One of the privileges we have as a result of conducting client listening exercises, is that we get insight into what it is that clients really look for in an advisor. Whether the sector be legal, property or accountancy, the wish-list is often very similar. Here we share some of the things we hear from clients about what they want, and reflect on what skills are needed to for a professional to deliver.
What soft skills do clients need from professionals?
As you would expect, expertise and professionalism are always high on the list, but clients want more than that. As most professionals themselves now recognise, being a technical expert is not enough.
Clients want someone they can relate to and work with. Often advisors are called in when the stakes are high and the consultant brought in needs to be confident. They are likely going to be someone who the client will spend many hours with too. Making sure there is chemistry is important.
Approachability and likeability are things which advisers perhaps think are things they can do little to influence or change, but there are things that advisers can be mindful of which will help them build their relationships and change how likeable they are.
Clients want someone they can trust. We have written about trust and its importance for professional services firms before. Hearing the word ‘trust’ offered again and again by clients underlines this for us. We regularly speak to firms about the trust equation and how professionals can develop the skills they need to be a trusted adviser.
Ok, so clients rarely offer this word up, but what they do tell us again and again is that they want to be understood. Understanding your clients business or market is key, but understanding goes deeper than that. How do clients want to be dealt with, how can you go further to service them, it all comes back to empathy.
Dealing with complexity.
Clients want consultants to help them deal with complexity. Problems are multi-dimensional and clients look at their professionals advisers as a team navigating through uncertain waters. This means that professionals need to offer different perspectives, provide insights and leverage the best of everyone in their team or in their firm. Whilst key individuals are recognized, it is the support network that exists around them that is increasingly important to clients.
What soft skills are needed to deliver?
The trouble with what clients want is that the list is both seemingly endless, and also seemingly something which professionals can do little to change. Empathy, trust, likeability all sound fairly rooted in who a person is, don’t they?
Are they things that can be taught and where is the line drawn?
Whose job is it to “teach” these things?
A business developer might have a hard time telling a partner that they would recommend they undertook some empathy training!
Emotional intelligence and soft skills
A lot of what we are writing about here might fall under the definition of emotional intelligence – or soft skills. These are sometimes called core skills or people skills . They are things that make such a difference to the way a professional delivers and whether they are seen as a trusted advisor. All too often they are dismissed as “unteachable”.
It is true that things like empathy, trust, influence, collaboration, creative thinking often require behaviour change, or shifts in mindset, which often don’t come about as a result of a half an hour training session. That is why we believe that the way to empower professionals is through a three-pronged approach.
Client Talk's three-pronged approach
Coaching: Coaching is a powerful tool where behavioural change is concerned. Coaches can work with individual – or team – motivations and can build confidence and enhance performance. Coaching has recently come under the spotlight with a coaching-start-up, aimed at preventing mental health problems in the workplace, getting a huge cash injection. Burnout and mental health issues are a discussion for another blog, but what is interesting about that company is the desire for people at all levels to have access to coaching. That is something we believe in too, and it is fundamental for making changes and enhancing these core people skills.
Increase conscious awareness: One of the reasons that coaching is powerful is that it helps bring into the conscious things that would otherwise be unconscious. This can be done in a team or individual coaching space. Reflection is important and training can be used as a tool here. Let’s take trust by way of example. Why is it that trust is important to clients? What does that look like? What behaviours might a trusted adviser exhibit? These questions are often not ones we ask within our teams and our firms, despite professing to be trusted and despite recognising the importance of trust. Providing a space to think about these skills helps professionals reflect on their importance and their approach to them.
Reward: It is well known that rewards can help motivate. They can demotivate too. What do we reward in our firms and how do we reward the behaviours and skills that clients want which aren’t technical? Of course, at a senior level we can tie our reward to client spend – many firms do. In a round about way the argument could be that the behaviours that lead to happy clients, filters through into amount they spend with any given individual. However, things are arguably more complicated than that. These behaviours need to happen internally and externally. If clients want their advisers to get the best from their teams, and not just their immediate teams, but the broader range of skills that exist within a firm, it is not enough that trust, empathy, influence are seen outwardly, they need to permeate on the inside too. How are those internal manifestations of these core skills rewarded?
What is the most important soft skill of all?
As the list of required skills grows, there is a tendency to increase the burden on certain professionals.
Let's take lawyers as an example, it is not uncommon to think about equipping them with tech skills (to benefit from legal tech), project management skills, change management skills…... The trouble with this approach is that multi-dimensional problems are best solved by teams of people. Not one person trying to do it all and be it all.
Perhaps the most important skill of all is that which enables professionals to get the most from diverse teams. The skill of bringing different people together and leveraging a range of talents for the benefit of clients. Again, this is something that is coachable and it is a skill that will get the best from everyone within a firm. This going beyond being a team player, or a good manager, it is about being an inspirational leader who can create a space where everyone can play at their best.