Why do clients care about collaboration? Top 9 reasons (revealed by my research so far, that is)

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:

  1. Access to best knowledge and experts in firm, especially critical for solving complex issues.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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)
  6. 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)
  7. 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)
  8. Quality stemming from “more eyes on the work” to assure quality and prevent errors; less opportunity for rogue behavior (fraud)
  9. 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:
    1. As companies pull more work in-house, they need external advisors to work willingly and productively with the clients internal resources
    2. 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 hgardner@law.harvard.edu. And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.

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10 thoughts on “Why do clients care about collaboration? Top 9 reasons (revealed by my research so far, that is)

    • Yes! You’re right: this factor was mentioned in a number of my interviews, and I have just cross-referenced several firms’ internal client service reports, and it’s a clear imperative.

      I’m not sure if “consistency” is a separate reason or whether I need to highlight it explicitly within “quality.” But either way, Hein, your comment has just improved our thinking and the book–THANK YOU!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. As always, an interesting and thought-provoking post.

    At the risk of being pedantic I would suggest you may have overlapping “reasons” (e.g. “Cost” and “Efficiency” seems to be two sides of the same coin as do “Access” and “Deep and Broad Understanding” (isn’t it the case that clients want “Access to Deep and Broad Understanding” of their business, their industry, emerging issues / opportunities / technologies, geographies . . .?)

    I think you may also want to distinguish between what clients want (e.g. access to deep / broad understanding (or ABDU)) and how PSFs deliver it. For example, a PSF might be able to deliver ABDU using IBM Watson’s technology without any collaboration whatsoever. From the client’s perspective they don’t care – they get great ADBU.

    And you may want to think about Collaborative Ease (rather than Collaborative Capacity); I think one thing clients are looking for is how easy the working relationship is at every level of the engagement. That includes things like: how is it to repatriate (or, alternatively, push over) work? how seamless are the communications? Is there good co-ordination with no surprises? Can the firm quickly adapt to new circumstances and opportunities / issues.

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    • Gordon, this is exactly the right time to challenge my thinking! I’ll continue to push the categories to make sure they’re MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive).

      In reviewing my transcripts, I see that clients differentiate between saving time (“efficiency”) and saving money (“cost”). These concepts are blurred for lawyers who bill by the hour, but in other professional sectors clients can more clearly distinguish them… so I’ll work to make those definitions clearer.

      Agree 100% that clients care about the outcome. Generally, many I spoke to believe that collaboration will be necessary for ABDU (love it!) to arise, but as tech changes that may shift. Some clients, however, truly care about the process. One GC said, “I don’t just want to see how the sausage is made, I want to be in the kitchen getting my hands messy!”

      Your examples for Clv Ease are very helpful – thanks. I agree that clients want to know both (1) can advisers do it, and (2) how well/easily collaboration will function.

      As ever, I appreciate your input!

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      • Thanks for the encouraging comments.

        “I want to be in the kitchen” – Transparency is now a standard expectation of consumers (e.g. restaurants now literally put windows in so people can see into the kitchen; governments have legislation requiring themselves to retain and make available records or programs to publish data).

        Some clients don’t care how the sausage is made – but others most definitely want it.

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  2. The tenth factor in my opinion is ‘The Human element’ or sense of nurturing or you matter factor’I,m not sure which captures the point the best.The clients will never admit to this especially the tough negotiators but in addition to delivering seamless efficient results,I,ve discovered in my personal experience that the Clients who had more than one person on call (whether internal or external)have been our most loyal.This is not necessarily from delivering better results to them.It is about conveying the message that they are important and we would pull whatever resources are necessary to get their job done effectively.They will never admit or say it but you get that it matters a lot to them.They are more willing to overlook mistakes and definitely send more work our way.The fact they are not being billed additionally for it appeals to the tough negotiators,but a savvy Professional service firm will more than recoup that cost from that same tough cookie client in no time.The relationship that develops over time from their unspoken gratitude that they matter is priceless.

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    • What great insight! Just last night (after I posted my piece) I was reading a firm’s internal report that recapped their agency’s client service reviews. It contains numerous quotes about how much clients want to be valued, like “XX show that we are one of the clients they really listen to and care about.” What a surprise: clients are human, too! 🙂

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  3. The issue of the “cost of collaboration” is an interesting one. Partners sometimes use it as an excuse not to collaborate when they think (rightly or wrongly) that the client will not pay for it.

    If there is a budget for the work, the law firm should include the cost of collaboration in the budget and get approval up front from the client. If the client objects, there is an opportunity to educate the client about the benefits of collaboration to the client.

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  4. I think that an aspect of “The Human Element” is that by being someone who obviously works well with others to achieve the best possible result, you are giving off a vibe of being the sort of person the client also actually wants to work with.

    This is probably a subconscious thing, but in my experience clients actually return to a lawyer who adds to the client’s net quota of happiness for the day. Have you made their path that much straighter? Did they put down the phone thinking “well that’s cost me a fortune, but what’s the answer”?

    Or did they feel calmer, clearer about their options and the way forward, and therefore….simply…happier??
    If I say “hang on, I have just the person in our ## team that could help with that other aspect we’ve been talking about. Would you like me to call back with them at no charge?” or ” My colleague ## is here so we can get the whole story together. He/she will be helping me with ….” then I am showing that I am a collaborative person and a mentor, and hence likely to be a nice person to work with.

    The alternative might be the egotist who tries to prove he can do everything himself/keep all the fee credits even though there are clearly experts in that field available in the firm/ is disinterested in providing the right resources at the right level/ isn’t interested in bringing bright young people through.

    Which lawyer is more likely to be perceived as adding to the client’s happiness??

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  5. I think there is a fun factor in the collaborative experience – exposing our clients to different personalities with different world and life experiences can be a big benefit. Clients will bond better with advisors with similar life issues – it may be based on parenting or personal interests. We have won work after a competitive round of golf or after enjoying a professional sporting event with targets. This ties into the Human element referred to above.

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