Client relationships are the lifeblood of the professional services industry. And over the last two decades, firms—and the Big Four in particular—have changed a great deal in terms of how they manage those relationships. There once was a time when partners were given relatively free reign to drive revenue out of their rolodexes, striking deals with customers on the golf course or over dinner at upscale restaurants.
Gradually, the “ad hoc” era of account management gave way to a slightly more structured approach. Partners were expected to create and maintain account plans; dedicated account teams started to crop up with clearly defined roles and responsibilities; and firms started to stratify their clients. They were entrusted to identify key accounts and those with the biggest growth opportunities, allocating resources accordingly.
Recently, however, the topic has shot back up the agenda. In large part, this is a result of the industry’s apparently unending march towards complexity and diversification. The Big Four and many of their competitors have been creating new capability teams, launching new sub-brands and making acquisitions at a considerable pace. The upshot of that is today’s clients find it increasingly difficult to navigate all of the services offered by firms and to understand how those services can create value for them. So the account manager’s role becomes more important than ever; they have a critical role to play in managing all of that complexity and corralling their firm’s capabilities in a way that addresses the often equally complex business needs of their customers.
Clients clearly recognise the value of good account management—and can tell when it’s not there. We recently surveyed clients of professional services firms in the US, and we found that 87% of them said that they would be willing to pay a premium if it meant working with a firm that guaranteed them constant access to a high-quality account manager. 49% said that, on at least one occasion, they had ended a relationship with a firm primarily because of poor account management practices.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only served to magnify the impact of proactive account management. Clients around the world are going through an unprecedented period of disruption, and will no doubt be leaning on their service providers to help steer them through it. The firms that have invested time and energy developing good account management practices will be the ones that emerge from this crisis with their reputations enhanced and their positions in the market strengthened.
So it’s clear that the energy is there among the leadership of the Big Four to shepherd their firms into a new era of account management. But the question remains: What is that era going to look like?
To start with, technology is probably going to play a much greater role in how firms manage their client relationships. The current pandemic has made it much harder for account managers to spend time working from their clients’ offices; unable to rely on conversations overheard in elevators and in hallways, many of them are going to instead look to technology to help understand what topics their clients care about and what services they might have a need for. Increasingly sophisticated data-scraping tools will trawl company press releases and social media activity—and the outputs of those tools will be fed into complex demand analytics models that spit out estimations of clients’ propensity to spend.
But even more consequential than the adoption of new technologies will be a philosophical shift in the way that firms approach their client relationships. The Big Four are slowly but surely coming to embrace a model of account management that puts the idea of transparency at its core. Account management, in this new world, will not be something that is done to a client. Instead, service providers will position their account teams as extensions of the client’s own organisation. And they will be honest with those clients about how they want those relationships to develop and evolve over time. In some cases, they will even throw open the doors of account planning sessions and bring client representatives into them.
In this new era, firms will reject the notion that account management starts by asking the question: “How can I drive as much revenue as possible out of this client?” Instead, they will seek to root their relationships in the principle of mutual interest, guided by objectives that are shared between them and their clients. We still have a long way to go before we get there, to be sure, but the direction of travel is now clear. The firm of the future will have a radically different approach to account management – and the race is now on to be that firm.
The writer is Fergus Blair of Source Global Research, a leading provider of research about the global professional services market.