Reputation managment: Pull together or die

The Andersen experience at the beginning of last year clearly showed how important reputation management is for professional firms. A significant part of that has to be the ability to communicate effectively, rapidly and personally with your key clients and prospective clients.

Many firms are starting to think about strategies for business continuity, who would they communicate with if something disastrous happened?

For strategic communications, who would they want to speak to about the acquisition of another firm or a merger?

But this is not just vital during times of crisis. The professional services market is changing rapidly. It is more competitive, it is increasingly commoditised. Since Enron and Worldcom, the national media are interested in those firms ‘behind the scenes’ that advise the world’s multinational corporations.

Implementing an effective client relationship management programme, otherwise known by the ubiquitous acronym of CRM, has been seen by many firms as a purely technological solution. Whilst business development and marketing have also often been involved, this approach is a mistake and can often result in systems lying un-used by the fee earning community. This also means a significant amount of time and financial investment has been wasted.

But a successfully implemented CRM programme can have significant benefits.

A culture for sharing information and working together to identify cross-selling opportunities has enabled many firms to maximise, and crucially retain, business with their key clients. And as it is, according to research, approximately five times more expensive to win a new client than retain an existing one, it has got to be the right thing to put your clients at the heart of your key business processes.

However, it is crucial that those involved in CRM involve the stakeholders across the firm, to understand how they will use the system, how it will integrate with their existing business processes and from there to identify what information will populate the system to support those key business processes.

Whilst this is understood by many, there is actually a more pressing need to implement effective CRM within firms.

It is for these reasons, in addition to the pressing business development justifications, that CRM should not just be a bandwagon but an essential business strategy for all professional firms.

Here are some tips to attain success and avoid failure in implementing the right process for your firm or business.

The main reason why CRM initiatives fail within any organisation, not just professional services, is lack of explicit senior management support.

It is not enough to send out internal communications from the managing partner expressing commitment, it is essential for the entire executive board to ‘walk the talk’ and become the most vocal advocates of CRM.

This has to cascade down to the fee earners. In a market where differentiation is so important, and increasingly difficult to achieve, a well-defined and well-supported programme enables firms to leverage their relationships effectively. Personal relationships are increasingly one of the only real ways to differentiate yourselves from your competitors and it is for this reason that the entire fee earning community should support it.

Implementing a CRM programme can be a significant catalyst for change. But firms have to be prepared to grasp the nettle.

A recent survey by Gracechurch Consulting found some worrying results.

Amongst the most concerning was the fact that 40% of fee earners felt that contact information was a personal and not a firm wide resource.

In order to overcome this your firm will need to determine what the system is for and which key business processes it supports.

Once this is in place it can be a real power to reflect or affect the way the firm operates. By explicitly tying the programme’s objectives into the wider business strategy it can provide a unifying purpose for the firm.

Technology is a great facilitator, but it is not a panacea. Those involved in implementing CRM technology must do so with an understanding of how the stakeholder groups within the firm, fee earners, support staff and even potentially clients, will use the system.

All too often systems are deployed which require data to be entered in two different places or require an unnecessary change in existing business processes that already work well. If this is at the heart of your implementation plans then they are destined to fail. You can sell all the business benefits you like, but at the end of the day fee earners will only use systems if the processes used are at least no more difficult than the way they currently operate.

This is where risk is a real factor. CRM technology represents a significant investment in technology and time for firms. This could be wasted unless you determine what the system is for and how it will support your existing business development activity rather than change it for change’s sake.

Once you have defined the objectives and processes, you have to understand what information you will need and what data you currently have. This audit of your information sources and requirements will drive your data management strategy. I would strongly advise against large-scale fee earner clean ups, or loading all data from billing or practice management systems into the new tool.

The former will result in bad will amongst the fee-earning community and is likely to take a great deal longer than you expect. After all, who wants to spend their nights poring over list print outs? The latter will mean that the system is swamped with irrelevant information which will turn users off. Auditing your data is essential to help you strike the right balance.

We carried out a great deal of work for Andersen. They were a great firm to work with, innovative, motivated and creative.

However, more was achieved in CRM terms during the Enron crisis than throughout the whole of the previous year.

This was because the firm realised that in order to deliver effective, relevant and timely communications to its clients during times of crisis, it was necessary to rapidly define and communicate the rules of engagement in terms of relationship ownership, the purpose for the system and the data strategy.

The challenge to all firms is that if they can get this right when the stakes are not so high then you will be ready for crisis, risk and mitigation.

  • Michael Warren is client services director of Shamrock Marketing, a database management company.

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