Looking Back on One Year: An Interview with Mike Abbott, Thomson Reuters

Mike Abbott is the Head of Market Insights, Global Thought Leadership and the Thomson Reuters Institute, which brings together people from across the legal, corporate, tax and accounting, and government communities to ignite conversation and debate. Mike and the Thomson Reuters leadership team have been hosting a peer-to-peer customer strategy board for more than a year. Mike shared the benefits of engaging with customers in this way in the following interview.

What led you to create a customer strategy board?

“A former executive of Thomson Reuters was on a strategy board that was being run by Farland Group with another organization and recommended we do the same thing at Thomson Reuters. That’s how we got the wheels turning and decided it made a lot of sense. We engaged with many of these customers already and we were looking to build additional relationships while also taking advantage of their insights and guidance.”

Did you have a specific challenge to address?

“More than anything, we were questioning if / how we could leverage existing customers to help shape our go-forward strategies in product development, technology, client relations, etc. with credibility and without any of those customers feeling that the ask was related to any near-term commercial opportunities.”

What have you found to be the biggest value of a peer-to-peer board?

“First and foremost, it’s brought us closer to customers we already know, and at the most senior levels of these organizations. It has also opened the door to relationships with customers where we didn’t have strong existing relationships, so we’re engaging with them differently in a number of ways. We wanted this board to be mutually beneficial and that has absolutely been the case to date.

Another benefit is that we’ve been able to position Thomson Reuters in a different light—as an organization that has its pulse on change in the industries we serve and the ability to connect different players and participants. We’re confident that if we do this right, the commercial activity will follow. But primarily, we want these customers to see us as a convener of executives across various industries in a way that helps shape our respective directions, not just Thomson Reuters’.”

Tell us a little more about the value you see in bringing these customers together.

“Again, we want the board to be mutually beneficial, but for us, it’s about understanding our markets better. What are the challenges and opportunities they are facing? How are our customers navigating them? It really does help shape all that we do.”

You’ve had your board in place for a year now. How is it going?

“Our first meeting was more of a ‘kickoff’ and helped lay the groundwork for our second conversation. Our next meeting will be around sharing our Thomson Reuters strategy. In the meantime, we’ve had follow-on engagements with individual board members, and we believe we will see the results of those engagements begin to begin to play out in our own activity in the near future.”

Are you structuring your meetings as in-person or virtual, and what are the benefits?

“Our first two meetings were virtual given the lingering pandemic. We have people from around the world attending and the virtual environment helped make sure we’ve had stickiness with attendees which we might not have otherwise. We’re planning an in-person meeting early next year and it will be nice to have everyone in the same room and allow us to get to know the members personally.”

“We want the board to be mutually beneficial, but for us, it’s about understanding our markets better. What are the challenges and opportunities they are facing? How are our customers navigating them? It really does help shape all that we do.”

 

Let’s switch gears to how you create and implement a strategy board like this. Why is it valuable to have a third-party like Farland Group involved?

“The biggest thing for us was making sure this wasn’t viewed as Thomson Reuters trying to bring critical clients together for selfish reasons.  We didn’t want it to come across as any kind of sales or marketing push or related to any existing business dealings. We truly wanted to make it mutually beneficial, and we wanted to learn from our customers. It was purely about the individuals and their organizations and leveraging that expertise.

Farland has played a key role in making sure our credibility in that area stays intact. Having the Farland team serve as a buffer between the board members and our executive team has been helpful in making board members comfortable about why they are participating. The board members are very willing to talk to Farland about what they expect to get out of the next meeting and what they want to see on the agenda.”

How has working with Farland improved your engagement with these executive customers?

“Farland is all over every detail and keeps us on task and on track. They keep the programming elements constantly moving forward. It’s been wonderful. Before the pandemic, we would have envisioned hosting a day-and-a-half session with these clients. Virtually, we had to make it a more reasonable time commitment of 90 minutes to a two-hour conversation. Farland has been essential in helping us refine and boil down our agenda. Farland also holds pre- and post-meeting conversations with each board member to make sure the agenda and content are in alignment with what the customers find most important. That’s been critical in making sure we’re making it relevant and of value for all parties.

The credibility factor that Farland brings permeates throughout their engagement. It’s amazing to me how quick and effective they have been at understanding our business, understanding who the leaders are and how they operate and how they can best participate in meetings—and that sometimes includes not participating. For lack of a better term, they’ve made everything tighter in the way the meeting is planned and the way it’s executed. Their credibility helps us go into these meetings from a much more informed and prepared position.”

What are some best practices you recommend to others considering peer-to-peer strategy boards?

“Foremost, listen to Farland Group! They know what they are doing. We aren’t that different from other organizations, and we knew that if it was working for others, it will certainly work for us. Listen to the Farland team’s guidance on the front end and throughout.

Another learning is on selecting board members. We didn’t pick participants with whom we’re looking to expand our footprint or close a significant deal—we selected members based on who we can learn from and who other board members can also benefit hearing from. For example, we have two academic institutions represented on our board and their insights and input have been incredibly valuable.

Executive leadership. We are fortunate our CEO is the executive lead for this. He’s committed to it and participates actively in the discussions. Further, it’s critical that we bring in executive leaders based on the agenda, not necessarily on their role. The executive team members participating in the discussions must be committed and engaged, whether that’s in the meeting itself or in the follow-on conversations. They need to be willing to engage, and willing and able to interact with clients in those follow-on conversations because without that buy in, it’s pointless.

Another executive host characteristic that’s critical for success is someone who can listen and take what they hear forward and, if appropriate, make changes organizationally. If we learn something that changes our strategy, we need to have somebody represented from the Thomson Reuters side who has the power, influence, and desire to make these changes happen.”

Any final thoughts?

“The final thing I would say is on a more personal basis. The Farland team is hyper-professional and really, really good at what they do, but they also make you feel like they’ve personally known you for a long time. They know our business, they know some of the other individuals personally, and it’s a unique skill set they bring to the table. The bottom line is trust. They bring trust to the table at every level of their engagement. I would call Jane Hiscock or Hilary Lee for their guidance on something completely unrelated to our advisory board in a heartbeat!”

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