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From passive to active client listening

What is at the cutting edge of client listening? From our conversations, it is clear that the time has come for many firms to think about how to implement a step change in their client listening programmes. This is unsurprising, the pandemic shifted the way we listened and we are now seeing the fall-out of that change. In this article, Claire Rason, writes about the shift from passive to active client listening.

The shift: client listening has changed

The pandemic disrupted traditional client engagement. Face-to-face relationships went digital overnight. Management committees and boards faced decisions that old client insights couldn’t inform. This shift forced firms to listen differently. Client listening happened more frequently, was acted on more swiftly, and moved online.

As clients return to their offices, as with the professional services firms that serve them, hybrid working has replaced the 9 to 5 Monday-Friday. When clients are in the office they are making sure that they maximize face-to-face time. Face-to-face meetings are precious and not accepted as readily.

All of this has an impact on the way firms gather feedback. Some firms are embracing this shift change and dialing it up – others are still trying to cling to the old way.

The old way: passive client listening

Passive client listening was the old way. A survey was sent to a database once a year, with responses collated and all the good stuff being used in marketing literature and testimonials in pitches. Alongside this were the annual relationship meetings or end-of-matter reviews. Interviews were very much that - an interview - running through a set list of questions. They were firm-led.

Interviewers, if external, were trained in statistics and in market research. Some of the larger feedback firms had junior researchers, learning how to ask questions and analyse the answers. Few had individuals who had ever been firm-side, and much less client-side. Those trained to listen? Notable in their absence.

The new way: active client listening

Active Client Listening is an extension of something that we have written about a lot: active listening. Active listening is deliberate and conscious. It is human-centered and it enables the listener to empathise and go deeper. In the context of client listening, it enables conversations to be client-led rather than question-led.

The ability to be brave and start with an invitation to hear “what is on your mind” is the new way. That is the way that we approach qualitative feedback. Why? It means that you can truly understand your clients and hear what is important to them.

It means that no pre-set questions are needed.

It means that it is scalable because those within a firm can be taught how to listen. It is also a more positive experience for the clients themselves, meaning that scale is possible because clients want more of it too.

What do you need to embrace active client listening?

You need to banish the idea that interviewers need to be market researchers. Instead, they need to be individuals who approach the exercise with curiosity and empathy. They need to have an understanding of all the stakeholders, not just the sponsor within a firm. They need to be trained to listen.

The individuals leading the conversations need to adopt a human-centered approach and have an understanding of psychology and all the stakeholders. This new way is about adding value through insights, industry knowledge, and facilitating discussions. It is not about analysing answers across a fixed set of questions.

All of this needs the right culture and mindset.

  • To get the most from feedback you need to think about the quality of insights. Historically feedback has been approached as a market research exercise: this is just one of the things that prevent active listening and getting clients to be open and honest.

  • You need to think about the psychology that stops insights from being actioned. It's human nature to sugar-coat feedback. Understanding why and creating a culture where feedback is embraced is central to the new way. To meet client needs insights must be actioned.

  • You need to have maximum buy-in. Getting ALL partners to buy in is crucial. “Why should we do more to hear the same thing?”, “I talk to my clients, so I don’t need this exercise”, “I don’t trust someone else with my clients.” Listening to these views and working with them enables trust to build and buy-in to increase. This in turn makes the culture more open to this new way.

This is about more than just clients

The old way meant that client listening was a stand-alone exercise conducted under the remit of business development or client development. Limitations of budget, access to clients, and manpower, meant that the focus was on a few top clients rather than on a bigger sample size. These limitations meant that historically client listening has just been about clients, or at a push target clients and referrers.

The new way expands beyond clients. It embraces other stakeholders – including employees themselves. Extending listening provides for a diversity of thought and more meaningful action.


The new way of listening requires a more sophisticated approach to data handling. Technology enables client listening programmes to be scaled up and facilitates this broader approach. Humans can analyse data across 20/30 interviews. Most firms are doing this already. However, technology can be employed to do what it does best – read across much larger data sets, faster and in real-time. It can make sense of the text and draw out themes. This means humans can add value at a deeper level. Ironically technology can enable more human interaction with clients.

To find out how you can be human-centered but tech-enabled, why don’t you get in touch?


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