One of the most common themes I come across when I interview the various winners of the Australian Financial Review Client Choice Awards each year is the winner’s genuine inability to articulate why they think they personally were rated the number one client service provider in their industry.
Without exception, they usually point to external factors – such as working with a great team, the win being the result of a fantastic team effort, or simply being lucky enough to have clients that are easy to work with.
When I interview Ian Rourke from FB Rice, winner of the Most Client Focused IP Specialist for 2017, he is no different. For him, it’s a combination of all three, but is definitely the result of having ‘easy clients’.
“To be honest I think that to some extent it is down to the client base I have. I work with clients in the field of biotechnology and as a result am generally dealing with fairly organised businesses who are commercial and realistic in their expectations. That makes it relatively easy to have a good relationship. Some other practice areas often have to deal with ‘backyard inventors’ who can at times struggle with the complexity and costs involved with the patenting process. This can present different challenges for attorneys and it might mean attorneys have a harder time pleasing them,” he says.
Two things Ian does that set him apart
While Ian thinks that he is just lucky to get some easy clients, in my experience there is no such thing. You create your own luck. And as Ian and I continue to talk, it becomes clear to me that there are a couple of things that Ian does that would potentially set him apart from others.
First, he truly has a commercial mindset over and above his technical skills. While many technical specialists I come across do have some commercial nous, for most it takes a real backseat to their technical skills and thinking. Technical comes first, commerciality second.
In Ian’s own words, it is “the responsibility of the provider such as me is to understand the commerciality of the task at hand which can change over time because prosecution of a single patent family can sometimes span over a decade. And as I reflect on receiving the award, which was a bit of a blur to be honest, some of the commentary about my win was around my focus on the commercial aspects.”
Second, Ian asks his clients a big picture question early on when he meets them. It’s a relatively simple one, and one that Ian tells me he assumes is a fairly standard question that everyone asks their clients – but from my experience, it’s actually not.
The question he asks is along the lines of “what are you trying to achieve?”, asked from both a personal and professional perspective. A question like this, that gets the client to think of a positive future state, away from the current detail, is really powerful in building trust. And in an industry that is dominated by detailed people working on highly detailed, technical things, questions like this can be relatively scarce because most ‘experts’ are only in their comfort zone when they are talking about things they know. By asking what the client is trying to achieve, Ian is potentially moving away from his area of expertise as he cannot know what the answer is going to be – and for many technical experts, that can be extremely scary.
Caring for each other = caring for clients
When Ian joined the Melbourne Office of FB Rice in 1998, there were only eight people, a number which has now grown to over 60. So what support or systems have they put in place that Ian believes contribute to their ability to continue to be client focused as they’ve grown?
“You don’t achieve that sort of growth without a culture that attracts people. That culture includes providing people with great work experience and an environment where people care about each other. That caring within the firm then transcends to clients – you cannot have one set of behaviours inside a firm and then a different set outside. Our growth is not because of a drive to be bigger or recruiting for the sake of it. It’s about finding people who will be the right fit for our culture and the needs of our clients,” he says.
“Similarly, with our clients we work on establishing good relationships. If I look across our client base, the number who were referred to us through other relationships is extremely high. I was recently talking to a group of five people at an event, where I knew all but one. The person I had not previously met expressed concerns about her current provider and started asking about FB Rice. I barely got any words out before the other four in the group started saying things like ‘Just use FB Rice, they are the best’.”
As Ian clearly knows well, one of the key benefits of a trusting relationship is the referrals. In trusting relationships, clients trust you for more than your technical ability, the trust is wide and deep, and in these instances they will actively recommend you. Sometimes they may not even recognise what it is about you that makes them want to do this, they just trust you.
Top tip? Be reliable and adaptable.
I ask Ian for his thoughts when the shoe is on the other foot. When he is the client, and is being ‘sold’ to – what’s important to him?
“In many cases, it comes down to their ability to respond in the right time frame and meet my needs. Whether that’s a builder I’m dealing with on a personal basis, or a lawyer I’m dealing with on behalf of a client of mine. If they don’t get back to me in the timeframe I need it puts stress on me and my client – and that is not acceptable. In some cases I have multiple instructors for the same client who have very different expectations regarding the timing of advice. I need to adapt to those individual needs even though I am doing two jobs for the same organisation.” he says.
“As a client, you have to have total faith in the provider.”
What Ian describes to me is reliability – another key element of Maister and Green et al’s trust equation. Having just spoken to me in-depth about the importance of Intimacy, or caring, it’s clear that Ian lives and breathes the trust equation, even if he doesn’t realise it. He understands and cares about the world his clients live in, and what their needs and pressures are – something that many providers never truly seek to understand.
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