Research I conducted in conjunction with researchers at a number of universities analysed just this, and we found that in complex professions such as the legal, nursing, accountancy and architecture sectors, both pay and performance can suffer when clients don’t fully understand a profession.
Part of the problem lies in changing access to professional services. For decades, those in the legal and accountancy sectors have relied on their specialised, esoteric knowledge base to draw in business and pay their impressive wages.
However these professionals can no longer rely on being guardians of their unique knowledge base for business, as there are now many internet sites that can offer ‘professional advice’ for free.
Keeping clients happy and developing client relations is now more important than ever, however, if professionals fail to do the simplest things in explaining fully their work, they risk alienating clients, and worse, potentially losing contracts.
The issues arise from a simple lack of communication and education on what level of service a professional will offer to a client. Due to the abstract nature of their work, professionals have a real issue with explaining to clients what service they will actually be offering and crucially, what it is the client is paying for.
Lawyers and architects in particular, faced instances of fee contestation, where clients feel that professional work should take less time and effort than it actually does.
Accordingly, professionals who worked on billable hours systems, noted that when clients do not understand the process or value the complexity of the service, they question the amount they are charged.
Also, in anticipating clients’ concerns about fees, professionals may feel pressured to work under difficult constraints, such as insufficient hours to get the job done within budget.
Worryingly, some of the professionals we interviewed mentioned they sometimes do not bill for all for all of the hours that they worked because they suspect the client would not be willing to pay for them.
Problems become equally damaging when clients not only have a lack of knowledge regarding a professional’s work, but actually misinterpret the intentions of professional members.
Lawyers mentioned to us that outsiders often view them as acting only in self-interest, perceiving that they do not always have clients’ best interests in mind, privileging their own professional agendas or financial gain.
One lawyer we interviewed said “Clients walk in with a sense of entitlement and the assumption that all we want to do is screw them over.” These misaligned expectations result in a lack of trust, which in turn causes further difficulties for the professionals as they attempt to carry out their work.
However the emotional and financial costs being experienced by professionals are not solely the fault of clients having incorrect knowledge of their profession. Professionals have a duty to control this process themselves.
Our research recommends that professionals be absolutely clear and upfront about the exact service they will offer at the beginning of a contract. And once this relationship begins, the professional must constantly demonstrate how they are living up to the agreed upon services, and make them as visible as they can to the client.
Professionals should also stay away from teaching clients specific and detailed technical knowledge, as this can often confuse and alienate the client, making the initial problem worse.
In addition, professionals should seek to build personal relationships with their clients so the clients view them as humans doing the best they can for the client rather than anonymous beings pursuing their own interests.
If professionals in industries founded upon specific knowledge sets can adhere to these guidelines, then they can avoid this scenario of clients having unrealistic expectations which inevitably leave them disappointed with the services professionals provide.
Professor Heather Vough of the Desautels Faculty of Management.
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