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What Clients Really Want—And How to Deliver

In a client feedback interview last week, I asked a senior in-house counsel what drives the most successful relationships with outside counsel. Without batting an eye, the counsel responded, “Understand what we are trying to accomplish as a business. Start there.” The conversation continued with similar comments: “It’s all there. It’s what we talk about but too often isn’t understood: Why are we doing what we are doing? What are we trying to accomplish?”

During the last twelve years, we have interviewed thousands of clients, and they say consistently that the most successful outside counsel understand their businesses, their roles in accomplishing those business goals and how to make their lives easier along the way.

  “Understand what we are trying to accomplish as a business. Start there.”

In last week’s conversation, the client referenced all of the publicly available information on the company website: investor information, strategic goals and investments and details of businesses and subsidiaries. Occasionally that in-house counsel will casually quiz outside counsel on their knowledge of the business by asking direct questions: “How will this _____ impact our ______ strategy? The broader strategy is why there is a legal issue, and the firm is getting the work. Have you thought about that?”

To deliver on understanding your clients’ businesses, follow through with these simple actions:

  • Read the company’s investor information.
  • Sit in on investor relations calls. While it is always valuable to read the investor information, earnings and other investor relations calls offer deeper insights. The back and forth in answering questions is another layer of detail and specificity that won’t appear in the public filings.
  • Read the company’s website and distill strategic and business foci into a mini dossier.
  • Schedule strategy meetings with key clients and begin those conversations by asking: “After reading and hearing about _______, what will your role be in supporting that initiative and how can we help?”
  • Get a client organization chart. In a recent client team meeting, we spent a significant amount of time with the dozen or so lawyers working for the client discussing the hierarchy, the dotted line reporting, the internal relationships and how the disparate groups overlap and have common challenges and support.
  • Find out what industry events, websites and newsletters they rely on and attend/subscribe.
  • Share industry intel. When you understand a client’s business, you can relate to broader industry trends. Whether it is regulatory enforcement information, labor & employment updates or having a sense of what is “market” for terms of a deal, all that information is valuable to the client. In their busy worlds, they don’t have the same opportunities to be exposed to what’s happening in the marketplace and what’s trending.
  • Don’t just react—be anticipatory. If several clients are experiencing the same challenge, which other clients might be as well? Think about that, and then approach the client and ask if you can help.

Being the eyes and ears of the marketplace demonstrates you are always thinking about the client. It adds value and deepens client loyalty, and firms that stay top of mind get more work.

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