The benefits of client feedback programmes are well known. The results can help improve decision making, they can help a firm identify opportunities and create products and services that clients want. The exercise can help increase client loyalty or identify problems that if left undiscovered may become terminal.
It might therefore come as a surprise that in a recent survey we found that whilst the majority of firms say they have a formal client feedback programme in place, this isn’t translating into growth.
When we drilled down, we discovered that firms just aren’t listening well enough.
Who listens and how?
At the heart of every client feedback programme is a conversation. Some programmes might envisage the service provider speaking with the client. Other programmes bring in an independent listener from within the business or use external experts to ask the challenging questions on behalf of the firm.
Listening is a skill that when asked, most people would say it is one they have mastered. If challenged, they might think about ways to improve their listening. If shown Steve Covey’s five levels of listening, they might hover around level 3 (selective) or 4 (attentive). I wonder though how many would say that they are empathic listeners?
A lot has been written about listening. I have written about the different listening styles that people have, as well as what we can learn from the Chinese in our quest to become emphatic listeners. However, these texts are often the focus of people who make listening their vocation, of counsellors, coaches and psychologists. Sometimes the learning spills over into a self-help book or perhaps finds its way into the mainstream. However, as with so many soft skills its true value is often overlooked.
We believe that before any firm embarks on a client feedback programme, they should teach their listeners to listen. At Client Talk we are making it our mission to teach firms the art of listening well, as we believe the data collected from listening/feedback programmes is enhanced as a result.
When you listen more deeply you gain a clearer understanding of other people, their situations, thoughts and issues.
What is the objective of a client feedback programme?
Some firms are clear on why it is that they are embarking on a client feedback programme. They might have a specific purpose, which could be at a macro – strategic - level (to shape their product offering, or to better position their brand), or it could be at a more micro – relationship - level (to increase loyalty from specific key clients).
Often where the objective is strategic firms favour surveys, or going out and interviewing lots of clients in a one-off exercise. Where firms think about relationships, they tend to lead to qualitative research and the regular questioning of clients.
We have gone and done a listening exercise, now what?
However, whether the objective be at a macro or micro level, something needs to happen after the conversation for benefits to be transformational.
If our objective is to enhance our relationship with a particular client, having a really powerful conversation, where the client is truly listened to, might go some way to achieving that objective.
There are intrinsic benefits to listening well – the client has had the chance to get things off their chest. Airing frustrations might go some way to alleviating them. On the flip side, the client might be reminded how much they enjoy the company of the service provider or relive a great service.
However, if the conversation happens and then nothing else happens, any lasting impact will be minimal.
How do you enhance the client relationship through a client feedback programme?
If the objective of client feedback is to enhance a specific relationship, a client interview will likely have been favoured as the method of gathering insight. The client is likely to have shared information about what is important to it and its business. It will have spoken about the value received and about the nature of the relationship with the individual providing the service.
Some of the information will be very specific to the individual – I don’t like being contacted after 4pm, or I enjoy working with Sue because she is very pragmatic and helps me see what my options are. Other information might at first blush be of wider application – I like the fact your offices have free parking or are close to a train station.
To enhance the relationship, a process should be in place to:
Capture and share the information with the client team.
There should be an action plan – do more of what is working and less of what isn’t.
The client should be updated on what has happened since the feedback was given. This could be directly in the case of a correction “we have taken you off our mailing list” for example. Or, it could be by checking in again and asking “how are we doing on the issue of x?” – underling your commitment to change.
How do you go beyond the and create strategy?
If what we want to achieve is strategy, how do we go about that? Most conversations will focus on the specifics of the client, even those that are intended to be used for strategy. The skill in moving from a relationship based interview, to themes that can be used in strategy centers on the ability of firms to capture, record and share information beyond the client team.
It also relies on there being someone who is responsible for the big picture. When firms move from thinking that strategic decisions need to be based on large scale client feedback projects and instead start to tap into the insight they already have, they can gain a competitive advantage by constantly adapting to the needs of their clients.