The secret to key client account planning is not what you think

Key client account planning is certainly not a new concept to the business community, having gained an initial foothold in the early 1980s, predominantly with advertising agencies. While often a little late to the party, law firms are also no stranger to the importance of having a strategic focus on key clients. Indeed, most firms will point to some form or other of key-client program that will have been running at the firm for multiple years.


And yet, if you were to question a partner at one of these firms as to the efficacy of such a program, rarely would you receive a glowing review. Given that most businesspeople will readily agree with Pareto’s rule – in this context, that approximately 80% of the firm’s revenue is likely to come from around 20% of its clients – this is a surprising disconnect.

The key issue with key client account planning

So, why then do firms historically struggle to generate much traction or noticeable success with key-client initiatives? There are a number of potential structural and procedural elements that I will discuss in subsequent articles, but for now, I would suggest one root cause – planning at law firms is rarely about the client, its needs or success. Instead, firms tend to make their own drivers ‘key’, focussing on more revenue, better margins, and the firm’s reputational gain.


Outside-in client account planning and why it works

There are multiple ways to address this dynamic, and start to plan outside-in. Set out below are three core areas where a marginal improvement by the firm could lead to significant gains:


  1. Understand the client journey

General Counsel are often quoted as saying that law firms don’t understand their business as well as they would like. While in part this has spawned the ‘sector focus’ go-to-market strategy that most firms now employ, an often overlooked element of this statement is that firms rarely invest time in trying to understand the journey through which the client will go in requesting, receiving, and utilizing legal advice.

To better understand this dynamic, Intapp is currently conducting an in-depth study of the client journey together with a number of our law firm clients and their corporate clients. Early indications are that most tensions tend to arise in one of two situations:


Common tensions for law firm and corporate legal clients

(1) The client had a different expectation set as to how part of the journey would unfold

(2) Communication is lacking at various stages during the journey

We posit that a deeper understanding at the outset of the arena in which your client conducts business, how they consume legal services, and the important stages in delivering that legal support, will enable your firm to put in place a key-client plan that is relevant to your client as they see the world.


  1. Focus on your client’s success

Having reviewed over 1,000 key-client plans at law firms of all different shapes and sizes, one thing stands out for me with surprising consistency – the plan is rarely about the client, but often about how the firm will generate more revenue from that client. Of course, law firms are businesses themselves, and generating increasing revenue is an essential element for continued growth. Equally, there is nothing wrong with seeking to generate more return from a client account. In fact, clients not only expect this, but will welcome paying you more for your services if, and only if, you are helping them to be successful.

If you have invested time in understanding your client, what motivates them, and what success looks like, then it is possible to frame your client plan around providing increasing services to help the client achieve that success. Think less about how you can ‘cross-sell’ your banking team into the client to increase fees billed, and more around how the client might be able to leverage your team’s expertise to more successfully structure its global financings.

In my experience, for those that have moved to client-centric planning, there is nothing subtle about the increased returns that the firm (and more importantly, the client) now enjoys.


  1. Ask about your client’s experience and feedback

The vast majority of tensions between a client and its advisors arise because of lack of communication, either at the beginning of a matter in defining scope, during the delivery of those services, or at the end of the matter when the journey has unfolded differently than expected.

Conversely, when opportunities to work with a new client or do more for an existing client are missed, it is usually because the right questions weren’t asked or the information the client imparted wasn’t given the proper attention.

Multiple studies have been conducted into what skills make for a good ‘rainmaker’ and why some are more successful than others – consistently at the top is that those people are invariably good listeners, who ask lots of insightful questions and efficiently involve others to help action what they learn.

At various stages throughout the client journey, connect with your client and find out how they are experiencing the delivery of your legal advice. This can be part of a formal feedback process, or through simply picking up the phone at regular intervals to talk about progress to date (feedback), what’s coming up (setting expectations), and what else is going on in their world (business development). While firms tend to be better at communicating upon the successful conclusion of a matter with a client, the best relationship partners understand that a bad commercial result for the client doesn’t have to equate to a bad client experience.


An outside-in approach yields inside-out results:

To a large extent, key-client programs have not been as successful as they should be for most law firms. Partly this is because partners are not always actively engaged in the planning, the plans do not sit front and center of client activity, and the infrastructure supporting delivery is often not fit-for-purpose. Integrating this trifecta of people, processes, and technology is essential to achieving a successful outcome. But even with all of those elements aligned, the program will only thrive if the result for your client is the primary driver – without client success, there is no law firm success.

Learn more about using a holistic approach to key-client account planning by exploring Intapp’s OnePlace Leaders & Professionals.