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Much like in romance, M&A matchmakers face an unenviable proposition: get it right and it’s a thing of beauty, get it wrong and the inevitable result is a messy situation without any winners.
Knowing your clients – and what they need – has never been so important
Consumer-facing businesses are all about creating an emotional bond between brand and customer, but that’s not traditionally been a comfortable space for B2B.
As the demand for professional services grows, the relationships between business and client have also become more nuanced and intimate.
As Amsterdam-based partner Erik Moens explains, it’s no longer enough to just think about clients through the prism of a single job or specific project.
Instead, the value advisors bring lies in their ability to understand all the moving parts of a business — down to their motivations and struggles over direction.
“The best relationships with clients are close, meaning that we know what is going on in their company and sometimes their families, giving us the opportunity to deliver the right solutions at the right time, based on customer needs,” Moens says.
“It’s most important that we know what is going on in the client’s business — not only the operations of their business, like construction or transport, but also how it might relate to tax and estate planning for family-owned businesses and small-to-medium-sized enterprises.
“You need to treat your client as a real person, not as an engagement. They need to know that you care and will actually go the extra mile.”
Moens’ thoughts on the value of client intimacy tie in with long-standing research from the Harvard Business Review and other publications.
It’s been clearly demonstrated that intimacy of a working relationship contributes positively to the notion of client or customer commitment to a business or brand.
Global Strategy Lead Ryan Piper says understanding the breadth of a client’s needs plays into another key industry trend: for businesses like Baker Tilly to reimagine and expand the range of services they might offer.
“We have to understand that a client could have any number of needs and if I can only talk to them about their corporate finance needs in real depth, because that's my expertise, I still know they're going to need some other services like tax structuring and HR guidance, and some digitalisation of their firm,” Piper says.
“It’s about having a conversation at a high level around their business needs as a whole, and then bringing in the right expertise from across the firm.
“We are responding to what we hear from clients and what they tell us are the kinds of challenges they face, and that means offering more services that are outside the traditional silos of accounting, audit and tax.
“Technology is only going to play a bigger role in our business, and clients are asking for this, whether it's data analytics, or security or digitalisation of their business. This is a more involved conversation now than ever before.”
Piper says Baker Tilly network members around the globe have observed the change in client demands over recent years and are now recruiting staff able to adapt to a new client-business dynamic.
The modern-day professional services environment demands that staff be comfortable speaking for an ever-growing range of services, he says, but also friends and allies for their clients.
“In a trusted advisor role, you learn fast to listen to client needs and think about how you answer their questions, and you tend to get a broader view of their business early on,” Piper says.
“Historically, professional services firms have been very poor at instilling that mindset in junior staff who would be left to do the execution of the work once it has been broken down into its parts.
“It might only have been the directors and partners who had developed a network they could sell to and who had to start thinking about their advice. Part of the change we are seeing now is the shift to having those conversations at the beginning of someone's career, not seven years in.
“If you look at the accounting bodies, for example, a lot of the new modules in their programs are around emotional intelligence, technology and strategy. It means bringing accounting students’ eyes up to the horizon, whether that is the company horizon or industry horizon, and looking at how they will have these conversations with clients about the whole business, not just one part of it.
“We are looking for a very different mindset for engaging with clients.”
Moens agrees that there is a large amount of emotional intelligence involved in advisor-client interactions.
“One has to have basic skills and personal characteristics which are needed for a trusted advisor – it is about having it has to do with a natural skill set, a certain natural leadership style,” he explains.
“Daring to make oneself vulnerable enhances trust in accountability but this needs a lot of self-confidence.
“Some juniors have the natural skill to create a feeling with their clients that they care, and they also have the ability to dare to make themselves vulnerable.
“Trusted advisors have enough self-confidence to listen without pre-judging; enough curiosity to inquire without supposing an answer and willingness to see the client as an equal in a journey together.”