What does the voice of the client look like?

I recently spoke to a former researcher for Leo Burnett about voice of the client. She was describing her passion for getting to know her clients’ customers and their ideas through focus groups and one-on-one conversations. She enjoyed the “intimacy” of following customers into their homes to see how they use companies’ products. She spoke about how amazing it is to see how people store, open and close, apply and otherwise consume products—often in unintended ways. While it may seem weird to follow someone into her house and get into her personal space, many simple innovations were created that way.

RELATED: A Lock on Innovation

Cheerios Packaging Voice of the ClientFor example, when the makers of Cheerios went out into the field, they found that in certain households Cheerios weren’t primarily a breakfast cereal. Instead, they discovered that parents of small children were bagging, carrying, and doling out Cheerios one-by-one as a tidy snack to occupy their restless tots– anytime, anywhere. (Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design Dorothy Leonard & Jeffrey F. Rayport HBR)  This simple insight led to new products and new ways of positioning a well-established mainstay.

We probably wouldn’t want someone following us into our homes to study us, but in professional services, we do that everyday with our clients. To a large degree, we see how clients use our “products.” Yet, what we often don’t pay attention to is how they perceive our products—and how and why they ultimately choose to buy them. We miss obvious clues that clients give us because we have a built-in bias for how we want the product to be designed, built and consumed. Let me give you another example.

RELATED:  The Question is NOT Why Clients Buy, It’s How.

A good friend and former IBMer, developed a unique approach to raising revenue for professional services firms. Instead of the trite “rainmaking” approach focused on creating “super salespeople,” he posited that a firm could drive more incremental revenue by getting technical practitioners to be more mindful and attentive to issues and client needs while they were with the client. There is a theme here.

He developed a methodology to help firms do just that. His idea and execution was excellent and he had early success selling to practice leaders. Unfortunately, the downside of selling to practice leaders was that they often provided limited scale to lift the entire firm because they represented only a fraction of its potential. My friend began approaching managing partners, chief HR officers and training leaders to get broader buy-in and scale for the firm. Sales came to a crawl.

When he came to me for advice, I told him his problem was straightforward and the solution was simple, albeit difficult to swallow; he had to build his solution the way prospects wanted to buy it.

Leaders of professional services firms are loathe to make firm-wide decisions and apply firm-wide methodologies outside of their core competencies.   Doing so requires hard choices, costs political capital, constrains flexibility and demands STRONG leadership. Firms prefer the path of least resistance and a live-and-let-live approach. Budget control and decision-making are decentralized. As long as you hit your number, nobody cares what you are doing. When my friend accepted this reality, he designed a platform that met the needs of practice leaders and their technical people, and his sales rocketed once again.

Take Away

“Build it and they will come” is a great movie line but a horrible approach to meeting client needs. Clients allow us into their “homes” every day and show us how they want to use our products. Unfortunately, few of us pick up on the subtle, but meaningful, clues that our clients are telling us. When we take the time to truly understand what they want, not what we have to sell them, real innovation, trust and results occur.

If you want to begin to understand your client’s mindset, then read (or reread) the David Maister classic How Clients Choose. He reminds us that we are in intimate relationships with our clients, and we should honor them as such.

 Be prudent.

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