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Like many of you, my children have just returned to school for the Christmas term, and as part of the settling in process I was invited to ‘Parent Information Evenings’ last week. I turned up at 7.30pm to find a glass of wine awaiting me, and stood making small talk with other slightly nervous looking parents, new and old, until the Headmaster thought we were sufficiently relaxed to start proceedings.

Headmaster

He gave an inspirational speech about school values, what to expect for our children this year, and how he was hoping that we would all work together to deliver an excellent learning experience.

We were then split off into groups (with glasses filled) to meet our children’s teachers and discuss the practicalities of working together over the next year.

It struck me as I was listening to all of this that there were huge similarities between what I was experiencing and the process of firms taking on new clients, or re-establishing the relationship with existing clients after a panel review. It has many parallels with what as a procurement professional, I consider to be best-practice in supplier management:

  • Setting expectations at the outset
  • Getting to know the team
  • Establishing working practices
  • Defining the deliverables
  • Monitoring ongoing quality & output
  • Management reporting
  • Periodic and annual reviews

It all seems like common sense but in my experience, some law firms really excel at client management whilst others struggle to provide what I’m looking for as a major stakeholder in the service - an overall sense of confidence in consistent high quality and innovative delivery, in-line with the values that are important to me.

So knowing what I’m looking for, how can firms deliver A* service?

Setting expectations at the outset or re-establishment of the relationship is key: it defines what I’m expecting for the rest of the year, and what I’m going to measure a firm against. Laying out who is managing and accountable for my service, agreeing objectives for the year, discussing both of our core values that underpin delivery, defining quality expectations & feedback processes… these all give me confidence that a firm understands what’s important to me and that my needs are important to them.

Getting to know the team is also extremely important in giving me the confidence and trust that I have people with shared vision and goals that I can rely upon to deliver excellent service. I’m also much more likely to pick up the phone and head off what may become an issue later if I’ve met someone, even briefly. In my experience firms are generally good at senior level engagement but often overlook the importance of nurturing relationships at all levels throughout the teams. A simple breakfast training session or combined social event creates immense good will and can initiate relationships across organisations that long outlast the current panel term. Today’s associates and procurement managers are tomorrow’s partners, GCs and procurement directors… Warm wine and canapes anyone?!

Establishing Working Practices at the outset/re-establishment of a relationship, and reviewing their effectiveness at least every 6 months will give both sides the confidence of working together with governance that’s appropriate to the client/sector, but that isn’t getting in the way of the delivery itself. Agreeing upfront things such as engagement mechanisms for specific matters, turnaround times for quotes, billing processes, matter review processes, reporting expectations, relationship meeting agendas and timetables can all help relationships run smoothly, but can create a lot of noise when both sides have different expectations…

Defining the deliverables for specific engagements at the outset of every matter not only allows for sensible estimates, but it facilitates appropriate budget allocation at the client’s side prior to matter inception. It also means you get paid more easily. It’s hugely important to the business team financing the matter that they know exactly what they’re getting for the agreed estimate, and that any changes are discussed, with clear reasoning, as soon as they are known. Lack of appropriate estimating and communication of change is a sure-fire way to become unpopular with procurement very quickly…

Monitoring ongoing quality & output of matters is a given for law firms in managing any client, but defining an appropriate feedback mechanism that includes the client’s views on a matter isn’t as common as you might think… I’ve found that agreeing a matter review framework helps ensure timely, productive reviews that award successes and take learnings from any challenges, that can be fed into the next engagement. Be sure to focus on the ‘how’ as well as what was delivered; it will make it more likely that everyone has a common view when matters are discussed by senior teams in formal client review meetings.

Management reporting can take up a huge amount of time in provision by firms and interpretation by clients. Ensuring that you have an agreed format and timetable, and regularly reviewing the effectiveness of the reporting in helping to manage the relationship will make sure everyone’s time is well invested. Oh, and make sure it’s accurate before it’s submitted… another sure-fire way to annoy the procurement team…

Periodic and annual reviews should be scheduled in advance for the year, with agreed attendees, agendas and timely minutes. Not only is this essential good governance, it also gives the client confidence that they are well managed, and that service quality, continuous improvement and client satisfaction are paramount. Issuing supporting reports at least a week before the review allows the attendees to pick out anything of particular importance and should maximise the time available for the firm to lead a discussion on future work, strategy and innovation.

And so… having defined what matters, the big question is whether you will be awarded an A* for your client management this year? Or will you end up in the Headmaster’s office?!

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