Recent research by the Corporate Executive Board of a global sample 6,000 salespeople identified “The Challenger” profile as the one that consistently out-performs all others. The six defining attributes of Challengers are:
- they offer the client unique perspectives,
- they have strong two-way communication skills,
- they generally have a good understanding of the individual client’s value drivers,
- they can readily identify economic drivers of the client’s business,
- they are comfortable discussing money, and
- they can pressure the client.
Whilst 1 to 4 are reasonably self-evident, I think 5 and 6 are really interesting and insightful. The authors define these attributes as “the ability to assert and maintain control over the sale… It does not mean being aggressive or abusive… but a willingness and ability to stand their ground when the customer pushes back.”
Much of the client relationship management literature is filled with advice to meet or indeed exceed clients’ expectations, be likeable, and be super responsive, reliable and accessible. The key question in my mind, does this advice of extra-mile client service contradict the Challenger model of asserting control?
I think the answer lies in distinguishing between being client-focused and client-compelled. Client focus is not about acquiescing to the client’s every demand, but seeking an engagement that’s respectful of both parties role in co-creating the service and negotiating a pricing arrangement that’s fair to the firm and fair to the client. Many firms fall into the trap of enduring bad clients thinking they’re living their stated value of being client-focused. They’re not! They’re just been taken for a ride.
When I ask firms why they endure value-destroying (i.e. client-compelled) relationships the typical responses I get are: we need to retain cashflow; the work we get from them keeps our best people busy/happy; we need to limit brand fallout or reputational damage if they left us; etc. etc. etc. While there may be merit in some of these arguments in certain (in my opinion, rare) circumstances, the main reasons bad clients are endured are the fear of having the difficult conversation and insecurity associated with asserting the firm’s rights.
A recent Bruce Macewan post on law firm pricing states:
“Compared to the general white-collar population (forthcoming generalization alert), lawyers are, despite all our bluster when donning our zealous advocates’ hats, remarkably insecure; we suffer from shockingly low emotional intelligence; and we take setbacks very hard and don’t recover from them quickly.
Also on the emotional makeup side, we’re introverts who hate to bring up issues where we may not have all the answers. We’re trained not to ask questions that could lead into unknown territory, or venture into conversations that strike us as frighteningly open-ended. All things considered, the safest course is, when in doubt, keep your mouth shut. And when discussing pricing, it all seems to be “in doubt.””
While the generalisation alert needs to be sounded again in extending Bruce’s arguments to all professionals, there is a really important issue of confidence, assertiveness and “loving the grey” when it comes managing key client relationships.
Your CTA (Call To Action) from this blog post is to assess your firm’s relationship partners or strategic account managers against all six of the Challenger attributes, and especially items 5 and 6. If they don’t measure up then it’s time to do change the deck chairs or look externally. Without commercially savvy and confident relationship executives you run a significant risk of being client-compelled, and being a servant to your clients rather than a high-performing, profitable service provider.