Today’s interview is with a man who has been a driving force for change in a market famous for its caution and conservatism.
In 2011, Robert Camp became Managing Partner of the law firm Stephens Scown, and in the years that followed, he not only doubled the firm’s turnover, but picked up all sorts of accolades in the process, including six consecutive years on the Sunday Times list of best employers in the UK. In today’s podcast, we’re going to be talking with Robert about the changing nature of customer experience within professional services, the undervalued role of language and why technology isn’t always the key to transformation and growth.
Robert, thanks for joining us.
I’d like to begin around the question of customer experience. To me, there seems to be an awful lot of chat about customer experience – how much of this is simply empty talk versus genuinely making a change?
Robert: Great question. I think change has been forced upon the profession – as we know through the pandemic and lockdown – in many areas. I don’t think it’s empty promises, but more that firms are now aware of this and it’s rising up the importance level and table, and I think people are much more aware that actual customer experience is key to driving growth as we come out of the pandemic.
So, yes, there’s a lot of talk. Are people actually doing stuff that impacts that? That’s a question that I think is right to ask. I think enlightened firms have really understood that the emotional roller coaster that everybody has been on over the last nine months means that understanding the customer is so much more important than it was even just 12 months ago.
Dan: Increasingly within this conversation around customer experience, I’ve noticed a lot of companies are talking a lot more about the use of tone and the use of language, so how prescriptive do you think firms should be from a language point of view? Is it enough for firms to simply establish a broad framework of values within which people can operate?
Robert: Professional service firms have historically had brand guidelines, which actually then turned much more prescriptive. So, whilst their marketing teams would always refer to them as brand guidelines, they’re actually pretty prescriptive. A lot of that is due to the command and control nature of how professional service firms have been traditionally run, so everything goes through the centre. I think brand guidelines are absolutely imperative, but they should just be guidelines.
For me, the biggest thing that firms need to be doing coming out of the pandemic is telling stories. Unfortunately, professional service firms find telling stories difficult, because actually what they want to do is tell the facts, or they want to tell the facts in a way that they think is understandable and in a way that sells their expertise, but people are desperate for stories.
You only have to read the newspapers, you know, look at all of the TV ads from the big worldwide companies. They’re all trying to tap into this emotional rollercoaster that we’ve been on with stories. For me, those firms that actually start telling stories that are genuine, for example, how they’ve helped in their community, what their staff have been doing to support the key workers, the health authorities, the nurses, the doctors, the shops buying local, anything like that will resonate with potential customers. You’ve then got their interest already.
I saw one great example, I think it was when we came out of the first lockdown, and I was looking on LinkedIn at what professional service firms were doing re the announcement, and most of them were: “Oh, here’s a link to the government website” “Here’s our views and thoughts on the technical part of the release”, and then I saw one accountancy firm and just put a list that asked: are pubs open? Green tick. Are nightclubs open? Red cross. So simple and engaging, there wasn’t anything about links or anything, so anybody would have seen that and immediately understood it, and they would have followed up with an inquiry to that firm. So, it was much more effective because it was in a language that the potential customer understood.
Dan: Is that rule about telling stories rather than simply listing facts universally applicable, or do you think that’s more true, for example, for those firms with more of a consumer market than perhaps those selling into a B2B audience? To what degree those principles are universal or do they need to be flexed in accordance with the audience in question?
Robert: Dan, great question. I think 12 months ago, I’d be definitely saying it was more B2C markets, but actually, you only have to look at what every corporate is doing at the moment. They are trying to ensure that their brand isn’t tarnished by the way they’ve dealt with the pandemic, be it the way they’ve treated staff, customers or the environment within which they work, because they understand that the customer is so much more attuned to the emotional aspect of buying. So, I think they are equally applicable to B2B and B2C.
You may have to nuance how you actually tell the story, but it’s still storytelling. I’m just giving an example, but you could have a story that says: “We’ve helped a small independent brewery understand how they can use the furlough scheme, etc, to make sure that when we come out of pandemic, their pubs are still going to be open”. It’s things like that, which will resonate not only with the B2C, but also the B2B.
Dan: To what degree do you think the typical leader of a professional service firm is equipped to drive these things? Because we’re talking essentially about marketing here, we’re talking about brand and understanding of the customer journey. Now, the way that most traditional firms operate is the people at the helm tend to be at the helm because they’re fantastic at the thing that the business does, not necessarily because they’re brilliant at telling stories. When you look at the typical professional service firm, if there is such a thing, how well equipped do you think the person at the helm usually is for these responsibilities?
Robert: Actually, I think much better than we thought. I think one thing that lockdown has shown professional service firms is that agile decision-making is absolutely paramount to survival, both during the lockdown, and I believe post-lockdown. I think what’s historically happened is professional service firms decision-making has been very constrained, very risk-averse, which plays into the natural, professional tendencies of the individuals leading, but I’ve had some fantastic conversations with leaders of professional service firms over the last six to nine months who have absolutely relished this freedom of decision-making.
I think they are now understanding language, stories, customer experience, customer journey, and are quite liberated, because they’re not having to go through the usual consultative process of professional partnerships and/ or the cumbersome: “We’re only going to try this if we know it’s going to work for certain”. So, I think it’s actually released quite a lot of people to try stuff in this area and they’re actually enjoying it.
It’s a chicken and egg, because I think you’re right, traditionally, we have been very traditional and haven’t been wanting to try new stuff and understand new stuff, but I think the lockdown, in particular, has given leaders the ability to actually really understand this in a much deeper way than prior to lockdown. You know, you think of all the stuff that’s out there on the net about customer experience, language and stories, which you can do in your own room without having to go to a very expensive conference in London, staying overnight.
I think there’s a lot of opportunities. I’ve spoken, as I say, to a lot of people who are embracing this. Yes, there will still be the traditional firms who don’t get it, but then there always has been, and those firms are going to not get the growth they need to come out of the pandemic in a secure, sustainable manner.
Dan: As you say, there have always been firms that have done things in a very traditional way relative to that point in time. Do you think we’ve reached an inflexion point where their days might be up if they don’t start to get with the programme?
Robert: How many times have we had these conversations? Traditional professional service firms have been written off in the financial crash, the recession, doomsday of Brexit and now the pandemic, and they’re actually incredibly resilient.
I do think this is a bigger issue for them, because I think the government assistance has actually protected inefficient firms. Once the repayments of the CBILS loans, the VAT and the income tax starts kicking in, I think badly run firms are going to struggle to have the cash to keep going. There’s an awful lot of consolidation going on in the legal sector with the big consolidators acquiring firms that couldn’t get PI cover or are running out of cash. I think, to answer your question, we’ll see a real shake-up within professional service firms over the next 24 months where there’ll be a lot of consolidation rather than firms going bust, but the consolidation will be on the terms of the consolidator rather than the owners selling out to secure their financial future and pension.
Dan: Just going back to the question of storytelling. There’s been an awful lot of focus over the last 10 years over the growing importance of being purpose-driven, having a clear vision, etc. Sometimes I wonder if we might overemphasise the importance of these things and forget the value of just being bloody good at what we do. Do you think there’s ever a danger of that?
Robert: Absolutely, Dan. I think where this conversation around purpose is interesting is there is a real, genuine desire for the majority of businesses to embrace, for want of a better phrase, ‘Build Back Better’. There’s a lot of commercial reasons for that, not least the new entrants in the employment market are looking for purpose-led businesses. However, the trick is to make it genuine, and you’ve picked up on a very valid point.
As someone who led Stephens Scown through a very major cultural change, what lots of people don’t understand and appreciate is it takes time, hard work and effort. It’s not a very quick fix. It’s not just banging on your website, a purpose-driven statement. If you’re really going to embrace purpose-driven values, you can only do that if the business that you’re running is brilliant at what it’s meant to be doing, you can put a purpose-driven statement on the top of a badly run business and you might get a small uptick, but you will not get sustained growth. You won’t get sustained retention and people wanting to join you, because they’ll see through it.
So, it’s making that purpose and that value of the business embedded and sustainable for the long term, which means as you rightly say, you’ve got to be absolutely brilliant at the product or the service that you’re delivering.
Dan: I want to talk about technology for a moment, because, when we talk about customer experience and innovation, we very often almost use the term interchangeably with technology. We assume that one thing means the other. In my experience of working with truly innovative brands, technology tends to be just 10% of their transformation and critically it’s the bit that comes last. I wonder what your views are on that idea, and is there a danger that firms may sometimes overestimate the role of technology and perhaps miss some of the more fundamental innovations around HR product and process?
Robert: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Where firms fail to see the role of technology is they quite often put it at the beginning of the process, whereas actually the technology solution should be the enabler of what you’re trying to achieve. Too often we say let’s find a tech solution to a problem rather than actually understanding what the problem really is designing the solution, which may mean completely non-tech processes and systems or whatever need to be looked at, and then saying, can we use tech to enable the solutions that we’ve created?
I think a lot of that is down to the fact that leaders of professional firm service firms, as you said earlier, are in those roles because technically, they’re very good at the job that they were trained to do, and so we employ IT directors and IT consultants, and a lot of the time we don’t fully understand what they’re saying. So, we’re happy to be led by and driven by the tech people. The problem with that is that a lot of tech – both the kit and the personnel driving tech – don’t fully understand the ‘people side’ of any solution.
So, it is so key for me that you look at any frustration that you’re trying to resolve in the process with your customer by asking: how can you innovate and improve that customer journey? You look at it completely holistically, and once you’ve really drilled down and identified what the problem is, then you say, well, could tech help us change this and improve it? Rather than all too often, as I say, we just say “Oh, what’s the tech solution for this”.
I think tech is also an interesting one where, whilst I think stories are no longer necessarily segmented between B2C and B2B, the other trap that professional service firms fall into is they see tech as a ‘one-size-fits-all’. Whereas, I believe what you need to do with tech is actually compartmentalise it much more. So, for example, if you’ve got quite a lot of owner-managed businesses, they’re still going to want that personal connection with their professional service people, but they’re going to want slick processes to back it up. If you’re dealing with a government agency or a big PLC institution, and you’re looking after shopping centres, say for Land Securities, they are going to be driven by more than just efficiencies and processes and systems and tech will have a much higher role in the delivery of the service. The trouble is, we tend to lump everything together and don’t understand that tech actually has a different role to play in different services, even though they may be under the same sort of heading – audit or property law or whatever – actually again, it’s understanding your customer. What does your customer actually want? Don’t tell your customer that they’re going to have the service provided this way if you haven’t actually asked them if that’s how they want it.
Dan – An example I often give with this is a company called Farewill and what really struck me about them – and this was a couple of years ago now, so I’m sure things have moved on – at the time, Dan, the CEO, was very honest about the fact that the technology they were using – and at the time they were totally dominating the wills market, I think they were writing about 1 in 20 wills in the UK – and what really struck me about Farewill was that Dan said fundamentally, the technology they were using was really no different or no more advanced than the technology that their competitors were using. It actually had very little to do with the technology. The innovation was all around those other fundamentals of running the business, but of course, then a company like that, that is so in control of those fundamentals and so in control, most importantly, of its data, it then means that when it does add the technology on top of it all, they’re in a fantastic place to leverage that. It just really struck me as an example of how we can very often, particularly those people who understand technology the least, will almost overestimate the importance of it or perhaps the stage at which it needs to come into that sequence.
Robert: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely critical, and it’s a real issue that professional service firm boards and leaders have. If you’re going to introduce a bit of tech for a specific process, historically, professional service firms haven’t dictated that that’s the way it’s going to be done and every matter will be done like that. Every piece of that work will use this piece of tech.
We allow our advisors – because they’re very high intellect, high achievers, very professionally trained – too much latitude, which then destroys the efficiencies that you’re looking to bring in by introducing that tech. You’re right, so, where you’ve got a will process, every will has to be done by it, but you try introducing standardised will IT into most traditional law firms, and you’ll have pages and pages of exceptions as to why it won’t work for that particular matter. That’s because we like to have the tech dealing with a 100% of the work we do rather than saying, actually, if it does 90%, we can have an exception of the other 10%, but the 90% is all going to be done in the same way, because then you can drive the efficiencies. You can use technology to really drive performance. If you say we’re only going to have 50% and 50% opt-out, it just doesn’t work.
Dan: Presumably, this also demands that the leader has quite a reasonable grip of technology so that you don’t end up with a scenario where one thing is being driven by the tech function, and without them having really an intimate understanding of what’s underneath that, you end up with a very disconnected structure. I just wonder, are we expecting too much of these leaders?
Robert: Yes, and I think the key for me is, again, mid-tier professional service firms have historically undervalued management and leadership, and what they need to understand is that actually, if you get a very good business support team – and I mean at Director level – you can leverage that cost immensely rather than trying to get your Managing Partner or your Partner Led Board to try and deal with, as you say, brand, people, tech, finance and pretty much everything, which is traditionally how it’s been done.
You appoint your best lawyers, your best accountants, your best surveyors to run the business and expect them to carry on with quite a full caseload. Well, you’re never going to get the growth that you want, unless you appoint professional people into the business to run those teams, but it has to be at such a senior level that they are part of the team determining and implementing the strategy. Where you get the silos is where firms say, “Oh, we can’t afford the Director level,
so we’re going to Manager level”, but then the manager has no status within the business, so the partners will just ignore whatever the manager says, because they’re not a senior enough level to have that credibility amongst the partnership.
I think, historically, we have undervalued leadership and management, but, the returns are immense if you invest in it. It’s not that expensive, relatively, when you’re looking for 10% growth, it pales into insignificance.
Dan: So, Robert, for any firm looking to begin this journey, to start being up to tell powerful stories, powerful, purpose-driven, vision statements that are authentic and people can buy into, where would you suggest they begin? How would you suggest they kick off that process?
Robert: If any firm or leaders are thinking, how do they embrace storytelling? The answer: ask your staff for the stories. Ask them just to write it down, how they would say it to a mate down the pub or in the coffee house, and you will have a treasure trove of stories that you can shape within your brand guidelines and you can start to publish on social media, and I can guarantee the impact will be almost immediate, but you have to stick at it, because, brand people see through brands that are shallow.
If you ask your people to tell you about how they’ve helped somebody over the last six months, you’ll get countless stories which you can shape and use.
Dan: Looking back over the last sort of 10-15 years, I know you did remarkable work from a growth perspective with your firm, but I’m guessing it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Would you be willing to share with us one moment where it all went a little bit wrong, but perhaps taught you some really big lessons in the process?
Robert: Yeah, I think it’s internal communications was the area where I think we had the most hiccups, and one great example is that our IT director – way, way back, before most professional service firms were thinking about apps – designed and built, with a third third-party app builder, the first external-facing client app for law firms. It was the first in the country, and it won quite a few awards and I got it very wrong in selling it internally. I could just see what an amazing thing this was, however, the lawyers were just terrified of it, and I got it wrong, and we got it wrong in how we rolled it out, and they didn’t embrace it. They didn’t push it out to their clients.
Eventually, some did, but it didn’t have the impact that it should have had. It was way before its time, and it should have been something that really set us apart as a business, even more than we were in those days, and it could have been a massive, massive impact on growth, and I got it wrong internally, because, I thought they would see the benefits, but they just saw all the risks. I didn’t explain it and we didn’t communicate it properly and it never succeeded as it should have succeeded.
Dan: Thanks so much, Robert. I enjoyed this a lot and really appreciate your time.