Reimagining client relationships

Stuart Hinkley (Sopra Steria), Richard Caddick (cxpartners), and Giles Colborne (cxpartners)

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Over the past year, the way that clients buy consulting services has changed dramatically as a result of the pandemic—both in terms of client priorities during the buying process, and in terms of the ways in which they're able to interact with consultants.

But these changes haven't just had an impact on individual bids. More broadly speaking, they have had a profound effect on the nature of the relationship between consultants and their clients. We sat down with Stuart Hinkley—an Executive Director at Sopra Steria and the firm's Head of UK Private Sector Consulting Services—and Giles Colborne and Richard Caddick—the two founding partners at cxpartners (a Sopra Steria company)—to ask them about these changes, and why they think the events of the last year have paved the way for a new kind of consultant/client relationship.

To start with the big picture, how much has the pandemic changed the nature of the sales and buying process for professional services?

Richard: The way that the pandemic has impacted the buying process for professional services varies a lot from sector to sector. Government work, for example, still has to go through the same highly formalised and fairly complex procurement frameworks that have existed for a long time; in fact, you could argue that the procurement process in that sector hasn't kept up with the realities of the market and the way clients need to buy services. By contrast, in the private sector, there seem to be a lot more interactions between firms and clients that aren't going through those established procurement frameworks; clients have been leaning more heavily on their informal relationships with consulting firms in order to get access to the services they need, at the speed they need them.

Giles: COVID has had a dramatic impact on people's expectations of what their organisations are able to achieve. A lot of our clients saw their employees come together in the first few weeks of the crisis and move mountains. Changes took place in a single month that ordinarily would have taken years. That's led to a mindset shift. Suddenly, people are asking themselves what other impossible things might actually be possible. So, when clients come to us, they're often willing to discuss problems in a much broader way and with more of a blank-slate mentality than before.

Does that 'blank-slate mentality' mean that clients are bringing you in at an earlier stage of the buying cycle than they used to?

Stuart: Because meetings are taking place virtually now, it feels like less of a commitment for clients to reach out to us to discuss potential projects. So because of that, they've been reaching out to us for informal conversations at an earlier stage of the buying cycle than they used to. We can have all those informal pre-sales conversations over videoconferences—and then the costs incurred on both sides are minimal, and no one feels put out if the conversations don't end up turning into a piece of work.

Giles: The sales process for consulting services has become more collaborative over the past 12 months. Instead of clients coming to us with well-developed RFPs, we're finding that they're less certain about the nature of their problems and how they need to address those problems. That means that there's now a lot more back-and-forth through the sales process as we try to help them scope the project and define the terms of the engagement.

The procurement process—at least in the private sector—has shifted away from written communication and towards verbal communication. Instead of the client writing down their needs and asking us to respond with a proposal, more of the process takes place through phone calls and videoconferences, in which the client discusses their needs with us and there's a back-and-forth of ideas.

When you’re selling in a more collaborative way, like you’ve described, does that have an impact on the importance of the proposal document—and what clients are looking for from that document?

Giles: Previously, there was a lot of expectation around the proposal document itself; the client would expect you to present a polished deck and would use that as the primary way to judge whether you were qualified to deliver the work. But now that the sales process is more collaborative, there's less pressure to create a polished artefact; the ideas matter more the deck itself. For example, we ran one pitch recently where the proposal deck was just a few slides in the corner of a virtual whiteboard, and then we spent the session working with the client to sketch out ideas together on that whiteboard. It was a much more engaging way of presenting than just taking them through a static slide deck.

In many cases, the transition to remote working has had a levelling and equalising effect. We often used to run project stand-ups where some people would be present in the room and others would be dialling in, but now that everyone has to dial in, there's more of a sense of everyone being on the same level and being an equal partner in the project.

And what impact has the pandemic had in terms of your ability to get access to key stakeholders within client organisations?

Stuart: Because of the pandemic, and clients becoming more cost-conscious about their consulting spend, consultants have had to learn to engage at a much more senior level of their clients' organisations; if you want to expand a programme or start a new piece of work, you absolutely have to be aligned with the agenda of the C-suite in order to be taken seriously. In some cases, that's actually worked to our benefit. There are cases where we've been delivering IT programmes for years but have never really been able to break out of that part of the organisation—but now, because we've had to move up the pyramid, that's given us access to a much wider swathe of the organisation, and has opened up conversations with stakeholders we wouldn't have been able to get access to before.

We've found a lot of our clients have been more accessible than ever before as a result of the pandemic. Now that there's an expectation that meetings will take place virtually instead of face to face, and now that people are spending less time travelling and commuting, it's significantly easier to find time in people's diaries. A lot of the barriers to approaching senior client stakeholders have fallen away, and, in many cases, it feels like there's a level of direct engagement that didn't really exist before.

This new level of accessibility flows both ways: Our clients have become more accessible to us, and we've been able to make ourselves more accessible to them. For example, I'm doing some back-office transformation work with a client at the moment, and last week they asked me to join their board meeting for 15 minutes just to answer a few questions about the project. Previously, that simply wouldn't have happened—I would have had to take a whole day out to go to their offices in Manchester, and I would have needed to set up multiple meetings with stakeholders on their side in order to justify it. But now, I can slot something like that in my diary with no problem at all.

And when you've got that time in diaries, have you been finding that this new way of interacting with clients leads to a different sort of client relationship?

Richard: In my experience, remote working has fostered a new level of personal familiarity between consultants and clients. It's like a tunnel has opened up between your home and theirs, and when you're interacting in that kind of environment, it fosters a very different sort of relationship compared to interacting across the table in a boardroom. There have been some lovely moments over the past year; I had one call recently with a client while he had his nine-month-old baby in his lap. I almost feel like I'm getting to know clients better and more quickly than I ever did before.

Stuart: By walking through a client's offices, you get a sense of the culture; you learn about the level of formality, the informal hierarchies, all the intangible things like that. So if you're not getting that experience any more, you have to try to find alternative ways to get that information. Often, that means doing a bit more reconnaissance—leveraging the relationships you have with people who work in that organisation, and asking them the right questions that can help fill in some of those blanks.

Everyone wants to find out how other businesses have responded to this crisis. So we've found that sharing our own experiences with clients—the steps we've taken around repatriating services, the measures we've taken to improve business continuity and resilience, and so on—can be a powerful way to start discussions, and can help open up new relationships or entrench existing ones.

Giles: Because you can't walk the corridors of a client's offices anymore, you miss out on a lot of informal chats and casual conversations. That can mean that it's harder to get a sense of the organisation's needs and priorities. So we've taken a deliberate approach to trying to create places where people can simply talk and exchange ideas. We've hosted a lot of webinars and round-table events with clients, for example, as a way of helping keep that connection through the challenges of the pandemic. /p>

Have you seen any shifts over the past year in terms of what clients are prepared to pay for consulting work?

Richard: In the first month or so of lockdown, we didn't notice any significant changes in terms of our clients' propensity to spend; projects that were already in flight kept rolling along. But by April and May of 2020, CFOs had started to pull the purse strings tight. Budgets for consulting spend were redirected upwards through the organisation; in most cases, spending had to be personally approved by the CFO. And many clients were only willing to buy small, incremental pieces of work. Now, however, I think things are much closer to the way they were prior to 2020. Clients are in a place where they're comfortable making significant consulting investments, and they're looking once again for long-term value. If there's a lasting change, it's probably the fact that even with some of those longer-term engagements, clients still expect them to be delivered in a relatively agile way; they still want to build stage-gates into the project structure so that they're not putting all their capital at risk from the start of the engagement.

What about the question of how clients want to pay? Do you think that the pandemic has incentivised clients to push for more tangible links between project price and project outcomes, for example?

Giles: Clients have become more willing to discuss outcome-based pricing models over the past year. However, I think it's critically important that firms do not treat outcome-based pricing as something that you can simply bolt on at the end of a contract negotiation. If that's the way you're going to create and shape a piece of work, it needs to run all the way through it. For us, for example, we try to build an outcome-oriented approach into the way we phase our work—we'll start with an initial low-value piece of work to understand the client's challenges and build a working relationship, then if we demonstrate the right outcomes, we'll move with them through multiple stages of higher-value work.

Stuart: At Sopra Steria, we strive to work in an outcome-oriented way. We want to have conversations with our clients that start from a place of 'here's the outcome we can help you achieve', rather than 'here are the resources we can give you access to'. Some clients have always been more receptive to that approach than others, but my sense is that COVID has forced more and more of them to embrace that kind of outcome-oriented thinking as well.

Richard: Our work at cxpartners has always involved a high degree of collaboration between us and our clients. Typically, when a client comes to us, it's because they've defined an outcome they want to achieve, but they don't know how to get there; we can then take that outcome and work backwards with them from there. In my view, with all of the questions that COVID has created about the future of the workplace, and how organisations interact with their workforce, that kind of outcome-oriented approach has only become more important these past 12 months.

Internally, within Sopra Steria and cxpartners, have you had to make any changes over the past year in response to these shifts in the way that clients buy consulting services?

Stuart: The pandemic hasn't only changed the way we interact with our clients; it's also prompted us to create a much more collaborative culture within Sopra Steria. We've made a very conscious effort to break down some of the boundaries between our organisation, and to encourage our salespeople across different countries and business units to work together in a much more collaborative way. Partly that's because the adoption of remote working has removed some of those barriers to collaboration, and we want to take advantage of that, and partly it's because we know that we can be much more innovative and come up with better solutions to the challenges our clients are facing right now if we improve our ability to leverage the full breadth of resources across our organisation.

Giles: We've learnt during this pandemic that people have a natural desire for communication—and they'll go out of their way to create opportunities for that communication to happen. For example, we've seen a huge flourishing of our intranet over the past 12 months; people have been sharing content with each other more actively, and creating virtual spaces to interact and discuss the work they're doing on different projects. That wasn't something we tried to impose, it was a ground-up, grassroots thing that happened naturally because people wanted to feel like part of a community, even when they weren't able to see each other as often.

Richard: I think that in many ways, the transition to remote working has made it easier for us at cxpartners to integrate ourselves into the wider Sopra Steria community. Twelve months ago, we weren't part of Sopra Steria, and if I'd had to spend those 12 months trying to physically work my way around the organisation and get to know everyone, that would have been a lot more challenging. But because I had the opportunity to interact with all of these new colleagues virtually, I got a chance to be exposed to a much wider swathe of the organisation from a very early stage.

Now that governments are rolling out their vaccine programmes and people are starting to imagine what post-pandemic life will look like, what are your expectations for how the way you sell and the way you manage your client relationships will continue to evolve over the coming years?

Stuart: At Sopra Steria, we have no plans to go back to the ways of working that existed prior to the pandemic. We've demonstrated over the past 12 months that our consultants can deliver work effectively from home, so the question now is how we can develop a hybrid model that gives us the best of both worlds. Already, we're looking closely at our offices and facilities, and asking ourselves how to refit them or adjust our real estate footprint to better suit this new model; I suspect that we'll end up using our offices primarily as a place to meet clients and host workshops, not as a place where day-to-day work happens. In many cases, I think we'll try to spend in-person time up front with our clients to identify their challenges and come up with solutions, but then the follow-up—the actual delivery of those solutions—will be done primarily by people working remotely.

Giles: I'm not expecting there to be a clear-cut end to the pandemic. And even if there was, people aren't going to go back to their old ways of working. People have seen the operational efficiencies associated with remote working; everyone—consultants and clients alike—seems to be on the same page about wanting to create a new model that blends remote working and office-based working. So I think remote delivery will remain the default for a lot of our work, particularly our more technical work. For the more creative aspects of that work, however, I'm keen to have the opportunity to meet face to face with clients again. It's a different experience running a creative workshop in person compared to via videoconference. You can read the room more easily; if you notice that the quiet person in the corner has something to contribute, you can help bring that out of them.

The big story over the past year has been the increased amount of collaboration between consultants and their clients. And I expect that to continue this year and beyond—I expect to see clients being more proactive about bringing us into their early-stage thought processes around projects, and I expect that we'll be interacting and engaging with senior stakeholders more—not just within the context of the sales process, but as part of a more holistic relationship.

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