I recently attended a PM Forum event which brought together a group of business development (BD) professionals from a variety of top law and accountancy firms who are currently managing firm-wide key client programmes. The goal was to address the challenges facing these professionals in rolling out and maintaining key client programmes – an area of increasing focus for firms wishing to maintain and grow market share.

Key client programmes have become only more important in the wake of a flurry of legal panel reviews this year, including Taylor Wimpey, the BBC, National Grid, Prudential and, most recently, BAT’s legal panel review following a merger of the company’s legal and corporate affairs. As these developments and the PM Forum made clear, clients will not stick with law firms through a sense of loyalty alone. Law firms must now build and communicate their value-added proposition to retain clients.

According to those at the breakfast seminar at DWF’s picturesque London headquarters at 20 Fenchurch Street (nicknamed the Walkie-Talkie), there are three key issues facing key account managers in law firms: managing board buy-in, partner attitude and a general culture of cost.

Board buy-in

Delegates agreed that key client programmes are more successful where a firm’s managing board buys into them. The consensus was that those professional services firms that have had key client programmes in place for more than five years have had the highest level of success in terms of retaining clients. And a lot of this is due to the build-up of managing board buy-in resulting in a push for key client initiatives.

Where this exists, delegates pointed to a higher level of resource availability for key client programmes. Client relationship partners are also made more accountable for successes and failures – resulting in a much more streamlined and effective key client programme. The importance of key client management programmes clearly needs to be conveyed from the top down.

Partner attitude

Delegates highlighted partner attitude as one of the biggest issues affecting the success of key client programmes. Every partner wants key client programme resources allocated to their clients. And partners leading the programmes are often those who are most vocal, not necessarily the ones with the best skills and talents for the job. As long as partners focus on ‘my’ rather than ‘our’ clients, said delegates, there will be limited opportunity to cross-sell services across various practice groups.

This all means that the clients being targeted for key account programmes are not necessarily the most profitable from a firm-wide perspective. The seminar made clear that this needs to change.

In particular, delegates agreed that partners need to start trusting their firm’s BD teams to target the correct clients, using matrices wider than just historical revenues generated from each client.

The culture of cost

Spending money on key client programmes has to be seen as an investment rather than a cost, agreed delegates. Client events and firm-wide business intelligence activities can be costly, yes. But they are also critical for firms wanting to highlight to clients their unique service capabilities, in comparison to competitors. They also function as an effective way to get key firm figures in front of clients, creating a sense of familiarity that is critical to building lasting relationships.

This can be quite a difficult mind-set for firms whose future plans are focused on expansion through mergers and acquisitions. But, as delegates made clear, the financial and reputational rewards of investing in key client programmes can far surpass the cost of having them.

Ultimately, the PM Forum breakfast seminar made clear that there needs to be a shift in culture that puts more faith in the legal BD team. As one delegate said, ‘Lawyers are not always aware of what’s happening in the market… That’s BD’s job.’

Changes need to be made from the top town to change fee-earner attitudes and many a law firm’s general culture to unlock the full potential of their BD teams, increase the value of key client programmes and, ultimately, retain the best clients for business growth.

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