Forget digital disruption, the biggest risk to the professional services sector is ourselves

Forget digital disruption, the biggest risk to the professional services sector is ourselves

Talk to any consultant, adviser or business coach and they’ll tell you that the digital age is transforming the business landscape and bringing with it both opportunities and threats. And very often their seminal teaching is that we must adapt, embrace new digital technologies to improve efficiencies, and ready ourselves to counter the threat of AI.

They preach that we must use data (the new “oil”) to inform our analytical activities to bring an insight to both the work that we do and our own business management strategies. But I’m not convinced. Call me a naysayer, but I reckon that if we, as professional services firms stop acting like a profession, the end will be nigh.

I may be called a dinosaur by the digital natives I work with, but when I started out in the law, the success of a practice was determined largely by relationships; relationships between the lawyers and their clients, between members of the team, with supporters and referrers, and with the community the firm served. And it worked!

But now, with advances in technology we are deliberately putting barriers between ourselves and those we used to have relationships with. We communicate by email because it’s convenient. We use text and messenger because it’s efficient. We put up walls like call centres, receptionists, chat boxes and internet contact portals between us and our clients because it’s more efficient. But then we wonder why our early career professionals flounder in networking situations and seemingly lack some of the emotional intelligence and social skills that vital relationships are built on?

I recently had the misfortune of having to ring a pay-TV company to make changes to my account. After suffering the 10 minutes of excuses about “higher than normal calls being experienced” and suggestions that I call back later, I was informed that I could press 1 to be connected to their text message team who were “standing by” to deal with queries by SMS. And ironically, this service is offered by a company who don’t have a portal on their website for customers to ask questions by email (presumably because that wouldn’t be efficient enough)! So rather than talk to a customer and use the opportunity to strengthen the relationship or even upsell the service offer, they want to degrade our relationship to 60 characters in an SMS!

It’s okay to be hi-tech, but we must also be high touch

However, I get the feeling that many professional service firms are doing the same thing when they rise to meet the digital transformation challenges of the 21st century. Rather than encouraging our graduates to communicate and have genuine relationships, we require them to send emails to their supervisor two doors away instead of the 15 steps required to have a face to face discussion! And rather than pick up the phone or drop by to see a colleague, they reach for their mobile phone and hit the messenger app!

I can’t help but think that professional services firms can overcome AI, blockchain and quantum computing risks by focusing on their strengths – relationships of trust and confidence. So why aren’t we teaching our kids about self-awareness, self-motivation, how to be empathic and of the need for emotional control? But most of all, we, as professionals, need to pick up the phone, wander down the corridor, get in front of our clients and remove the barriers to developing enduring relationships.

Because isn’t that what will set us apart from a robot? As my PR Consultant often says, “it’s okay to be hi-tech, but we must also be high touch”.


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