You’ve probably heard me say before: Collaboration shouldn’t be viewed as an end in itself, but rather as a means to achieving broader results –and in the case of professional service firms, one ultimate outcome to focus on is client service. (We could also include the firm’s role in promoting broader societal aims and fostering a healthy, productive talent pool).
In the realm of client service, collaboration is increasingly important. Surprisingly to some professionals, my research reveals that clients care deeply about the degree to which their external advisors collaborate with colleagues in their own firm.
Over the past few months, I’ve been conducting an extensive round of interviews with clients. These individuals represent widely varying roles and organizations, ranging from CEOs, CFOs, General Counsel, Board members /non-executive directors (including heads of audit and risk committees), heads of procurement, vice-presidents, and more. The organizations they work span geographies, sizes, and sectors, and include publicly-traded and privately-held companies as well as non-profit and governmental institutions.
Below I recap the reasons clients tell me that they care. I wrap up with a bit more commentary, and in my book I intend to flesh out each of these points with quotes and examples:
- Access to best knowledge and experts in firm, especially critical for solving complex issues.
- Deep and broad understanding of client business. With multiple professionals touching different parts of the company—often in ways that a siloed functional client lacks access to—then advisors should be able to identify complex issues and leverage their robust knowledge base to provide stellar insights.
- Global reach and perspective. This factor is important not only for working in local jurisdictions but also important for regional clients that need advice/perspective about operating in a world market.
- Efficiency when the team is not reinventing the wheel, the client benefits from prior learning—either those specific individuals’ or their colleagues’. Another source of efficiency: the ability to get quick answers because the right people are plugged into the issues.
- Cost effectiveness by using right resources at right price (e.g., labor cost arbitrage across geographies; shifting work to lower-cost juniors in another locale if “your” resources are fully utilized)
- Simplicity in their own supplier base; company initiatives to rationalize vendors dictate that they buy a broader range of services from a smaller number of suppliers (initially this appeared to be only the most sophisticated/biggest clients, especially those that had procurement functions involved; but we’ve recently heard it from smaller clients, too)
- Innovation by getting more, different perspectives to deliver novel, cutting edge solutions; sometimes the “ah-ha” stems from transferring ideas from one sector to another, which requires true cross-firm collaboration (our research supports this concept, which is widely acknowledged in the R&D, brainstorming & creativity literatures)
- Quality stemming from “more eyes on the work” to assure quality and prevent errors; less opportunity for rogue behavior (fraud)
- Collaborative capacity – use partners’ ability to collaborate with their own colleagues as an indicator for their propensity / ability to work across boundaries. Important in 2 regards:
- As companies pull more work in-house, they need external advisors to work willingly and productively with the clients internal resources
- Because clients increasingly disaggregate the work (i.e., send parts of the service to lower cost providers like outsourced options), they need their advisors to work with seamlessly with other firms
I went out of my way to interview clients that had a reputation for being tough negotiators, focused on measurable results—the kind of individual who, I’d been told, “wouldn’t pay for collaboration.” What I heard, even from the toughest bunch, was that they certainly wouldn’t pay for rework, duplication, or messy intra-firm communication that didn’t add value. Often they expected their advisors to “invest” in having more than one person on a call while only billing for a single individual, for example, so that the whole team could get up to speed quickly.
But without a single exception, clients emphasized that they do care whether their advisors collaborate inside their own firm. Even for simple or routine matters where they absolutely cared most about price, clients stressed that this mandate typically required partners to collaborate with lower-cost providers (offshore analytic centers, paralegals, etc.), often inside their firm. Yes, most firms had instances when they simply wanted a simple, sole-partner response to an RFP. You cannot collaborate each time. The book will provide examples, however, of ways the best advisors used collaboration to turn even a straightforward RFP into an opportunity to add more value.
I suspect there must be a 10th reason lurking somewhere. If you know what it is, please tell me in your comments below. If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share—or if you think your client would say something different!— then please email me directly on email@example.com. And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.