I was asked recently if there was ONE FACTOR THAT LED TO FAILURE of key client programs in professional service firms more than any other? My answer was that most firms don’t really understand the Relationship Manager* (RM) role and consequently make poor selection and development decisions. Their starting point is that the RM is a key point of contact for the client and a co-ordinator of client development activity. In my view, the starting point should be that the RM is a business builder with a profound strategic role, both internally and externally. They are the champions of building the firm’s relationship capital.
The way I see it, the RM is a blend of leader, strategist and salesperson. As a leader they inspire the internal client service team and all other stakeholders across the firm to collaborate and deliver on the promise. As a strategist they can think think big and dream large, beyond their technical specialisation, and craft a cunning game plan that will realise new value-creating and long-term relationship building opportunities. And as a salesperson they have fire in the belly to get things done and to influence fee-paying clients to say ‘yes’ more often than not.
As illustrated in the graphic below, when one of these characteristics is absent, the execution of the role is potentially compromised:
This idea has important implications for:
- Selection – Most professional service firm tends to select RMs who historically have the best relationship with the client. While there’s obviously some merit in this, I’d argue that future growth of the firm-client relationship is more dependent on the RM being an effective leader, strategist and salesperson that any legacy factors. In reality this is often easier said than done given firm politics and client preferences. But I warn you, if you just persist with same old same old, don’t expect any fireworks.
- Development – It is interesting to observe the emergence of a new breed of strategic account management training courses that are in effect leadership development programs with a client analysis and BD flavour. These courses have largely evolved because of the recognition of leadership capability being so crucial to the effective execution of the RM role. If your firm currently has a leadership development program in place, perhaps tailoring a module for the RMs in the group would be helpful. Similarly, if you’re running a sales/CRM skills initiative you should look to complement it with leadership and strategy elements.
- Support – Your firm might not be blessed with an abundance RM Superstars to choose from. This potentially means fulfilling the role not through one person but a team of both Marketing/BD people and other practitioners. In this instance supporting the RM with the right people and getting the team to work effectively and efficiently is crucial. A good illustration of this comes from a mid-tier Australian law firm that decided to appoint a Client Relationship Partner or CRP (equivalent to RM) and a Strategic Account Manager or SAM for each of its key clients. The CRP had stewardship over the whole relationship but the SAM was a Senior Associate from another practice group also servicing that client. The SAM’s role was to do a lot of the ‘heavy lifting’ and support the CRP with leadership, strategy and sales activities. The firm adopted this model as its Marketing and BD Department comprised just one person.
Too many clients?
Perhaps the most profound implication of the Leader + Strategist + Salesperson hypothesis is rethinking how many GROWTH clients you should have. Maybe this decision should be based more on how many RM Superstars you have available (or could hire in) and less about the traditional client selection criteria of revenue, profit, service range, etc. Perhaps you should only have a Top 3 or 5 where you genuinely have those limited numbers of RMs with the capability to take a good relationship and make it great. Having 20+ GROWTH clients might give you a warm glow and receive wild applause from the equity holders, but frankly you’re probably setting yourself up to fail.
* The Relationship Manager is sometimes referred to a Client Relationship Partner (CRP), Client Relationship Manager (CRM) or Strategic Account Manager (SAM).