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Strong client relationships built upon trust: professional services firms need to adapt

by Sean Kearns, Editor-in-Chief, Longitude

Wherever you turn in society, trust is in short supply.

Amid today’s barrages of opinion, data and (mis)information, which the pandemic has intensified, individuals and businesses prize clear-headed, impartial expertise.

That knowhow has for a long time been the primary currency of professional services firms. It is the reason why organisations have been willing to pay sizeable fees for advice about how to help protect and grow their businesses.

But trust in professional services is not immune to scepticism and scrutiny. The ongoing fallout from the Wirecard scandal, which came hot on the heels of similar systemic failures, and the much-publicised role professional services firms are playing in government responses to the pandemic, shows why many are rethinking fundamental tenets: their structure, the way they work with clients, and their culture of challenge.

These changes can shine a light on company culture – a welcome focus in an era of glass box brands, where companies’ inner workings are laid bare. New research among clients of professional services firms conducted by Longitude, a Financial Times company, finds that brand and reputation will be increasingly important differentiators in the sector.

Firms are aware of how scrutiny affects them individually and collectively. Traditional competitors are joining forces in an attempt to help businesses measure their value in new ways, including a joint initiative to create a reporting framework for ESG standards. Such a framework is in itself an attempt to build greater trust between investors and large corporates.

The authenticity and agility acid test

The current crisis is testing the authenticity of company values: how willing were firms to support employees and clients through upheaval? The professional services firms that are passing that test have tried to show their responsibility to all stakeholders: they are paying back furlough money when it is not required, and are listening to employees who are trying to balance their home and work lives.

Others have shown agility by reshaping or retraining their client-facing teams and support staff to better serve the needs of clients. That agility will be welcomed: the Longitude research reveals that 60% of clients agree that many professional services firms are structured to suit their own way of working — not that of their clients.

Deepen the relationship

Despite the high-profile industry failures and concerns about self-serving structures, the majority of respondents (64%) say that the response from professional services firms during the pandemic has increased trust in their services.

That trust is intrinsically linked to what clients value most. Asked to rank the quality of service delivered by the firm they worked with the most over the past 12 months, respondents rate ‘availability/responsiveness of team’, ‘operational efficiency’ and ‘the ability to draw on a network of experts/specialists’ the highest.

You need to fully understand where the client wants to go. You need to be advising and shaping where the client needs to go, rather than just waiting for the order.

Ben PringHead of thought leadership, Cognizant

These are critical components of relationship-building, and they reveal another reality of business services: that clients will give transactional, opportunistic ways of working short shrift. When asked what has caused them to end a relationship with a professional services firm, they cite ‘poor delivery of service’, ‘lack of an innovation approach’ and ‘lack of strategic advice’ most often. Clients may be willing to maintain or even increase their budget allocation to professional services firms, but they will expect more in return.

The majority of respondents (62%) say that their relationships with professional services firms have become more strategic and less transactional, and more than two-thirds (72%) agree that they want to work firms on a long-term rather than project-by-project basis.

Such an environment presents a huge opportunity for firms to grow existing relationships and start new ones — but only if clients believe in their ability and reliability.

“You need to fully understand where the client wants to go. You need to be advising and shaping where the client needs to go, rather than just waiting for the order,” says Ben Pring, head of thought leadership at Cognizant. “That model is going the way of the dodo, and that's why companies like ours need to have that high-end consulting offer.”

Clients need to have confidence in professional services firms, themselves in the process of transformation, to help them through significant change. In a climate of uncertainty, suspicion and scepticism, trust remains professional services’ most valuable currency.

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