Is your firm known for complex or routine work? It pays to find out

What kind of work is your firm best known for?

Do your clients value your systematic approach to service in defined areas – with routine processes and systems that can be automated? Or are you the firm that delivers sophisticated solutions to complex problems requiring a high level of expertise and resources?

The type of work firms deliver should inform everything from marketing strategy to pricing. Here’s what market research tells us on the issue.

Why it pays to understand how clients perceive your work

Former Harvard Business School professor and expert on management of professional services services David Maister wrote that all professional services work sits on a spectrum ranging from “efficiency” (routine, repeated work), to “experience” (his tongue-in-cheek marker of experience is grey hair), and “expertise” (the most complex, mission-critical work). Successful practices are clear about their position on this spectrum.

More recently, Professors Ashish Nanda and Das Narayandas of Harvard Business School of Harvard Business School expanded upon Maister’s original ideas with the below chart – arranging professional services firm work from “commodity” to “procedure” to “grey hair” and “rocket science”.

The professional services spectrum

Spectrum of professional services from routine work to complex work and the strategic implications for client satisfaction as pricing and communication implications

Source: Adapted from HBR

“Beaton’s market research convincingly shows clients who think the firm’s work is complex are willing to pay more for that work than routine work. So there’s an opportunity to charge more if you can find out that clients believe your work is complex,” explains David Goener, partner at Beaton.

“Equally, your strategy may be to focus on doing routine work at volume, charging less for each job. A lot of the conveyancing businesses do routine work. Clients know they do it well and they do it efficiently. It’s important for firms to consider how perceptions of their client base aligns with the firm’s strategy.”

The differences, in clients’ minds, look like this:

Complex work

  • Charge more – clients have a higher perception of the price for fair value in complex work
  • Expertise – is most important to clients choosing firms for complex work

Routine work

  • Charge less (do more) – clients perceive fair value as a lower price for routine work so firms will need to consider increasing the volume of work to compensate for lower fees
  • Ease of doing business – is most important to clients

Work-type mix of 17 large law firms as reported by their clients

Beaton benchmarks data showing how top performing law firms are ranked in terms of complexity of services

Goener says firms often under- or over-estimate how clients see their work. Firms undertaking challenging and resource-intensive projects may fail to communicate how complex the job may be. It leads to a mismatch between client and firm expectations, as clients generally expect work they as routine to cost less.

“Often the difference is communication. Clients don’t quite understand that a lot of technical expertise goes into a certain project. Consultants may not spend time explaining their skills and expertise and team resources are going into creating a solution,” Goener says.”

How market research can help

Understanding how clients see your work is fundamental to firm pricing, marketing, and strategic decisions. It can even impact talent retention, says Goener: “from an employee engagement point of view, many employees would prefer to work on complex work rather than routine”.

Consider these questions. Do you need to communicate the complexity of your firm’s work better? Do you need to increase or lower prices? Should your firm consider redistributing the proportion of complex versus routine jobs it takes on?

Importantly, how do clients see your work compared to competitor firms, and how can you differentiate your unique service offering?

These queries and more can be answered by undertaking a Complex vs Routine Work Analysis with Beaton.

We survey your clients on how they see your firm’s work, then compare that to what we know clients think of other firms in your sector. Beaton has the most extensive database of client feedback in the professional services market, formed through 20-plus years of client surveys and research – and we draw on this data to inform and build customised strategies for your firm.

For example, we can show you where your firm’s prices sit in comparison to competitors, and whether you are below or above the “fair value” line in clients’ eyes – shown in the below graph.

Fair value line - complex work

Graph showing how clients rank value for services showing clients are happy to pay more for complex services

Different work types require different business models and strategies. In turn, these differences mean different cultures and leadership styles are required to align structures, systems and people with clients and their needs.

If you’re wondering what kind of work clients think your firm does, give us a call.

To find out more about Beaton’s Complex vs Routine Reports and how they can benefit your organisation please visit our Competitor benchmarking page or contact us to discuss your options with a Beaton partner.


NOTE: In keeping with Beaton’s confidentiality undertakings, individual clients and their organisations are never identified in blog posts or example studies.

Share these insights with a colleague

Written by

David Goener, Partner

David advises Beaton’s clients on the application of strategic insights that professional services firms derive from our suite of information and research products. Drawing on extensive senior leadership experience in Queensland’s largest professional services firms, BDO and McCullough Robertson, David also advises clients on business strategy, partner performance management, pricing and regularly facilitates strategic planning conferences.

Full bio