How to win a STEP Private Client Award 2019/20

John Barnett TEPEntries are open for the 2019/20 STEP Private Client Awards until 30 April. The Awards are widely acknowledged as being the premier event in the private client industry calendar. Winning an Award is a very clear and recognised hallmark of excellence.

How then, do you go about winning an Award? John Barnett TEP, Chair of the Presiding Judges, gives us his top tips based on his personal experience over the last three years on the judging panel.

Don’t be scared to enter

There can sometimes be a perception that the Awards are only for larger firms or for the usual London suspects. However, the judges have clear instructions to make allowance for smaller entrants and to take cultural differences into account for international entries. Last year’s entrants and winners were the most international yet. Entries from all sizes and types of firm are therefore welcome. Strong entries will always attract attention from the judges, from wherever they originate.

Enter the right category

It is a constant surprise to the judges how many firms enter the wrong category. One submission even began with the bold statement: ‘We are a leading [another category entirely] firm…’. Read the category criteria carefully, and if you think the judges might have difficulty understanding why you are applying for a particular category, help them by explaining your business better.

Put yourself in the mind of the judges

My number-one tip, when writing your submission, is to imagine yourself as one of the judges.

Be aware that most of the judges will not know most of the applicants. If they do, then all the better – judges are encouraged to bring their personal knowledge to the process – but for the most part, judges will be relying heavily on the submission. So even if you think you are the best-known firm in the world, make your submission count.

Each judge will, at the shortlisting stage, have to review up to 100 submissions, each of up to 1,100 words. They will then do the same again at the finalist stage. Judges have to mark each submission against five criteria and write at least 50 words about each one. That is 220,000 words of reading, 1,000 scores to give out, and at least 10,000 words to write. It is an awful lot of work: first time around, I took a week’s holiday to do the process justice. With this in mind…

Answer the questions

It is the first rule of exam-technique we should all have learned at school, but every year I am amazed at how many submissions do not answer the question. There are five criteria for each award. Each of the criteria is weighted equally and we score each out of five. So answer the questions and pick up the easy marks. Don’t waste half of your words on criteria where you have already scored 5/5 and then fail to say anything at all in response to others.

Further, make sure that you clearly answer each of the criteria in turn. If instead you give a general narrative answer, even if it addresses all the criteria, judges aren’t going to thank you for having to read it several times in order to extract and mark each one. Make the judges’ lives easier and they are likely to mark you more highly.

Don’t waste word-count

You have 1,100 words. Make them all count. So many submissions waste words. Précis rigorously. Then do so again.

A favourite example from a few years’ ago: ‘We acted for an elderly lady of great age in relation to her complex affairs. She…’ 16 words (1.5 per cent of your total) when ‘An elderly client…’ would have done just as well.

Avoid the marketing spiel!

You will be judged by fellow senior industry professionals who can spot flannel and hyperbole from a long way off.

In response to the question ‘what makes you different?’ a particular bugbear of mine is an answer that says: ‘Putting the client at the heart of everything we do is our USP and in our DNA’. If this really makes you different, why have I read something similar in 50 other submissions?

Most of the work in our industry is advisory. The ability to communicate clearly with clients is crucial to this. So demonstrate your ability to give clear advice, with a clear and well-written submission. If your marketing team is superb, then by all means use them. The judges’ experience, though, is that submissions written by those at the coal-face often read more convincingly.

Pay attention to spelling and grammar, and beware unnecessary adverbs and superlatives.

Big numbers (and names) are irrelevant

Many submissions make great play of the financial value of their clients or cases. Others seek reflected glory in acting for big names. Yet both of these have almost no effect on the judges. Tell us what makes your case unusual, complex or novel. Don’t simply name-drop celebrity connections.

Provide evidence; don’t merely assert

Most criteria ask you to ‘demonstrate’ or ‘provide evidence’. Yet many submissions assert things – ‘We are the leading firm providing a superlative level of client-service and exceptional satisfaction’ – without any evidence to back this up.

What will go down well is an evidence-based entry that gives clear examples of what the firm has done over the past year to make it stand out from the crowd.

Entries should be particularly careful about unguarded assertions. ‘We are the only firm that can…’ or ‘We are the largest firm which…’ are particularly dangerous assertions – especially where some of the judges might work for a competitor and dispute whether this is true.

Tell us something unusual

A good answer for each of the criteria might get you shortlisted. But if you want to win, you will need to stand out.

Tell the judges something different, something unusual, something genuinely innovative. Think forward to the awards ceremony and the announcement of the winner. When the celebrity-host says: ‘The judges were particularly impressed by…’, what one facet of your submission will the judges have chosen?

Be consistent

The judges are both curious and cynical in equal measure. They will check what you say in your submission against what you say on your website and other sources of information. Glaring inconsistencies tend to result in entries receiving short shrift.

Remember the Awards are ‘….of the Year’

Your firm will obviously be very good at what it does, but the Awards are intended to highlight those that have achieved particular success over the past year. Make sure you are rigorous in only referring to evidence from 1 May 2018 to 30 April 2019. General statements about historic successes will waste words and not score any marks.

….and finally, good luck!

The judges look forward to having a harder job this year, with many well-written submissions to choose from!

John Barnett CTA (Fellow) TEP is a Partner at Burges Salmon, Bristol.

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