How to Build a Customer-Centric Culture in Your Professional Services Firm

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    When a phrase has been around long enough, it is probably tried and true. At the same time, it can be tempting to dismiss it as a buzzword whose time has come and gone. “Customer-centric” might fall into that category for some people and if so, they would be overlooking one of the most powerful principles that can be applied to most any business.

    While customer centrism continues to get its share of attention as an aspirational strategy, there is evidence that executing on it may not be so easy. The Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council has reported that only 14% of marketers say customer centricity is a hallmark of their companies and even fewer, 11%, believe their customers would characterize them so.

    What does “customer-centric” mean today?

    “Customer-centric” emerged as a marketing strategy in the 1960s as direct marketing began to revolutionize retail. In the 1980s and ‘90s, loyalty cards enabled retailers to track individual customer behavior and to target messaging and offers. The internet and e-commerce ushered in the next revolution with unprecedented insights into individual customers and new channels for reaching them.

    Over time, the principle of customer centrism has evolved to encompass more than marketing, and there are as many definitions as there are experts contemplating it. Essentially, it is currently understood to mean placing customers at the core of the business to build positive experiences and cultivate long-term relationships.

    What does customer centricity look like in professional services?

    Professional services firms span many different sub-sectors, including management consulting, IT consulting, legal services, and accounting services. What they have in common is that they sell specialized knowledge and expertise as a service to their customers or clients (typically businesses rather than individual consumers).

    In the context of professional services, customer centricity obviously translates into delivering excellent service every time, staying attuned to each customer or client’s changing needs, and customizing solutions to specific challenges. But it can no longer be exclusively—or even primarily—the responsibility of traditionally customer-facing teams to carry out the customer centrism mission.

    Customer touchpoints used to be finite and somewhat predictable: point-of-sale interactions, communications with staff members, browsing the website. In the modern professional services firm, however, there may be dozens of touchpoints from the pre-purchase experience—researching firms, interviewing shortlisted vendors, negotiating pricing—through the initial engagement and, ideally, ongoing engagement with the firm. 

    Clients expect a cohesive, positive experience across all these touchpoints. When professional services firms deliver on (or even exceed) their clients’ expectations, the rewards can be significant. Research presented by Qualtrics at CXWeek revealed that clients are 15-22% more likely to reuse professional service firms that focus on building strong relationships than firms that are less mature in building relationships. 

    Positive customer experiences also increase the likelihood that clients will choose to engage with firms for additional services. Research published in the Harvard Business Review found that the more multidisciplinary groups a client engages with at a professional services firm, the more each group earns from that client on average. Engaging with multiple groups also increases “stickiness” and makes it more likely that the client will work with the firm on an ongoing basis rather than just for a one-off project.

    How to be a customer-centric professional services firm

    The benefits of being a customer-centric professional services firm are significant, but truly becoming customer-centric requires more than just adopting the mantra of “the customer always comes first.”

    Implementing a durable customer-centric operating model requires an organizational culture that aligns with the values and vision reflected in the model. Everyone in the company, from the C-suite to the mailroom, needs to embrace the customer-centric mindset. In the realm of professional services, three guiding principles will serve you well.

    Practice customer-centric leadership

    The leadership team must be visibly invested in the customer centrism mission. They establish the common purpose through operational initiatives that require participation and accountability from everyone including themselves. They engage each employee—front line customer service representatives, the back office, specialized consultants, and everyone in between—to accept responsibility for any and every customer’s experience and empower them to meet that responsibility completely and consistently.

    Customer-centric leaders also make sure the company’s metrics make sense in the context of the stated mission. Every team’s role and assignments make sense to them and to their counterparts in other functional areas, relative to the customer-centric goals.

    Abolish the concept of “non-customer facing” teams

    Traditionally, responsibility for customer centricity falls primarily or exclusively to the teams whose core missions entail direct interaction with customers: marketing, sales, support, service specialists. In a truly customer-centric culture, there is no distinction between internal functions and customer-facing ones. Every team and every team member must understand how their day-to-day work helps drive the quality of customer experiences and contributes to the longevity of customer relationships.

    All teams can become more customer-centric by gaining access to a holistic view of the customer or client. Firms should centralize knowledge about their clients, ranging from frequently asked questions to video interviews that capture the “voice of the customer,” so that all employees better understand the clients they’re serving, common needs and challenges, and how to proactively deliver exceptional experiences.

    Facilitate the right kind of internal engagement

    Building an authentically customer-centric organizational culture requires setting up clear, concrete links between employee culture and customer outcomes, democratizing access to institutional knowledge including customer insights, and championing the habit of customer empathy at every opportunity.

    Underpinning these types of specific tactics and processes, the organization needs to facilitate engagement within and among teams that is not only transactional but also relational. Encourage associates to communicate and interact in ways that not only get the work done but also cultivate trust and interdependence and reinforce the common mission. This is addressed partly in the way work processes are designed and partly by providing mechanisms for spontaneous, unscripted interactions including the watercooler conversations whose importance has been reaffirmed during a year of adjusting to remote and flexible work setups.

    How a knowledge management platform can support customer centrism

    One way to support close alignment throughout a professional services organization, from top to bottom and across every functional area, is with a knowledge management platform. Putting everything the organization knows into a searchable library gives every user easy and convenient access to customer-facing documentation, customer insights, and  anything else they need to know to do their work efficiently and well.

    The platform also provides a venue to capture questions and answers (and make that information searchable) so employees can more easily leverage specialized expertise and tacit knowledge from other teams. And it can facilitate conversations around existing content and knowledge, sparking creativity and helping firms uncover new ways to optimize the customer experience.

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