Sunday, June 17, 2007

Creating World Class Clients

Client development is a process not an event. And, it includes how you and your firm perform once the client is landed and the engagement begun. It’s Marketing 101: the best prospects are your existing clients. Unless, of course, you are dealing with the client from hell. What do you do with them? Your options seem binary. You either can put up with them (though it eats you alive to do so) or you can fire them (and risk lawsuit, bad word of mouth publicity and more). We spoke with two world-class professionals who have discovered another solution: create world-class clients.

Graham Galloway is Managing Partner of the global life sciences and healthcare practice for Heidrick and Struggles ( – one of the world’s premier retained executive search firms. Galloway is also a West Point Grad, former US Army attack helicopter pilot, Harvard MBA and xCOO-level healthcare services executive. Galloway’s background gives him deep business knowledge blended with process discipline and a healthy dose of guts. He is a master at setting and managing client expectations and training his clients on world-class executive search client behaviors.

John Yates is a Senior Partner at the law firm of Morris Manning and Martin ( and the leader of the firm’s well-known technology practice group. Yates is legendary in the Atlanta technology community as a client developer and he is an excellent lawyer, too. Turns out, though, he’s also a pioneer at client management.

Galloway and Yates come from different professional service worlds but they share a common perspective on the link between creating world-class clients and growing firm revenues. Their philosophy: If you can train clients on how to improve the way they select and manage professional service firms like yours, you might not only have a better working relationship on any given project – you may well find that this approach leads to expanding work with the client well beyond your current gig. And, if you are lucky you may also find ways to turn hell clients into…well, lets just say you might at least elevate them to “purgatory.” They pointed to three main steps to creating world-class clients and reaping the benefits.

Step 1: Teach them

Managing the gap between what clients expect and what actually happens during a professional services engagement is one of the keys to client satisfaction and repeat usage. At a minimum, you want to discuss process and results expectations with clients ahead of the official start of an engagement. Having a meaningful conversation about expectations presumes that your client has a clear, experience-based view of what should reasonably be expected. This may not be the case. Building world-class clients requires that you not merely discuss or set expectations – it demands that you teach clients what they should reasonably expect.

“We try to calibrate expectations upfront with clients and identify areas ahead of time that are often critical nature or have proven troublesome in similar engagements,” John Yates said. “It helps to construct and agree to a process from the beginning for resolving those issues so they don’t become bigger than they need to be during the course of the relationship.” On merger and acquisition and financing transactions, Yates and his team go so far as to step clients through a Gant chart explaining how the transaction should proceed and what should be expected at each point in the process.

Graham Galloway goes further. “You’ve got to take charge from the beginning – proving that your time-tested approach works. Demonstrate a clear understanding of what they are trying to accomplish, layout a well-defined process and agree on expectations. But, you have to hold them to mutual performance. That’s the missing piece. We often don’t push our clients enough to perform. We figure, they write the checks and what they say goes. But, sometimes clients do things that drag a search (for a senior executive) down; they want too many people involved in the interview process too early on; or they say they have to see a certain number of candidates before they are satisfied. If we can utilize Heidrick and Struggles’ process and we can solve an assignment with 4 candidates in 8 weeks – why drag the search out for 20 weeks just to meet some arbitrary 8 candidate quota?”

A self-assured and battle-tested communicator, Galloway uses a tactful yet very direct and persuasive approach. For Galloway, teaching expectations includes gently but firmly showing the client the reality of the situation. “I often start with a balance sheet on how the client is viewed by the market - both positive and negative – based on hard data that we gather from previous assignments. This causes them to think differently and perhaps with less arrogance so that they acknowledge the likely bumps we will face in the engagement. Then we show them how those dysfunctions line up with our best practices on how to overcome those obstacles. That’s when we get into details from scheduling candidates to how many people are in initial interview process to what it takes to close the candidate.”

Step 2: Engage them

World-class-client-builders make sure that client engagements stay on track by training their clients to stay involved and help drive the process. Projects more often than not get derailed on the client side not the professional side. So, while we professionals need to continuously drive the process, it is important to have a client counterpart who is committed to doing likewise inside the company. “What I’ve seen as the most effective way of getting clients to buy into and stick with the process is dedicating a key contact point at the client who has decision authority and knowledge,” Yates said. “The more you can secure a client-side owner and champion it not only ensures a better outcome but it helps manage fees for the client because there aren’t multiple people on the client-side calling the professional directly and burning up billable hours. Having a single client point of contact shifts a certain amount of responsibility to the client and can reduce their fees and make for a better-organized process; keeping communication consistent among the parties.”

Galloway agrees. “You have to have the discipline to structure communications or else the timeline inevitably gets pushed out,” he said. “I have a standing call scheduled with the hiring manager or search committee and that is crucial. It gets them engaged in the process and gives you a chance to solidify your credibility. You’ve got to have credibility, trust and guts to put the hard issues out there or else your gonna have to sit around and take it. Getting that type of leverage means you have to blow them away early in the work and over deliver on your engagements so you earn the right. Once you gain credibility and they trust your judgment, you can start to show them how to do things differently and better.”

Step 3: Entangle them

The notion of positive entanglement has its origins in quantum physics describing systems that enter into physical interaction. In the 90s, the technology world grabbed entanglement and applied the concept to the world of extended enterprise networks – denoting customers and suppliers woven together in a business ecosystem that keeps all parties loyal to each other. The marketing world softened the physics concept further and spins “positive entanglement” as what happens when you not only deliver a superior customer experience and results, but when you hook buyers on your way of doing things, on your commercial world-view and on your brand. World-class-client-builders apply this concept to their clients. “We’re reaching for something that is rarely considered – achieving customer delight in working with a professional service firm,” said Yates. “To a certain extent clients and customers are becoming more educated and so they will be wiser purchasers of services. As a result, buying relationship quality and sensitivity to client needs will be more important than the tradition and name of the firm.” The more clients buy into your approach and the results produced, the harder it will be for competitors to unseat you.

Galloway has found another way to positively entangle clients, ensuring that they adopt the Heidrick and Struggles approach and view of optimal client behavior. At the end of certain executive search engagements for larger clients, Galloway has both offered and been invited to provide a Recruiting Practices Review and Coaching session to optimize a client’s recruiting process. “In one case, a major client came to me and said they wanted to consolidate from working with 50 different search firms to just a handful. They had found huge volatility around quality across firms. They liked what we did and said we want to adopt your approach in a key part of our recruiting practice. They said, “Why don’t you help us define how we should be working with all search providers?” They also had us come in and review searches that hadn’t gone well by other firms. They said, take a look at this – where do you see this search and these candidates relative to market quality and how should we push back on the provider? I would identify issues or disconnects in expectations between our client and the other firm doing the search, evaluate the quality of that search consultant’s approach and work product, and generally provide advice on how to accelerate the process, improve communication and/or the outcome. I would literally give them an outline of the conversation to have with the other provider.”

Now, if that’s not a powerful way to ensure you get more than your fair share of repeat business from a client I don’t know what is.

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