What do clients need? Relationships and story-listening

It is difficult to imagine that anyone in law firm management is not yet aware of Bruce MacEwen’s masterful review of the current state of the legal market, entitled “Growth is Dead.” The series is now up to its tenth instalment and the focus has turned to clients. Whilst the whole series is required reading, this part resonated particularly for me for a number of reasons. It contains some truths that KM folk should reflect on, and one of the comments raises a common issue where a traditional approach often fails.

As all good discussion of clients should, Bruce starts with Peter Drucker. Drucker’s observation that all firms must have clients leads to a brief analysis of the evolution of client service in the law. Bruce identifies three phases:

Phase I: Sell what you make

Firms in Phase I find a comfort zone of things they (as proud and unbending autonomous individuals) enjoy doing, and they assume without, I imagine, really giving it much conscious thought, that since they enjoy it clients will appreciate it, or because they find it interesting clients will too.

Phase II: Make what sells

Phase II is a bit more mature and purposeful. In this phase, lawyers and firms try to analyze what services clients are seeking and purchasing, and then attempt to mold their offerings to client demand.

Phase III: Solve the client’s problem

This phase has several characteristics to commend it:

  • It goes straight to the heart of what the client needs professional counsel for;
  • It’s agnostic as to exactly which practice area or practitioner, if any, is best suited to the matter at hand;
  • And most important by far, it postures the entire offering and engagement around what the client needs, not what you can do.

Bruce is not convinced that many firms have made it to Phase III. (Indeed, he goes as far as to say that he believes “very few firms indeed” understand it, or even the fundamental shift in the market.)

I think the same phases apply to KM (certainly in law firms, and probably elsewhere as well).

The equivalent to “sell what you make” in Phase I is the repository-building approach to knowledge. It depends on a conception of knowledge as stuff that can be gathered, traded and measured. The knowledge or information professional is a gatekeeper for material that is held “just in case” it might prove useful in future.

The usual counterpart to “just in case” is “just in time” — this is the KM equivalent of Bruce’s Phase II “make what sells:”

The distilled pitch is something like this:

“Just tell us what legal services you need, and we’ll get right on it.”

While this takes the lawyer out of the very center of the picture, and gives the client a bit of breathing room alongside, it’s still passive and reactive. To begin with, what if the client doesn’t know or can’t articulate what they need? Worse, what if your firm really isn’t ideal for what the client wants? In that case “making it” for them might not be doing them any favors.

Bruce is talking here about lawyers dealing with clients, but it applies just as well to knowledge professionals working within businesses. This passive, reactive, transactional approach to KM will get you a bit further than the repository-building approach, but there is still no guarantee that your work will really make a difference. And making a difference is essential, otherwise the business can do without it.

Phase III gets to the heart of things:

It’s not about what the lawyers prefer to do or are in the mood to work on; nor how brilliant, experienced, and highly credentialed they are (though I’m confident they are exceptionally so); nor about how much other clients adore them and sing their praises; nor, finally, is it about the law firm at all. It’s entirely about making the clients life easier, less worrisome, and letting them focus on their business and not this potential legal landmine.

A very wise managing partner, who had studied at the feet of one of the builders of a great New York law firm, once told me that his primary job was making the client look good: “The wins are theirs; the losses are mine.”

Good KMers should also focus on making people look good. What does the firm need? That is what should be done.

This is where we get to the question in the comments to Bruce’s post: Bob Jessup asks how to get meaningful feedback from clients. This is also a problem for knowledge professionals. Just as clients may ask for something when really they need a completely different approach, so our colleagues may have preconceived ideas about their knowledge needs (they might want a repository, but never use it when it is provided, for example). How to get round this problem.

I think there are two very different approaches available. The first is to emulate Apple or the early BBC — don’t ask people what they want, but just give them something that you know to be high quality in the knowledge that they will come to love it. That might work if (a) you are absolutely clear about your purpose and never divert from it (something that only people of Steve Jobs’s or Lord Reith’s calibre can guarantee), and (b) your market is still in its infancy.

The second approach is to concentrate on relationships and on natural, authentic communication. In his comment, Bob Jessup says:

Clients, like anyone, don’t like to give bad news, and often find it hard to “put their finger” on what might be wrong. Those in-house counsel giving C’s to the outsiders probably aren’t giving those C’s when presented with an inquiry or a written evaluation form.

That isn’t a surprise — anyone familiar with the work of Dan Ariely and other behavioural economists will know that people often say very different things from what they do. But how do we find out what clients really feel, or what they really need. There is a clue elsewhere in Bruce’s post.

After describing how law firms approach client service, Bruce turns to the client perspective. Drawing on an Inside Counsel survey, he lists the law firm offerings that clients like but law firms don’t deliver. Here are the top three:

  • Secondments
  • Seminars at the client’s office
  • Regular service review meetings

Coincidentally, these are all the best ways to build genuine relationships with clients and learn about their business needs. (As a slight diversion, it is essential to understand that the real needs are business needs, not legal ones: Tom Kilroy has recently provided some useful insight into what in-house legal should be thinking about in terms of their internal relationships.) Having a lawyer embedded in a client’s business or legal team will always ensure that they have a much better understanding of the issues the client faces — no amount of direct questioning (whether by a lawyer or a third-party) will generate that level of knowledge. (Of course, the same is also true for knowledge programmes — as Dave Snowden famously says, “We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.”)

Like secondments, holding seminars on the client’s premises will often uncover issues that might not come to light through a questionnaire. The comfort of being on home ground will encourage people to say things that they would not express in more public situations. This might also be an opportunity to involve people other than the direct in-house client: do you know what your client’s contract managers, procurement teams or sales staff think of the contracts you draft? Again, this has resonances for knowledge people. Whilst we might think we can identify what is needed by talking to our colleagues, and building relationships with them, it is also valuable to find out what clients think of the work that our colleagues do. Armed with that insight, we can ensure that they have what they need to look good in front of the client next time.

When we get to service review meetings, I think we are close to the heart of Bob Jessup’s question. If those meetings feel like mechanical exercises (maybe using a set script or a written evaluation form), then they won’t build relationships and clients will persist in hiding what they feel. What is needed is genuine conversation. The insight we need is tacit knowledge (for want of a better term), and “tacit knowledge needs to be shared through conversation.”

Conversations need time to develop, but they generate narrative — anecdotes or stories — that are essential to make sense of things. Another way of generative narrative, which might be useful when there is no single client view, might be to use anecdote circles. Shawn Callahan and his colleagues at Anecdote have created the “Ultimate Guide to Anecdote Circles” — an excellent introduction to and explanation of the method.

In the end, then, the challenge that law firms face in really getting to the heart of what clients need from them has an exact counterpart for knowledge professionals. More than that, the tools for achieving this insight are actually knowledge tools, but only if we situate ourselves squarely in the Phase III approach to understanding and helping people.

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