Working together for Client Outcomes

04 April 2017

Grant Saxon , Sydney Office Managing Partner
Partner, Audit & Assurance

Here at BDO, like most successful professional services firms, we are continually looking at ways to create and maintain a collaborative and client focused work environment. This has become a bit of an ongoing quest as those in management strive to find the perfect blend of individual performance and team based behaviour. 

At BDO, we have created a number of initiatives over the years to encourage this to happen. These include collaborative seating arrangements, with less segregated office space and the ability for people to move around; as well as cross selling programs; training; internal communications about expertise; shared values and more firmwide social events and get-togethers. All this is done with the objective of creating collaboration. 

But why is collaboration so important? And why don’t we just focus on efficiently charging our time to clients and continuing to develop our particular areas of expertise? 

In this post, I thought I would provide some reasoning and background as to why working together makes so much sense and why we continue to pursue this at BDO. 

In a world that is moving rapidly where complexity and change have become the norm, successful firms need to drive specialisation and as such, should set themselves up to collaborate in order to deal with complex client matters. 

Because access to knowledge is changing so quickly, it has become imperative for professionals to specialise to stay current. And it is hard staying up to date.

Think about the changes that are occurring in tax, financial reporting, technology and even just in the ways that people work. Keeping up with all of this is difficult and it has become almost impossible to stay across everything.  

For accounting firms, I am not saying there will never be a need for the generalist accountant- as many small businesses continue need the hand-holding and comfort of a relationship withe a “general practitioner”. But as complexity and technology invades ours and our clients’ lives, clients will increasingly look to accountants, auditors and advisers who possess specialist knowledge - and who have access to other specialists. This specialisation could be in a particular area of work, or in the industry in which the client works.   And as their own issues become more and more complex clients will turn to firms that can bring a collaborative group of professionals to the table - a team who works together on the client issues, creating a unique solution by tapping into expertise as it is needed. 

Collaboration therefore needs to occur across a number of dimensions - and we are implementing a number of ways to do this at BDO. These dimensions include:

  • Across geographies
  • Across services lines
  • Across teams
  • Across specialisations and sectors
  • Between individuals

I recently finished reading the book “Smart Collaboration - How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos”, by Harvard Business School Professor, Heidi K. Gardner; and this sets out a compelling business case for smart collaboration:

  1. It drives revenues and profits - by introducing more parts of the firm to the client
  2. It aids in retaining clients for the long term - as the client relationship is spread across more professionals
  3. It generates innovation - as people work together to solve client issues
  4. It helps attract and integrate lateral hires who bring new skills and specialisation
  5. It helps attract and retain today’s workforce - the so called “millennials”

But it is often hard to do right?  The facts are that in professional services firms, a number of practitioners continue to hoard work and relationships. And if the the business case to work together is clear, why don't we do more of it? 

In my view, everyone in a professional services firm like BDO is different, so there are as many answers to this question as there are smart professionals working here. We all have different styles of working and motivators - so any attempt to drive smarter collaboration will need to be tailored and complex. 

A massive part of this is to create a culture of working together. As the Peter Drucker once (allegedly) said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. So culture is the starting point and it is a big part of the reason why we continue to focus on creating a unique environment that encourages openness and personal growth - from partner to cadet. 

The second thing we are doing to encourage a stronger internal collaborative network is to look at things through a client lens. So in servicing our clients, we don’t actually need to “cross-sell” in the traditional sense of the word. Cross selling implies an activity where clients are introduced to other services in the interests of growing revenue. Instead, we need to meet with our clients and work with them to understand life from their viewpoint. What challenges are they facing, what is keeping them awake at night? And based on this - what are their needs?

Only then, can we bring together a team of specialists who can work together to help solve these issues for the client. There is a subtle difference between traditional cross-selling and genuine collaboration.

We also need to measure, reward and celebrate the success of genuine collaboration when it occurs. This means developing more sophisticated metrics that drive the right behaviour - it is not just about production and fees (although these remain an important measure for any firm). We need to capture and measure information about when and how genuine collaboration is taking place - and to do this, we require an effective CRM system. This will not only drive the right behaviour, it will measure when it is happening and how successful it is. 

And finally of course, there is collaborative communication tools, like in our case Yammer. This is an internal social networking tool that in complex organisations like ours, encourages people to work together, share ideas, communicate and collaborate. 

All of these things are happening at BDO. It takes time to make these changes and it is not always easy, but we are doing it. These initiatives are part of putting BDO First and helping us reach the BDO global vision of being known for Exceptional Client Service.