If you haven’t seen ‘Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers’ then shame on you, frankly. This gem of British ‘claymation’ animation from Aardman won numerous awards (I’m getting to the point, honestly). Anyhoo, the key moment in it occurs when our hero Wallace, beloved of all manner of Heath Robinson gadgetry to get his life going of a morning, is deposited into a pair of robotic trousers which – controlled by a malign penguin – then go on to wreak havoc on an unspecified and happily unreal Northern town. As Wallace careers off he wails to his canine companion, Gromit: “Gromit! It’s the wrong trousers!”

I was reminded of this – such is the way my brain works – the other day when talking to an in-house lawyer about the latest Client Relationship Management (CRM) partner one of her provider law firms had foisted on her.

“I can’t believe it,” she said, “he’s hopeless. He knows nothing about the business, has no social skills. I don’t even like the guy!”

The upshot of this, clearly, is that The Wrong Partner may potentially wreak havoc on this client relationship, or at the very least, be unlikely to, let’s say, draw the optimum amount of business out of an active client relationship.

Now I’m not saying that law firms are full of malign penguin jewel-thieves, but it is often the case that CRM partners are parachuted into clients without, apparently, much consultation and I am left wondering how well the law firm view of CRM and the optimum CRM situation line up in all cases.

It strikes an outsider as perfectly obvious that the key account holder, in this case the CRM Partner, should be someone who is best able to get most out of the relationship, smooth ruffled feathers where necessary and increase the amount of revenue the relationship produces. However, in law firms, perhaps more than any other businesses, points mean prizes, and where you haven’t actually brought the client into the firm or are able to ‘own’ it in any meaningful sense, being CRM partner sometimes has more in common with a medieval bishopric than a customer-friendly revenue machine – awarded to those needing to be rewarded regardless of suitability, more about political patronage than it is about giving the client what they want in the best possible way.

This may not seem immediately obvious, but this could be happening in your CRM setup without you even knowing it, and you have to ask yourself, in whose best interest is it?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The first thing is to work out a) whether the CRM partners you have in place currently are the best people for the job and b) if they’re not, is it actually worth the hassle of replacing them if necessary ie are you actually going to get any more work out of the client if you do?

In the second analysis, a juicy CRM relationship may have been gifted to, say, a promising, up-and-coming young partner, and it may be a key factor in keeping him happy and in the firm. But if he rubs the client up the wrong way, chances are that his appointment will also have irked people internally – to whom the client may well have moaned – so you’re fighting a battle on two fronts if you’re not careful.

Given the degree to which some CRM partners are able to tightly-manage the relationship, it may be that management has no idea that a client relationship is drifting awry, not until it is far too late to do anything about it anyway.
Now, I’m sure in your firm, all the CRM partners are exactly the right people for the job. Clearly there are some relationships which are close and unquestionable – where the partner has, emphatically, brought in the client and has a strong ongoing relationship – but where the key client contact has recently changed or where a CRM partner has retired and the relationship has passed to their second-in-command, or another appointee, it’s just worth asking the question…

In the best firms, the managing partner and/or group head will also have a personal relationship with the top clients. But this in itself can raise issues. To begin with, there may be conflict between that individual and the CRM partner. CRM is by its very nature, territorial, and the last thing the average CRM partner wants is the biggest cockerel in the roost trampling all over their relationship.

Second, what if the managing partner or group head is bookish and socially-awkward or, conversely, boorish and opinionated, rather than the smoothly diplomatic wise-head that would be the perfect choice for such a delicate posting? To some extent, managing partner and group head positions are even more political than CRM.

So what to do if you think you might have the wrong CRM partner in place? There are a number of avenues of opportunity, I think, depending on whether this is to be a private, nipping-in-the-bud kind of solution or a more public beheading.

In the first case, it does require a reliable assessment of the situation and some degree of acknowledgement by the CRM partner that there may be a problem which needs tackling. Otherwise, you risk driving the problem deeper underground. A quiet word in the ear works well where a partner has some degree of self-awareness but can blow up in your face otherwise.

My own preference is for a rather more open policy, which can tackle several problems at once. This involves setting certain standards for CRM and then convening some kind of opportunity for CRM to be compared across partners and legitimately presented as an opportunity to share information and create best practice.

This can be done in quite an aggressive manner, flushing recalcitrant, lazy or hopeless partners into the open (not always the most desirable in terms of practice harmony…) or a gentler manner, demonstrating best practice and letting laggards draw their own conclusions in the knowledge that the spotlight may not be far away from them if they fail to pull their socks up.
Beyond delivering a consistent, reliable and timely service, there is nothing more important than CRM to the ongoing health of a law firm, and it’s too important to be left to politics.

Don’t leave the CRM nettle ungrasped.

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