news and bad news for professional service firms interested in distinguishing themselves in the ever competitive marketplace: The bad news is that distinguishing oneself among other providers of similar service is difficult. Unless the service that the firm or one or more of its practice specialties provides is so unique and unmatched by few providers, distinguishing oneself is a real challenge. The good news is that it can be done. The bad news for clients is that not enough service providers have a systematic method for doing so. The good news for service providers is that because so few providers do it well, there are opportunities to separate themselves from the competition. Firms that implement and manage a face-to-face client feedback program can and do distinguish themselves in the marketplace. The client visitation can become a firm’s most effective client care activity. The following are vital to an effective client visitation program.

Clients of each firm office

While every client is important to the professional service firm, not all clients warrant a personal visit. Criteria for choosing clients include the following: Important clients may be large national clients or they may be smaller emerging clients with significant growth potential. A key question to ask when considering “important” clients is: “If we lost this client for whatever reason, would it have a substantial impact on our practice?” The answer will guide you in selecting “important clients”.

Clients with whom you have lost service share

If you have been providing all or a major portion of a specific practice specialty, for example, and some of that work has been assigned to another firm, that may be an indication of certain client dissatisfaction. Keeping in mind that most clients will not openly complain – they will, however, take their work somewhere else when they are unhappy and when they believe they can obtain better value for their money.

Clients who have left the firm

Just as professional service firms fire clients, so do clients fire their providers – for a variety of reasons. The key here is to have in place a systematic feedback program that will identify unrest among key clients so that the relationship does not deteriorate into a separation. If it does, it is important to find out why.

Clients with cross fertilization potential

This category of client is included in our visitation program not because of the potential to sell them additional services. The purpose of the client visitation is to obtain objective feedback from key clients regarding the quality of work intended to sell new business. These product and service delivery. The client visitation is NOT intended to sell new business.

These clients are included because you want to keep them very happy – you do not want them to stray because of the growth potential they represent to your firm. These are clients that utilize your firm for a portion of the total services they need that you are capable of providing. [cross fertilization, one of the most talked about activities among professional service firms and one of the least effectively implemented activities, will be discussed in a future article].

Clients for whom you committed to conduct a client visitation

Communicating to a prospective client – whether in a competitive bid or in a new business presentation – that your firm’s service strategy includes measuring the client’s satisfaction can help service providers to secure new business. Keeping the promise to conduct a client visitation is imperative to the relationship with the client and to the service firm’s reputation in the marketplace.

Person to conduct the client visitation

Another important ingredient in the success of the client visitation program is identifying the most effective person to conduct the client visit. Clients deserve to meet with the senior most individuals of the service firm. The service provider must realize that the firm is making a statement about the importance of the client to the service firm. Therefore, those to conduct the visitation should be one of the following: the managing partner, the senior partner, or a member of the executive committee. When the firm has one of these individuals meet with the client, the firm is making a statement regarding how important the client is to the service firm.

Those to meet with the client must have the skills to conduct a meaningful visit – not all senior members of the firm may possess those skills. These skills include: being an effective personal communicator possessing empathetic listening skills; and having the capability to quickly establish rapport with the client. Another source for conducting the client visitation is a neutral party, one who is separate from any history in the provider- client relationship. A consultant could serve that role.

Two of numerous questions I asked when recently conducting client visitations with four U.K. clients of a major client of mine were the following: “Has any law firm provider of yours ever personally visited with you to assess your level of satisfaction with the quality of legal work and the quality of service delivery?” – The answer from all four was “no”. When asked: “Do you believe the time we have spent together to discuss your level of satisfaction was meaningful and worth the time?”, each of the four answered: “yes”. Organizations who are important enough to be your clients are important enough to be heard. The client visitation is one effective means of demonstrating how valuable the client is to your practice.