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A perusal of the current edition of Harvard Management Update gives the information that customer (or client) relationship management (CRM) is where it is at.It follows on from a plethora of previous ‘number ones’ in the management pop charts, including total quality management, benchmarking, process re-engineering, knowledge management and partnering.Will this particular management fad seep through blue chip companies to reach the legal sector? I do not know, but if it did I would give it a cautious welcome.CRM takes sorting out who you want to do business with as its premise, breaking clients down according to their different requirements and working with them to improve cost efficiency and performance effectiveness, which ultimately will cement loyalty and a mutually profitable relationship.This mirrors what a major procurer of legal services asked for at a conference six months ago. “Anyone who is marketing anything should focus on what I want to buy, not what you want to sell.”So is CRM anything more than being ‘client-led’? Well, yes and no. In effect this is one-to- one marketing where the service offered is tailored exactly to a client’s needs, as opposed to a group of clients’ needs that have been aggregated and averaged out.This involves anything from reporting style, client management, invoicing systems (both style and frequency), to the use of video conferencing or anything else that the client feels will enhance the relationship he has with his legal advisers.Conceptually this can be seen to work well where the adviser has a number of clients whose needs are quite distinct and whose value to the legal adviser may also be disparate. There is little point in applying this system to your smallest private client, but potentially enormous value in using it for major blue chips.So how is this system different? Law firms’ highly regulated roots have meant the culture has actively fought against being client-led. Even when law firms did endeavour to let clients set the agenda, doing so by individual client was difficult because their internal systems simply did not have the facility to deliver the required flexibility.Technology can now come to the aid of those intent on taking the ‘client-led’ approach to the next stage. I recently attended a conference on CRM where the technology providers lectured on their wares, detailing how they worked in an e-commerce environment while ‘meshing with existing systems’.I left seven hours later with my head spinning and very little idea what they were talking about. No doubt their systems are impressive, but technology is the means to the end and not the end in itself. CRM is therefore the result of improving technology, facilitating an amalgam of all sorts of previous management ‘chart toppers’ like client service, partnering and databases.For the largest firms intent on implementing sophisticated CRM software, the rule is to work out the brief well in advance of looking at the products available. That brief will come from a mix of partner, IT and marketing input.What it comes down to in the final analysis is the ability to listen to clients and run your service according to how each of them wants it. This might mean new systems and the corresponding investment, or it might mean simply ripping up the standard template for client service and being more flexible.What it also means by implication is not sending out information or promotional material to clients that has no bearing on their needs and which usually only serves to annoy them. The in-vogue term for this facet of CRM is ‘permission marketing’, where one has previously sought permission through qualification of need, to effect an interaction with the client. The major procurer of legal services should approve wholeheartedly – provided his law firm can deliver.

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