In the last 12 months, marketers for professional services firms have been bombarded with change, not the least of which are changes in customer relationship management (CRM) systems and practices. Before that, all was relatively stable in the CRM realm.

CRM, as many of us know it, has been around since Pat Sullivan and Mike Muhney released their first version of ACT! in 1987. In 1993, LexisNexis InterAction joined the party and in 1999, Salesforce followed suit with its first version of sales automation software. What can we expect in the next 12 months related to CRM? This blog explores critical trends that summarize the exciting changes taking place in the market, so you can be informed and prepared.

1. The role of CRM has shifted

In the past, firms have tended to focus their investment and effort on systems that more directly affect client management – specifically client onboarding, conflicts, and time and billing. Those firms that implemented “CRM” systems did so to manage marketing lists and contacts. The more strategic marketing and business development functionality took a backseat to other areas of focus or was managed in spreadsheets. That trend is changing.

Vendors are investing heavily in tools to advance marketing and business development for professional services firms. New players have emerged into this space, and vendors who have traditionally focused on the systems for managing clients and matters have moved with some urgency into CRM. This urgency is because they, like us, see a change in how firms want to use technology to support business goals.

As firms have to respond to an increasingly competitive market, there is a need to become more business-development focused. We are seeing the appointment of client teams, senior client development directors, and even sales.

The market has responded to this demand with the emergence of CRM systems that enable firms to manage individual, practice, or sector business plans and to track their activities and their pipeline. We’re also seeing the emergence of platforms such as Kentico, Hubspot, Marketo, and Eloqua to manage the customer journey from lead to close. Firms are starting to look at solutions that enable them to automate the marketing process and integrate activities across multiple channels to seamlessly manage their online and direct communications.

2. Analytics at the forefront

Professional services firms are complex with respect to the relationships they have with clients and the services delivered to those clients, but they are not really that complex operationally. Those rich, multi-faceted relationships are fertile grounds for business intelligence. But while the use of business intelligence is not particularly new for professional services firms, the focus has historically been on the technology and the infrastructure and not really on truly understanding the questions we want to answer. That’s changing – and fast.

Firms are recognizing the need to combine data from multiple sources to derive meaningful insight. The obstacle firms are facing is that CRM systems in the past have been about inputs – bringing data in, storing it, and tapping into it when needed. Firms are now focusing on outputs. But CRM systems often have challenging user interfaces and don’t always have great reports, as more often than not they are designed for “the back office.” So now we see firms are changing the emphasis and CRM is becoming a provider of content into, data warehouses for example, and not being the reporting engine itself.

Most will agree that analyzing siloed data doesn’t have much value. If you only look at financial metrics, you might see all clients for which you are achieving the same margin as equal. It’s more meaningful to include other factors, such as the cost of winning the work and feedback from the client when you closed the matter. By looking at more data, you might get a very different picture.

3. The adoption imperative

Lack of adoption of CRM technology is a problem in most industries, but it’s the accepted default amongst professional services firms. To warrant adoption of any type of technology, the system has to meet at least one of these criteria:

  • It positively affects your COMPENSATION
  • It is COMPULSORY to use
  • It is sufficiently COMPELLING that you want to use it

CRM falls into the third category. While many firms have attempted to force users to “adopt” CRM to get reimbursed for business development expenses, is this really adoption? Adoption can only be defined as an individual and mutual “contract” between the user and the system. In other words, you have to get something out of it, which you consider to be of value, and in return, you provide something which others consider to be of value.

Firms are starting to rethink their strategy for engagement, recognizing that it cannot be based on a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Sticks, no matter how hard you try to disguise them as carrots, are not fooling anyone.

4. Greater focus on business processes

The heads of the business operations departments, such as finance, IT, marketing and business development, and knowledge management, are being called upon to collaborate more closely and align their business plans. As such, we are starting to see a more business process-focused approach to system implementation and information management. What this means, simply put, is that rather than implementing systems to achieve specific business functions, firms are looking at the business processes that cross their organizations and the data needed to support them. A good example of this is the integration of business development with client acceptance and intake processes to be able to capture referral information at the point of intake, or before, rather than downstream where it’s more challenging to get the attention of the attorneys.

By taking this approach, increasingly as part of a firm-wide master data management strategy, firms are identifying weak links in the chain when it comes to data capture. This visibility is enabling firms to re-think integration strategy based on how data moves around and who needs it and when, rather than which two systems need to be hooked up.

5. Better business development

Many dynamic factors influence professional services. Different jurisdictions are deregulating at different paces, but irrespective of your specific local changes, there are some globally consistent factors:

  • Clients are more knowledgeable, have higher expectations, and are far less loyal in particular for transactional work.
  • The marketplace is increasingly complex, with cross-border mergers, new entrants to the market, and technology driving up competition and driving down price.

Ironically though, when you read any survey about the main reasons why clients choose their professional advisors, price and technical knowledge never rank high.

Behaviors that you would associate with being good CRM citizens do, however. These include actions such as:

  • Sharing information with colleagues, so whoever speaks with a client understands the work the firm is doing for them
  • Being informed and prepared when engaging with the client
  • Spending time to understand the client’s business and market to become a trusted advisor

Doing all of these things requires data and the use of technology to deliver data at the right time and in the right way. There’s an old joke about the ability of salespeople to read documents upside down, implying they could read letters on their client’s desk during meetings that someone from their company had sent that they hadn’t seen before. Even though we send less mail nowadays, that risk is still real. No one likes to go into a meeting and be blindsided by a lack of information. Those firms that leverage information well can secure a real competitive advantage.

6. Closed-loop client life cycle data

Ultimately what firms can do to prepare for today’s changing business landscape is to identify where data exists in their firms that can be leveraged elsewhere. In addition to the points raised in trends 1 through 5 above, the advantages of closing the loop on data from throughout the client life cycle are many:

  • Reducing the number of times data has to be entered, ultimately moving towards a zero data-entry model with the emergence of AI and machine learning
  • Moving away from the “gated” approach to data capture where users cannot pass the gate unless they provide specific information. By understanding the journey from lead to opportunity to matter to experience, firms can design data capture mechanisms that make sure that the data is captured by the right people, process, or system at the right time and in the right way.
  • Filling gaps in information. Imagine how powerful it would be to have a detailed pre-meeting report that includes a summary of everything going on with the client. This includes not just the obvious information such as meetings and emails, but the feedback that attendees at the meeting had given in the firm’s recent client feedback survey.


The challenge for CRM has for so long been that so much of the data that is needed to do client relationship management well does not originate in the CRM system. Vendors have tried hard to address this issue with more and more features and functions and we still, broadly speaking, have the same results. Firms are recognizing this, and their demands are now starting to shape the supply in the market.