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[Top tips & case study] Understanding economics

In part three of a series of PM Forum articles on ‘the seven habits of a commercial adviser’, Ben Kent and Adrian Furner discuss how advisers need to demonstrate an understanding of economics. [Habit 3]

What does ‘economics’ mean to you? Traditionally it is a difficult term to grapple with. A formal definition would be ‘the study of the production and consumption of goods and the transfer of wealth to produce and obtain those goods’. For many, the definition of economics goes much wider than this which is why it can be hard for advisers to grasp what it really means to their clients.

Understanding financial documents such as the balance sheet and the profit and loss account is only part of it.
‘Understanding the economics’ means not only understanding how your client makes money, but how the advice that you are providing will impact on this.

Three main steps to economic understanding:

  1. Organisational economics – understanding how your client’s company is structured, how and when it reports its financials, the internal reward structure.
  2. Macro and market level economics – understanding how your client fits into the wider world/their market, now and in the future.
  3. Transaction economics – understanding the economic drivers and implications of the specific opportunity.

A commercial adviser not only has a good grasp of these areas, but is able to articulate them clearly to the client. They are able to identify and articulate the value that they have brought, as well as any potential risks to the client, in financial terms.

To achieve this, numeracy is a key competency. Numbers are the language of business, but many professionals are tongue tied. A lack of financial fluency can put professionals at a grave disadvantage. It excludes them from the serious c-suite conversations and makes it difficult to justify the value of their recommendations. “If you can’t quantify what impact this project will have, why should we pay you £100k?”

In my 25 years of doing this I have met two lawyers who can add up which means it’s difficult for them to be commercial. They delineate between that which is a commercial point and that which is a legal point and shouldn’t. I’m not paying £1000/hr to make all the difficult decisions, I’m paying for someone else to not just advise, but to make a decision. Dr. Robert Easton – Managing Director, Carlyle Europe

A useful way to understand this is by looking at a typical M&A transaction. Ben Kent shares his experience and tips.

M&A economics

I started out my career in the corporate department at a Magic Circle firm. I worked on a series of acquisitions, but  my understanding of finance was limited. I now realise that a better understanding of M&A economics would have really helped
me deliver better quality, more focussed advice.
At its heart M&A economics is quite straightforward. Financiers generally value a business by analysing three factors:

  • The value of its assets
  • Its ability to generate future profits. Many will use a Discounted Cash Flow model (DCF) to do this
  • The value of comparable companies.

This will give you a base price, ie. the price of the business if it was sold as a standalone business.

Financiers then look at potential synergies to calculate the benefits of two businesses merging (on the principle that one plus one should equal three). This will push the price up:

  • Cost synergies include savings from sharing head office costs, rationalising property or shedding staff.
  • Revenues synergies are the additional revenues you achieve by crossselling additional services to each firms’ customers.

It is critical that lawyers understand the valuation model and which synergies are driving the price. It enables the lawyer to
focus due diligence and negotiation of the sale and purchase agreement on the issues that really matter. For example, if
the deal is driven by revenue synergies it is critical to review contracts with customers and make sure that the sales teams are locked in. If the sales teams leave then the revenue synergies will be nearly impossible to deliver.

Unfortunately many lawyers are not given enough financial training to understand these points and as a result focus on points that are commercially irrelevant.

[This article originally appeared in professional marketing magazine. For further details go to www.pmforumglobal.com. In the next issue: Habit 4 – Understand the people]

[Infographic] Top tips on how to be an active listener

Build a better understanding of your client’s needs through active listening. Check out our practical top tips on how to became an active listener.

Active listening

Active listening

[Top tips & case study] Commercial understanding

In the second of a series of articles, Ben Kent and Adrian Furner discuss how advisers can better understand the context of their clients’ businesses [Habit 2].

How much do you really know about your clients? In our recent study, Effective Client-Adviser Relationships, 52% of clients cite a lack of understanding of their business by external advisers as the factor which is most likely to derail the client-adviser relationship.

As we discussed in the Summer 2014 edition of pm, understanding the business context in which a client operates is one of seven core habits that commercially-savvy advisers exhibit. Commercial understanding is now a major factor clients consider when they commission work. When looking to instruct advisers for complex work, 40% of clients place an understanding of their business as among their top three selection criteria. The professional firms that have been most successful in this area have managed to turn their more commercial approach into a brand differentiator: “You must constantly educate yourself otherwise
you can’t deliver successful advice.” Mike Strong, Executive Chairman EMEA, CBRE.

So what exactly do clients expect from their advisers? Reading financial statements and annual reports is useful, but no longer sufficient. Clients are demanding much more: 75% say they expect their advisers to know about their organisation’s strategy and business plan, and 67% expect knowledge of industry sectors and trends. As clients raise the bar, professional firms are expected to jump higher and higher to demonstrate commercial understanding.

Three steps to demonstrating better commercial understanding:

1. Research the style and culture of your clients

Each client has their own language, jargon and way of doing business. Communication styles and risk appetite vary between organisations and individuals. Understanding the personal and emotional factors involved in any piece of work will inform how to best position advice to ensure it gains traction. Top tips:

  • Map out the key stakeholders for any engagement, and meet with them to discuss their personal views and objectives.
  • Keep in touch throughout the duration of an engagement and afterwards. Informal meet ups work well, particularly at the client’s premises.
  • Be inquisitive about a client’s strategy. Don’t be afraid to ask for strategy documents that would help contextualise your advice.

2. Share best practice and case studies

Clients want to know from their advisers how other organisations, especially those in the same sector, have undertaken
similar engagements. Sharing insight on what does and doesn’t work, and how pitfalls can be avoided, is a key attribute
of trusted advisers. Top tips:

  • Capture the knowledge that you build up from different clients. Write down the key learnings and actively share with junior colleagues.
  • Develop a checklist of questions to ask when attending initial meetings with a new clients.
  • Prepare relevant case studies to show clients ahead of meetings, and talk to colleagues to gather more examples.

3. Keep one eye firmly rooted on the future

Clients also highly value foresight on trends likely to reshape their sector in the future. CFOs and GCs are time poor and so look to external advisers to offer a view on the issues that might impact their business over the short and long-term. Top tips:

  • Read blogs and thought leadership, and attend industry events and networking sessions to keep abreast of sector developments and issues.
  • Attend seminars and workshops delivered at client organisations to understand the in-house dynamic.
  • Send short, personalised emails to clients drawing their attention to issues you think are relevant to them.

Case studies: fostering business understanding
The talent management strategies of professional firms are at a turning point. Firms now recognise that business understanding
is as important as technical understanding. Sector groups, key account plans, and knowledge managers are a good starting point. However, more innovative firms have taken further steps to build business understanding into their culture:

Simmons & Simmons has created a highly successful mini-MBA for trainees joining the firm that teaches young lawyers essential business skills.

Thomas Eggar, a law firm based in the south of England, sends its lawyers to do a day of work experience at their client’s retail outlets.

The Big Four accountancy firms and large consultancies have high developed knowledge management systems that allow fee-earners to share insight and collaborate across practice areas.

[This article originally appeared in professional marketing magazine. For further details go to www.pmforumglobal.com. In the next issue: Habit 3 – Understand the economics]