top of page

Fear of Finding Out (FOFO): a psychological barrier to Client Listening

The Fear of Finding Out (FOFO) is a psychological barrier which was first identified in the field of medicine - albeit it is a barrier that exists outside of it. Here we explore how the FOFO can be a reason why Client Listening programmes do not deliver, stall, or even fail to get off the ground in the first place.

What is FOFO?

The Fear Of Finding Out is the psychological barrier that stops a person from learning because they are afraid of what they might discover.

It was first identified in the field of medicine, where patients avoid seeking help, even though they suspect something is wrong. Given early diagnosis can make a huge difference in treatment, the finding that FOFO was responsible for many patients burying their heads in the sand was important.

How can FOFO limit us?

Limiting beliefs and psychological barriers are ever-present, so it is not uncommon for these to appear in different contexts in our lives. Here at Client Talk, we are fascinated by psychology and how that translates to Client Listening: particularly because it is so often overlooked by firms.

You don’t need to look very far to identify signs that psychology and emotions are at play when we consider the broad topic of feedback.

Psychology and emotions in feedback

In their most recent Future of Client Listening Report, MyCustomerLens identified that whilst 63% of respondents are doing some kind of client interviewing (making it the second most common source of feedback), only 48% gather feedback from complaints. Even lower are the statistics around feedback gathered early on in the relationship, with firms opting to find out how they are doing post-project or transaction.

Data can always be interpreted in a number of ways but it does appear that there is less of an appetite for seeking out negative feedback. This is reflected in some of the conversations that we have with firms. It is always easier for the firm's key clients and strong relationships to be put forward. It is rare that we interview a client who has left, or who has significantly reduced spend (although the firms that are brave gather some robust and insightful feedback).

3 signs that your firm might be coming up against a FOFO

Are you wondering whether your firm might be suffering from a FOFO amongst fee-earners? The following might be indicators that you are.

1. Your Client Listening programme is focused on longer-standing or big billing clients.

Yes, you want to keep these, but are they being selected solely because of the perception is that they will have more good things to say? They are already demonstrating a level of satisfaction in their engagement with you after all.

2. Your programme is geared more towards feed-forward and horizon scanning than feedback.

Looking for opportunities is important, but are you doing so because you want to avoid unpicking what has come before?

3. You only get pitch feedback when you win.

You don’t ask clients who leave, or whose spend starts tailing off, what went wrong. You try to contain negative feedback and are mindful of who it is shared with. All of these things can be signs of a culture that doesn’t value the learning that comes from failure.

Why might fee earners have FOFO?

In the examples above, it is unlikely to be the person who is driving the programme, the business developers or client development teams, who have the FOFO. It will be the partners or associates who are responsible for delivering services. Why? The feedback is likely to be personal.

Feedback is personal.

Many firms try to get buy-in to client listening programmes by espousing the benefits of client listening to the firm at large. However, the pain and actions required often fall on a few shoulders. An extreme example? Finding out that a client isn’t happy with the selection of a partner on the team, could save the relationship by replacing them on the matter. This is a benefit to the firm – the client is saved – but the pain is felt at a very individual level. FOFO reflects this individual pain.

The fear present in the context of a medical diagnosis perhaps makes sense. Ultimately the fear is death. Surely client feedback is in no way close to this?

Let’s think about this for a moment. The reason we experience fear is that we have evolved to avoid situations that are threatening to us. Work is a big part of who we are and what we do. Being seen to be successful in what we do is important to many. Finding out personally, but also having others find out, that we are not as good as we believe we are (or maybe that we are as bad as we fear!) can have a huge impact on the recipient of that feedback.

What to do about FOFO?

One large professional services firm that we know rewards fee-earners for receiving feedback – good and bad – rewarding the courage that it takes to get the latter. This helps to demonstrate that the receipt of negative feedback is something that is not only expected but also that it is to be celebrated because of the learning it brings.

Focusing as an organisation on emotional intelligence training and coaching can also help. This might sound self-serving (Client Talk offers both), so let’s go back to where FOFO started out – and where the motivation to overcome the barrier was high – medicine. Nurses are encouraged to listen to patients (actively), to avoid the ‘righting reflex’ (giving answers), and to build empathy. There is even an app so patients can find out how big their FOFO is and which provides ways to overcome it! Much of this is very much aligned with coaching, as well as noticing and being in control of your emotions (emotional intelligence). It is therefore proven that these solutions work.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like to read more about psychology and its implications for client listening with our articles on heuristics, sugar-coating feedback, and mindsets.

If you want to find out how Client Talk can help you with FOFO, build emotional intelligence, or support your client listening, then read more, or get in touch.


bottom of page