It was never about the product

Whether you are a financial planner, adviser, investment manager or provider of any intangible service such as law, the training and qualifications you garnered over many years never properly prepared you to understand the fundamental truth that the transaction you provide is of little or no interest to clients and is not what they want to pay you for anyway.

You might be able to calculate a Sharpe ratio, well done. You might think you have a very good insight into investment markets and can make good judgements about timing of asset allocations in your client portfolios, good luck to you.

Technical matters and all the administration that goes with it are all secondary to what the client is actually interested in of course. Client interest lies in their own lives and what they want to achieve or perhaps avoid. The fact that they might recognise they need your service isn’t something they want to celebrate, it is just a matter of needs must. In other words, the buying of intangible professional services is not a pleasure purchase.

During lockdown I decided to upgrade my wireless speakers in the home so I can listen to my music and podcasts in any room I choose. Now that was a pure pleasure purchase. The need at some point to have my pension drawdown affairs sorted out will not be a pleasure purchase.

None of this means the services we provide are inconsequential, quite the reverse. We should remind ourselves that the product or transaction that we deliver, often within a regulatory ambit, is not what clients are actually interested in. It is their lifestyle and all that goes with it they are concerned about.

In recent times, I have spent time working with financial advice businesses and discretionary investment managers helping them to focus on what really matters to clients and turning that into commercial success. The essential truth running through it all has been a constant for as long as I can remember – focus on the client need.

Some years ago in discussions with law firms they shared some frustrations with me around the profitability of the private client operations within their businesses. Both firms were in the medium/high price market based in posh market towns, operating from several offices and well regarded in the professional community.

It was quite clear after some digging that the vast majority of private clients transacted one service and that was it, typically a will. If these firms were at the low price end of the market then perhaps focusing on a fast, slick operation to deliver high volume would mean clients just transacting the will and nothing else would be ok.

However these firms were pricing themselves to suggest that the client was getting a lot more than a piece of paper as their last will and testament. But were clients getting anything else? If you count up market tea from bone china in a wood panelled office then yes but not a lot else.

When I asked whether their will service was worth the price they were adamant that it was good value since they employed top class lawyers and staff. Clients got the very best service. But having top quality lawyers didn’t seem to lead to any aspect of service value that one could put a finger on. What was ‘the very best service’? Nothing really that separated them from another firm of lawyers that offer the same will at half the price, albeit with lower grade tea and biscuits.
And to compound the problem, some 90% of clients were just transacting one item and this was not profitable despite charging a chunky fee. Meanwhile in reception, I was able to pick up a brochure that told me all about the wide range of private client services - quite impressive. If the firm had these services why weren’t clients buying them?

I was puzzled as to why if they had a great range of services, top lawyers and the very best service that they were not getting clients to buy more from them. We then got into how they engaged with clients. Luckily for law firms lots of people every day recognise they need to get a will sorted out. They pick up the phone to a law firm and make an appointment.

Surely then, once the client was sat in front of a lawyer there would be ample opportunity to introduce other services of potential interest? It turned out that the law firms in question here had focused on making the client meetings short and to the point, because that was more efficient – one partner proudly told me they could do two wills done and dusted in an hour. The logic they were pursuing seemed to be hell bent on reducing the time spent even more to improve profitability. However there didn’t seem to be much fat left in the process of producing a will. The problem seemed to be the reverse of what they thought was the issue i.e. time spent on client engagement.

The lawyers were concerned about efficiency and had lost sight of the big picture with clients. So much so that when I suggested a wider engagement with clients this was met with indignation. The affront I had apparently caused was that this was tantamount to selling to clients and selling was not what they were about. Of course, just presenting products or services to someone is not very professional and a terrible sales strategy in any case.

The underlying fear our lawyers had was about themselves. They were afraid to ask questions of clients, afraid to venture outside their own comfort zone of law and documents. Overcoming personal fears about client engagement is, I have found, probably the biggest obstacle to a more profitable professional services business whether its finance, law or anything else.

Beyond the personal fears lawyers also were genuinely concerned about the morals of talking about a service the client had not come to see them about. Therefore even if the lawyer felt discussing a trust in addition to a will was salient there was reluctance to do so for fear of breaching some ethical code. Looked at another way this was a great client disservice, failing to look at the wider duty of care for clients. Thankfully this latter point became persuasive and we began in a deep dive on client engagement and how it could be enhanced for the benefit of clients and consequentially for the commercial benefit of the law firm.

One of the challenges was persuading some clever people that they could do a lot better by changing how they engaged with clients, not by knowing more law but by being prepared to talk about client issues in client terms with the potential for this to mean emotional connection.

The end result was a change to their whole business plan;

  • Spend more time, not less with clients
  • Discover what the bigger picture is with clients but to only spend time on clients within a prescribed wealth segment that was likely to be an indicator of wider needs
  • Provide fee earners with a client engagement track to follow – but not a script
  • Measure the number of matters opened per client to see what impact the new approach was having
  • Stop the planned increase spend on marketing – they already had more than enough flow of clients, they just needed to improve conversion

Happily over time the firm improved their success with private clients which gave them more confidence to keep charging high end fees and improve profitability.

The points covered here were with two law firms but the underlying issues are often the same in financial advice businesses - we just have different jargon. Whatever the challenges we face in business, if we keep our eyes fixed on solving client problems and achieving their goals we are likely to be well worth our fees.

Lawrence Cook
Head of UK Intermediary Distribution

Sanlam is a trading name of Sanlam Private Investments (UK) Limited (registered in England and Wales 2041819; registered office: 24 Monument Street London EC3R 8AJ). Authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. The value of investments, and the income from them, may fall as well as rise and are not guaranteed. Investors may not get back the original amount invested.

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