It is two years since Client Talk was formed. We started with a vision to change the conversations that professional services firms are having with, and about, their clients. Why? We felt that the thing that was holding back professional services the most was a lack of really honest conversations.
Now, most firms won’t admit to their firm exhibiting the lack of honesty we identified as being a problem. Whether it is wrapped up as “office politics”, downplayed as being a particular partner’s way, or not reflective of all clients, our experience has been that many firms shy away from asking the really hard questions. Particularly when those hard questions involve clients.
The problem with hard questions and professional services firms is that they can often result in people coming under the spotlight. Criticism is personal. The blame game is often an incarnation of the fundamental attribution bias – where we overattribute other people’s traits to their personality (and our own to external factors). Cue: “The client said that because [something] is wrong at the firm, it’s not about me.”
Hard questions lead to continuous improvement which can require changing the model of service delivery. Change is hard. In professional services firms it is also personal, making it even harder.
What are the benefits of honesty in professional services firms?
The sort of honesty that we are speaking about is where feedback can be given and received without damaging relationships. That has clear benefits internally, as well as externally. It increases trust. It brings in different perspectives. It strengths relationships. It drives innovation.
Michael Beer, Professor at Harvard Business School, describes how honest conversations can accelerate corporate transformation. He describes honest conversations as being collective (involving key people across the organisation), internally public, and informative. They are also open to all levels of the organisation.
Hybrid working: a case study for honest conversation.
Professional services firms are grappling with two big issues this year: how to create cultures of belonging to increase diversity and inclusion; and how to make hybrid working work. The firms who are excelling are the ones who are asking questions of their employees. Not just a snap-shot taken and reflecting a moment in time, but continuously. To continuously ask, understand and adapt requires listening skills and a culture where psychological safety is present. It requires honest conversations.
Let’s take hybrid working and Sam, a senior associate at a medium sized law-firm, as an example. Many firms over the last year will have asked their employees the question: “how would you like to work going forward?”.
In January 2020, Sam approached HR and said that he would like to be able to work remotely a day a week. This was reflective of his peers and many partners also had taken to remote working. He feels safe putting forward this view. It is reflective of the status quo.
In September 2020, after several months of enforced remote working due to Covid, Sam was asked the question as part of a “return to work” staff review. This time he said that he would predominantly like to work remotely, perhaps coming into the office a day or two a week.
The truth is, Sam has a young family and has enjoyed being able to eat dinner with his children and partner. He is feeling a little sad that the children have gone back to school and he is starting to fear the commute and getting infected. Sam lost his best friend to Covid in the summer. It has made him reflective. He would really like to never go back to the office, but he knows that they will be expected to be there sometimes. There has already been talk of the difficulty of training younger members remotely and Sam wants to make partner next year, he can’t really say anything else.
Meanwhile, the firm is taking decisions based on what Sam has said, what Sam’s peers have said.
In June 2021, the firm was starting to finalise plans. Sam was made a partner. More discussions were taking place. Sam decides to agree with the proposals: remote working for three days, in the office for two. He has concerns but he doesn’t voice them. His concerns aren’t as bad as they were last year, he is vaccinated and he is glad of his promotion. He doesn’t want to rock the boat. He thinks there are ways that the training issue could be resolved, but nobody has asked.
Is this catastrophic?
Is this enabling Sam to perform at his best?
Are others likely to think the same as Sam?
Yes. There are also likely to be people who think differently, those who like the proposals, and those who think that remote working should be as it was pre-pandemic. Some of those people might express those views. They might be voices that are listened to and they might challenge the decisions that have been made. Or, they might be held out to be trouble-makers, or as old-fashioned, or too modern.
What hard questions weren’t asked?
Of Sam, harder questions could have been asked. What was behind his view?
Sam also failed to ask hard questions. Why do we need to be in the office to train our employees? Why haven’t we gone back to find out what employees need now? How do we know our employees aren’t just telling us what they want to hear?
What held Sam back? Fear. Not wanting to rock the boat. Feeling perhaps that he was alone (the survey said something else).
This scenario is played out with clients, with other employee scenarios. Failure to ask the hard questions is often not catastrophic. BUT, firms fail to reach their true potential because of it. Often it ends up with a firm of people who think the same. Those who think differently leave to find “their fit”. Group think and lack of diversity of thought is a problem which shuts down innovation and keeps the status quo alive.
So how do we change the conversations that we are having with our clients?
We ask. We listen. We are honest about what is missing from our conversations. Like the example above, it’s not that we aren’t asking questions, it is that we are perhaps not asking the hard questions. Like the example above, it’s not that we aren’t finding a solution that mostly works, we just aren’t providing the optimum solution.
Changing the conversations we are having with our clients also involves bringing in different perspectives and voices. At times it might (should) involve co-creating solutions with clients.
How many firms are grappling with those big two issues (D&I and hybrid working) with clients?
We should be. We should also think about those characteristics that Prof. Beer highlights: collective, internally public, informative and open.
Two-years on, what have we learnt?
Our belief that listening is key to growth was deeply rooted in coaching psychology. Coaching increases performance through conversations, but importantly through deep listening.
We started Client Talk with a view to combining consulting and coaching. We couldn’t think of the right word to describe what that was. The truth is consulting and coaching are on a spectrum. At one end consulting is about providing answers and advice. It is directive. On the other end, coaching is about deep listening. It is human-centered. It helps people and teams perform at their best. Sometimes coaches are directive, where it is in the best interests of the client, but advice is only given with permission, or never without recognising the uniqueness of every person the advice is offered to.
Over two years we have struggled to find the right word to describe what we do. When we launched someone described us as being a listening business. Perhaps that is what we are. Yes, we are experts in professional services firms. Yes, we can provide advice and instruction. But, where we add most value is where we ask the hard questions. When we listen.
In short, when we take a human-centered approach we deliver deeper insights (be they from clients or employees), we get more from training, we help firms innovate. Ultimately, when we listen we can look at a problem with our clients and help them come up with a solution that works for that firm and that firm’s people. That is how we are changing the conversations we are having with our clients.