As we were wrapping up a strategic planning discussion with one of our clients—a major accounting and advisory firm—the firm’s managing partner turned to us and asked, “What would really change the way our partners interact with clients? Partners have strong client relationships. They know client executives well personally and professionally. They just find it challenging to go beyond talking about our existing work and open up the dialog with clients to include broader possibilities. I’d like our partners to be comfortable asking the client about broader needs, even beyond what we offer. I’d like to stop talking about cross-selling and move to a more expansive approach to client service that partners embrace and use to add a broader and deeper kind of value to our clients.”

We asked whether any of the partners already did this. He indicated that five of them did this pretty well today. He explained just how good these five partners were at talking to clients this way and how it impacts their effectiveness. We asked to talk with these partners and also have them complete online profiles of their successful client-specific behaviors. He wondered why this was necessary since we were experts on these behaviors. Why not just teach them to our partners? We explained that taking this approach would not be nearly as successful as leveraging existing partners’ success within his firm. The partners who exhibit the desired behaviors today will be able to describe the behaviors in language that will resonate with their peers. We will be able to hone in on exactly which behaviors are making them more successful at broader client service. They will also provide us with real business scenarios to use in a training program. This will make the training relevant and meaningful for the other partners.

Preparation

We talked with the five partners and had them complete online profiles of their client-engaging behaviors. From these activities, we were able to construct a document describing the key behaviors in language that would resonate with other partners.

Next, we spoke with each of the 60 partners who were chosen to participate in the training. In advance of the conversations, we asked them to complete assessments that mapped their current behaviors against the desired behaviors. Then, we gave them the assessment feedback privately as part of the discussion. We kept their specific assessment results confidential, using only assessment summaries of the full group at the training sessions. We also explained the desired behaviors to them in detail.

Active Training

The partners were divided evenly into three groups or “cohorts”. We used two-day workshops to train the respective cohorts. They spent the first half-day listening to a description of the desired behaviors and watching the workshop facilitators demonstrate the behaviors in mock conversations with clients. They saw good and bad examples by the facilitators of how to apply the key behaviors to client conversations. The bad behavior examples, which we exaggerated for effect, drew laughter from the group. Following these demonstrations, the cohort was divided into working groups and assigned facilitators for breakout sessions. This is where the hard work started. At the outset, the partners in each breakout group were asked to self-assess how well they generally performed the desired behaviors.

Then, we asked them to role-play the desired behaviors in mock conversations with clients. In each conversation, one partner played himself and another partner played a client. The remaining three partners in the breakout room observed and took notes. Following each mock conversation, we had a small group discussion about how the conversation went. At the end of the first day, we reconvened the full cohort and asked the partners to again complete self-assessments against the desired behaviors. These self-assessments showed some progress against the first self-assessment.

Most of the second day was spent in breakout sessions where the partners continued to practice the desired behaviors. We saw steady improvement as the day progressed. Increasingly, the partners were having fun with the mock conversations and seeing real value in changing their behaviors. Toward the end of the day, we asked the partners to do a third self-assessment of their abilities to use the desired key behaviors. This time, we saw meaningful jumps in their scores. As a last activity in the breakout rooms, we asked the partners to commit to using the new behaviors in specific situations with identified clients over the next three months. Then, we brought all 20 partners back together for a final wrap-up and discussion of their commitments and future actions.

Coaching and Measurement

Following the workshops, we provided each partner with six executive coaching sessions over the next three months to support them in working on the desired behaviors and meeting their commitments.

Once the coaching sessions were complete, the executive coaches reported favorable progress by the partners in applying the desired behaviors to client situations. This was good news, but we wanted more direct feedback on the effectiveness of the program. We agreed to get survey feedback from the identified clients about their experience with the partners who participated in the program. As a check, we got similar feedback from clients of partners who had not attended the training. In all cases, the client feedback for the program attendees meaningfully exceeded the feedback for the other partners. And, when the other partners later went through the training, their feedback results improved as well.

In contrast to other approaches, these training programs really do enable partners to change their behaviors in a client-service context. In a recent debrief with the managing partner who asked us to deliver this training, he called it one of the most powerful things he’s seen as a way to impact partner client service culture.

Another managing partner recently had this response: “I have always been a big fan of helping partners do this better. Accountants are notoriously bad ‘salesmen’ for lack of a better term, and I believe that helping partners sell more services to existing clients is always a topic at accounting firms. It is the easiest way to grow revenues —the low-hanging fruit, so to speak. The reality is that there are always only a few partners that do this in any firm. I could go on and on about this.”

Carolyn K. Carlson

Carolyn K. Carlson

Carolyn K. Carlson is the president of StangerCarlson LLC. She can be reached at ckcarlson@stangercarlson.com or (646) 797-4000.