Updated: Feb 3
I was catching up with a friend from college about life, work, and everything in between. In the course of my elevator pitch on what I’m doing these days--helping my clients retain more customers and more revenue--he interrupted with a question I should have asked ages ago.
Is there a difference between Customer Experience and Client Experience?
He wasn’t just keeping the conversation moving. He’s the Partner-in-Charge of a global law firm’s west coast office and wanted an answer. Can he simply apply customer experience best practices learned from B2B XaaS and other subscription businesses to improve outcomes for his firm?
That initial conversation seeded several others with leaders across professional service areas--strategy consulting, legal, accounting, and subject-matter advisory services. I didn’t walk away with a simple yes/no but I’m confident the big ideas of CX are the same whether you serve customers of your product or clients of your services. But...
CX is unique for professional services firms and they must tweak how they (1) define the customer, (2) describe their journey, and (3) deliver value.
The rest of this article looks at these three areas and provides guidance for leaders of professional services firms.
Clients as Customers
Product-based companies typically (not always) define the customer as a user of their product. Most B2B SaaS companies fit this model. Others may define the customer as the organization using the product--think online advertising platforms, or back-end business systems and tools.
For professional services firms the client is more likely to be an executive or direct decision-maker and the services being used almost always impact the client’s operations and business performance.
From a traditional customer experience POV your firm may have fewer unique client personas but each also demands a more rigorous, detailed, and validated definition. The idea of a “persona” must be more personal and more accurate.
A New Type of Journey
CX practitioners rely heavily on sequential, time-based or usage-based journey maps that move customers through milestones on a path toward customer lifetime value (CLTV). Even when journey maps present divergent paths and series of if-then branches they mostly share an assumption of linear growth in usage, relevance, and satisfaction.
By contrast, a client’s journey with a professional service firm is likely to be sporadic, intermittent, and driven by episodes of high urgency and value. Think of how clients use accounting firms and the bookings bubble of tax season. Or the engagement and re-engagement cycles with strategy consultants. Or external event-based drivers like new regulations, or responding to novel threats and opportunities. A series of peaks and valleys.
Service providers still need to understand and work from a customer journey. But instead of creating a predictive “map” your firm should define the early warning indicators that presage client needs. You likely already do this at the macro level but structured CX will align indicators to each persona and inform a high-value monitoring system.
Value and Perceived Value
Both product and professional services businesses aim to deliver value. Product-focused and/or XaaS business models lean toward usage and functionality as proxies for value. If customers use the product or service and it meets their needs then it likely provides value. For some, the proliferation of big data and analytics layers are a 2nd stage value driver.
Professional services provide value directly tied to the client’s own outcomes. Operations consultants are expected to improve structures and processes that lead to measurable efficiency gains. Lawyers and accountants are expected to achieve positive outcomes--ranging from ensuring compliance to obtaining favorable rulings. The value is the outcome and the outcome is typically quantifiable.
Most established firms do a solid job quantifying and sharing a value concept with clients--often using real-world ROI. This is excellent. In addition, “perceived value” is a foundation of the customer retention and growth equation. Your firm delivers value through expertise. The expertise itself isn’t quantified directly, but you should consistently remind clients of your expertise. This informs perceived value even when you’re not actively delivering.
Mastering Client Experience
The good news is that general client experience is embedded in the DNA of most leading professional services firms. Here’s three low-effort/high-impact steps to customize traditional customer experience best practices to optimize your firm’s client experience approach.
Audit it. Measure it: Your expertise helps clients achieve their business outcomes. Do they see it that way? Do they measure the impact of your services? As a first step find out how your clients value your firm’s offerings. This also feeds your understanding of unique customer segments or personas.
Raise the valley: Client journeys tend to look like a series of peaks and valleys--peaks when fully engaged, valleys when not. It’s easy for clients in the valley to feel a near-zero perceived value. This is kryptonite for client retention and limits the advantages of your existing clients--a ready audience for new or expanded revenue opportunities at a lower level of effort. Find ways maintain perceived value beyond active engagements or cases. Another newsletter or a marketing automation play won’t cut it. Host small-group coffee chats where your experts share their latest insights and advice. Create panels or advisory groups that keep clients in relevant contact with your firm. Etc.
Plan for portability: Your services are B2B but professional services rely on individual relationships between client and provider. Think of client experience as an extension of relationship management. How are you set up to serve each individual client when they move on to their next role or next organization? How are you set up to serve each individual client when your own expert advisors move to new roles or exit the organization? Anticipate these changes and build a client experience that travels with your individual clients but doesn’t require your individual partners, MDs, to serve each client organization.
These three quick initiatives provide a jump-start for client experience by uniquely defining your clients, understanding their journey, and providing enduring value.
I finally have a better answer for my college friend: Client and Customer Experience aim for the same destination--but need to take slightly different paths to get there. Whichever path we take...here’s to the journey.
Want to dig deeper into client experience for your expert advisory organization? Interested in contributing to a follow-up project understanding the relationship between awesome client experience and internal metrics like CLTV, re-engagement rates, utilization, delivery margin, and more? I always welcome a conversation!