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When collaboration goes wrong in the UK services sector

The UK professional services industry is critical to the success of the economy, employing 14 per cent of the workforce. However, it is a sector facing a number of pressures, with business output declining to a three-year low in April.

A recent survey of 200 accounting, advisory and management consulting firms by Huddle, found that firms are currently most concerned with staff retention (45 per cent), increased domestic (40 per cent) and global competition (36 per cent). More worryingly, the fallout from Brexit could mean new challenges for firms already struggling to win and retain business.

In this high-pressured environment, expertise and efficiency are vital for consulting firms looking to differentiate from the competition. Effective collaboration is crucial to achieving this; however the research suggests that despite heavy investment in technology UK professional services organisations are still struggling.

Collaboration challenges

Many IT leaders within professional services organisations feel they have already ticked off their collaboration objectives. After all, they have spent a lot of time and money rolling out new technologies: internal file-sharing systems, document workflows, client portals and training staff.

The problem is that today’s professionals are still finding collaboration set-ups restrictive, unintuitive or simply not fit-for-purpose. It’s the same old story - security and usability are often at odds. This is creating new problems rather than solving old ones. The result: decreased productivity, shadow IT and ultimately, loss of revenue.

The cost to winning new business

The key to winning new business is differentiation, and the ability to access and share knowledge and insight across an entire organisation (regardless of location or team) is a huge asset in the bid process. Unfortunately, knowledge can easily become siloed if collaboration technologies are limited – something that is proving costly to the UK services sector.

Winning new business doesn’t come easily for professional service organisations. It doesn’t come cheaply either: a typical bid consumes over £18,000 of otherwise billable time involving an average of seven senior team members dedicating an average 12 hours each. On top of this, 33 per cent of those surveyed confirmed that such high costs are driven by an inability to access internal expertise easily. In fact, simply finding and accessing documents is costing UK professional services firms £4,238 per employee, per month.

Finding efficiencies in the process is essential as this time and resource drain has become untenable. The more efficient the process can become, the more bids can be pursued and the more clients can be serviced.

Improved document management and information sharing technologies are vital. Without these, firms will continue to lose billable time to inefficient processes and install a self-imposed barrier to new business potential.

The cost to client experience and retention

The crux of any client service experience is the exchange of information, insights and ideas – this inevitably means lots of documents. In the age of the consumer, a successful client experience ultimately boils down to two things – communication and trust. To deliver this experience organisations need to dissolve the walls between themselves and their clients, making communication processes transparent, efficient and most importantly, secure.

This is understandable as client companies often have a lot at stake, and entrusting part of their business to the care of an outside entity can sometimes be risky business. The less a services firm is seen as an 'outsider', the easier it becomes to win a client’s long-term confidence and retain the business.

Unfortunately, the research paints a bleak picture for organisations using ineffective technologies. Despite 62 per cent of firms having invested in SharePoint to support collaboration internally and externally, 75 per cent of those surveyed admitted to still conducting document exchanges through email; a practice notorious for creating versioning issues and limiting productivity.

Of even greater concern are the 22 per cent who admitted to risking client confidentiality by routinely using personal file-sharing services to exchange documents with clients, and the 16 percent that rely on unencrypted USB flash drives.

If investments are being made in client portals for external file sharing and collaboration, why are employees still risking client confidentiality by using less secure methods?

Ease-of-use and functionality were cited as the primary reasons for sidestepping company-provided collaboration tools. And given that clients are frequently lost due to a lack of transparency and missed deadlines, indicating that inadequate technology is costing firms big when it comes to client retention.

A more collaborative future

To date, it has been thought that greater collaboration between teams and clients – and all the associated benefits that come with it – can be achieved by simply ‘throwing technology’ at the problem. What has been forgotten is that the technology selected has to actively support the user as much as the business. It must be user-friendly and accessible on every device, while also serving the business by being secure and transparent. Anything less, and employees will shun the technology, find unsecure workarounds and ultimately risk losing current and prospective new business.

Sadly, there remains a chasm between the way in which professional services organisations need to position themselves for business success (knowledgeable, communicative and trustworthy), and their ability to deliver on this promise.

It’s time to close that chasm. In an industry where firms rely on the expertise of their employees, the satisfaction of their clients and the efficiency of their teams for success, better collaboration is critical and must be at the heart of professional services businesses.

Morten Brøgger, CEO, Huddle