Service is everything (in professional services)

It doesn’t matter how much you read about service, very few businesses, professional service or otherwise, understand the emotional connection that is the sine qua non of service.

It’s way too pat to regale you with a service ‘story’, not least the fact that there are so few of them; and, in any event, if you were to find a business that was truly service-led, what would you do?

Copy it? (Yikes!)

The truth of the matter is that you know what it feels like to be completely blown off your feet with service that surpasses not just your every-day expectations but leaves you feeling shocked, surprised, super-pleased and emotionally touched on every level.

Perhaps nowadays our expectations are stratospheric (I don’t think so), but I can’t recall the last time I had the pleasure to find myself overwhelmed by a product or service. The reason I include products, in a service piece, is that those who stand charged with making something that does what it says on the tin rarely, if ever, do that…not to the standard I expect. If you think about some of the best quality products in the world, why is it that so few countries can be trusted to deliver? (In the past I would have lauded anything Japanese or German, but I don’t even think they now pass the highest possible standard test.)

But what of service?

My clear position is that businesses do the bare minimum: No one goes out of their way to over-deliver, look for the non-obvious or see their profession through the lens of service.

Take the ubiquitous coffee shop that have grown Topsy over the past 10 years. Assuming that the product, i.e. coffee, was the same at every pit stop, you would imagine it wouldn’t be difficult to please your customers.

A smile.

An enthusiastic level of interest in serving you (stop asking me for my bloody name and then misspelling it or worse still calling me something else).

A cup that looks like it’s been washed to impress rather than one that looks like it’s been put through a washing cycle of 1 million spins per second. Ditto cutlery.

And then if you throw in the fact that no one bothers to check if everything is OK or at least with a degree of sincerity, you get the picture that this is not a service business at all but a shadow version.

I accept that this sounds negative, and, no doubt, there will always be a few exceptions but that’s the point. We shouldn’t have to focus on the exceptions. It should be the norm.

But what really bugs me is that we’re complicit in the charade and afraid to push back beyond the occasional whinge, which usually results in a sullen response where you’re begrudgingly given a token gesture dressed up as an apology.

What of professional services?

OK, so firms are unlikely to learn anything from the coffee sector, save perhaps the continued adoption of a systems-led approach, but where does that leave them?

When I think back to my time in law, to go the extra mile was super hard by dint of the fact that I had too many clients to look after. Even if I’d wanted to change, the dynamic was such that it was too bloody hard absent a realisation that in order to militate against complaints, compliance and firefighting it was necessary to reduce substantially the number of clients I acted for.

I think the less is more philosophy is right on so many levels. I know for a fact that, over the long haul, serving less clients but serving them brilliantly and to the best of your ability (no lip-service-mongers please) requires you to have the time to think how you might do it. It doesn’t just mean doing the work. It means looking for opportunities where you can genuinely go above and beyond the call of your paid duty. (If you think that not being chased, having a direct dial, being available and being transparent in your billing is the way to super-please then you’re sorely misplaced in your understanding of service.)

By way of a segue, here’s a couple of quotes from law firm websites.

“We strive to be the leading global business law firm by delivering quality and value to our clients”

DLA Piper

“Our shared values guide how we conduct our relationships with one another and our stakeholders, while working towards achieving our aim of being the leading global law firm:

  • We strive for excellence, value teamwork and encourage imagination.
  • We are determined – whatever the challenge, we will deliver.
  • We do all this exercising commercial judgement and integrity.”

Linklaters

I’ve not been deliberately selective with these quotes (I’ve plenty of ammunition – trust me) but if you were a client, how would you interpret their approach to service?

Perhaps I’m not giving them the benefit of any doubt, but it appears wholly lawyer-centric and not remotely interested in translating corporate speak into what they do on a day to day basis. I should stress that I’ve not worked for either firm and they may provide exemplary service but it wouldn’t be difficult to cut the glib speak, and say “we put service at the heart of our business…” and give examples or references of what that looks and feels like.

I suppose the point that I’m getting at is that with all the talk about brand differentiation, social media, business development, technical mastery and online wizardry, service has slipped down the must-do list. It can’t. Indeed, your business depends on it more than you can ever conceive.

I’ve mentioned before a company called The Chemistry Group. One of their team is called Head of Amazing, and by all accounts that’s exactly what she does. She makes things tick along like a Swiss watch. (In your firm, who looks after service? What are they called? Partner?)

But of course it’s not about a title. It’s about rooting yourself to a few, unalienable values and inculcating those right across the practice. If you say you’re ‘client-centric’ then you need to illustrate what that looks like. And I don’t mean you come up with some dull KPIs that ensures everyone is instructed to answer the phone after three rings or return a call in 24 hours. No, it means focusing on the detail and delivering it in a way that every single client and stakeholder feels that you DEEPLY care.

Of course, if your policy on clients is to take on every piece of work that walks through the door then you may be in for a nasty surprise. In my world there has to be congruence between who you are and who you act for. If not, heaven help you. (I’ve spoken openly about getting rid of the dud clients but no one wants to take the point seriously for fear of risking their professional reputation – but isn’t what we’re talking about? I understand the profit motive but not when your staff are demoralised in the face of a client who terrorises them or complains at everything.)

If you want to make your professional service firm future proof, then my strongest advice is to take service much more seriously.

If you must use a label for your firm – clients first and all that stuff – then align it with service. If you do then everything else will pretty much look after itself.