Old style trust and understanding key

In many instances the impersonal customer experience of call centres led to customer backlash. Picture: Rob McDougallIn many instances the impersonal customer experience of call centres led to customer backlash. Picture: Rob McDougall
In many instances the impersonal customer experience of call centres led to customer backlash. Picture: Rob McDougall
Business relationships better with personal touch, says Andy Ley

IF YOU’VE ever heard someone hanker after the “good old days”, there’s a reasonable chance that at least some of those fond memories have been slightly skewed by the passing of time. Haircuts were definitely as daft then as they are now, music sounded equally bad to our parents as it does to the current generation of mums and dads… although policemen and women are unquestionably getting younger.

It’s equally intriguing to see how things move in cycles. That’s regularly evident in fashion, music, culture; and the recent recession has demonstrated again that much of economics is a cyclical process. The ups and downs vary in strength and severity, but the movement in a graph would be broadly similar.

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The period before the 2007 crash was largely (although, to be fair, not exclusively) characterised by call centres, offshoring, and a desire to get things done more quickly and more cheaply. In many instances that made for a deeply impersonal customer experience, which led to a sustained customer backlash, and it’s one which has been proven to be ineffective for most organisations in the long run.

Of course, there’s still a place for quick, transactional relationships which are low-cost and low-effort – plenty of online retail, for example, operates on these terms.

But even these businesses would probably argue that, while the transaction itself may be brief, there are great efforts made to maintain a relationship from which the customer feels some kind of benefit.

In most business advisory settings, functional exchanges between adviser and client rarely deliver the best outcome for either side. Where these relationships work best is where there is a depth of trust, and an understanding on the adviser’s part of the long-term objectives of the client – as well as an awareness of red lines, significant other relationships and a myriad of other factors.

We recently celebrated ten years as an advisor to the global energy services firm Senergy. When we started working with them, there were four employees. When our corporate team advised the business on a deal with Lloyd’s Register last year – resulting in the biggest investment Lloyd’s has ever made – it had more than 650 employees, turned over £120 million and had operations in 18 countries globally.

That’s the kind of relationship we want to have with all of our clients. I saw a presentation on client relationships recently which quoted one client as saying it wanted its advisers ‘to succeed with us and bleed with us’. There are varying degrees of that; not every client wants its advisers to appear by the bedside with a cup of coffee in the morning, but it’s clear that few clients want the kind of impersonal, arms-length service which prevents a deep understanding of objectives.

Clients of every kind need to feel as if you’re invested in their business, whether it’s a global energy firm in the making, or a private individual who needs one piece of advice in making a will. Critically, that has to be based on a genuine interest from the adviser on making life easier, solving a business problem, or heading off a family dispute before it starts.

Very often when a client comes to you with one issue, there are another ten in the background which also need to be addressed. Building a relationship around trust means you shouldn’t even need to ‘sell’ to win that work, which deepens that client’s investment in your organisation.

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The majority of successful businesses – in law or other people-led industries – have a large number of relationships like this, and commit significant resource to developing existing client contacts and cultivating new ones.

Mutually-beneficial relationships with clients aren’t anything new, but taking the approach of investing in clients for the long-term hasn’t always been a given. The importance of this has been cast into very sharp focus over the last five or six years. Business relationships have never been more important – the good ones are able to endure during difficult times, and can mean the difference between surviving a tough spell or closing the doors. Unfortunately we’ve seen several examples of that in the recent past.

The “good old days” aren’t always something to be celebrated – often particularly where fashion is concerned – but the focus on personal connections, trust and long-term business relationships is definitely something which works equally well in the modern age.

• Andy Ley is a partner at HBJ Gateley www.gateleyuk.com