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Decoding Client Culture

Every organization has a unique culture—the personality, values, beliefs and guidelines that dictate behaviors and shape decision-making. The cultural “norms” of an organization may be clearly dictated or more subtle, spoken or unspoken. Regardless, outside counsel who seek to understand their clients’ unique cultures and adapt their services accordingly are often better equipped to be solutions-oriented problem solvers, easier to work with and more efficient.

Just last week I interviewed clients in retail, banking and technology industries, and all identified understanding their company’s unique corporate culture and “way” of doing business as a competitive advantage for outside law firms:

  • “They understand the algorithms or processes we try to follow from A to Z. That makes them more efficient.”
  • “We have a lot of idiosyncrasies. It’s nice that they know our processes and our executive’s hang-ups. We’ll just get hammered for not doing things ‘the [Company] Way.’”
  • “Understanding the company’s culture and business is important to delivering the best work product.”

Just as it takes time to get to know individuals and what makes them tick, it takes time and effort to understand a company’s culture. Most clients agree the best way to learn about the business and industry is to work together. To accelerate the process, invest time to:

  • Go visit your clients at their place of business or ask for a facility tour.
  • Spend time on the company’s website—read annual reports, news releases and interviews with company executives.
  • Offer to participate in company training programs and internal meetings

And as you are getting to know prospects and new clients, ask questions that reveal the organization’s culture:

  • How would you describe the culture of your business—formal/informal, competitive/collaborative, authoritative/autonomous, orderly/chaotic, high energy/slower paced, etc.?
  • What are the spoken and unspoken rules in your company?
  • How do you communicate with each other internally?
  • What are your expectations of responsiveness to each other/your internal clients/your vendors and service providers?
  • How are you and your team evaluated?
  • How and how easily are decisions made in your organization?
  • What are your company’s orientation and ongoing training programs like?
  • Tell me about your most successful relationships with outside counsel and advisors.
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