What is the one thing that should be on every professional services firms list of things to do in 2021? "Go and speak to our clients." This was true in 2020 and it will also be true in 2022. There is no other activity that consistently provides so much return on investment. Yet despite client listening being so powerful, many professional services firms do not go and speak to their clients in a structured way.
Why? Some think they are talking to their clients all the time, so there is no point having a formal programme. Others worry that the clients will not want to take part. However, for many, they know the benefits, but they just do not know where to start. If the perceived enormity of getting a client listening programme off the ground is getting in your way, fear not! In this blog we provide our top tips to help you get started with client listening.
Where to start with client listening?
The starting point should be to identify what you are looking to get out of your client listening programme. There are many different reasons why you might look to gather feedback and a client listening programme might not be the right approach for each of them.
If the reason is to gather information that will help you deepen your understanding of yourselves and to improve your relationship with your clients, then a client listening programme is for you.
If the reason is ad hoc and specific: maybe you want feedback on a website project or you are undergoing a rebranding exercise and want some information to feed into that, then you are right to go out to get information from clients, but you are unlikely to want to do this as part of a more structured client listening programme.
We know what we want to achieve, now what?
Once you have established that you want a programme, the next questions to answer are the following:
Who should conduct the interviews?
Who should we ask?
Where should we record the information that comes back?
These three questions are the questions we are most commonly asked. The debate that can then follow for each of them can lead to the client listening programmes being stalled. The debate about how to implement a programme can sometimes be focused on one client, or one partner. The arguments that bubble up can cause upset and paralysis. If you get to this stage, our response is always the same. Think small, but get going, and acknowledge that one size might not necessarily fit all.
Who should conduct the interviews?
Someone who is well-versed in active listening. This might be the person who holds the relationship, however more likely than not, they will be used to having a different type of conversation with their client and will be unable to make the switch from advocacy to inquiry. That then leaves someone who is independent of the relationship. That might be someone internal, it could be someone external. The more experienced the better, but if you are not trained in active listening, then our advice would be to enter these conversations with curiosity and a desire to learn. If active listening training is something you would like to find out more about, then get in touch!
Who should we ask?
Often client listening programmes end up being an exercise in back-slapping. The clients with whom firms have the warmest relationships are put forward: “because they will say nice things.”
For a programme to be meaningful you need to avoid echo chambers. We would recommend selecting a representative sample of clients: old and new; won and lost. How can you do that? The easiest way is to put names in a hat and draw them out. This takes away any biases that might exist in the selection programme. If there is resistance to a name, let it go. Start with the open-doors and let the results speak for themselves. That resistance is likely to subside when they do.
Where should we record the information?
Many firms hold off embarking on a programme until they have a new CRM system, or a better information system. We believe that a client listening programme should not be held up because systems are not up and running. Provided you are following the rules on data protection and are maintaining client information confidential, then think small and get going. What is important is what you hear, not where you write it down. Making sure the right people have access to the information is vital. The fact that it is shared in an unsophisticated way doesn’t matter to the client as long as their concerns are actioned.
We speak to our clients all the time, is this still relevant?
Do conversations get captured? Are the informal comments and opportunities shared and developed? There are ways of doing this and on-going current information can sit at the heart of a client listening programme. However, often on-going conversations are not treated with the same rigour as a formal relationship meeting or feedback session. This means that intelligence is lost, and the wider client team does not benefit.
Our clients are all long-standing, we would know if there was a problem
For firms who have long-standing clients, it is sometimes felt that client feedback programmes are not relevant. “We know everything there is to know and we get all the work we will get.” However, as with all relationships, they need to be nurtured. The small niggles that don’t get aired build over time and sometimes are only shared in formal meetings. Complacency can result in some long-standing clients feeling overlooked. Getting someone who is independent to the relationship to ask questions can uncover nuggets that would otherwise remain hidden.
What’s the difference between feedback and horizon scanning?
Client feedback and horizon scanning are different but often wrapped up together. Client feedback usually benefits the client because it makes the relationship better. Horizon scanning usually benefits the firm because it uncovers opportunities. You can include both in a client listening programme, but be clear of the distinction, make sure your client knows what the aim of the meeting is AND, if you undertake horizon scanning, make sure there is a benefit for the client, not just for yourselves.
Why is NOW a good time to be asking clients for feedback?
“It’s not the right time” is the most frequent response given as a way of preventing client listening. The client is too new. The client is too busy. The client is too long-standing. The client is working remotely. In none of these cases is the client offered the opportunity to say whether they think it is the right time.
Now is always the best time to undertake client listening. The only time that isn’t a good time is when the client says so. You should always ask. If a client says no, do not push, but, when the request is made with the client’s best interests at heart, even if it’s not the right time for them, the request will likely be met warmly.
With in-person events having been cancelled and informal opportunities to meet and speak to clients few and far between, many firms are using client feedback to get closer to their clients and to build stronger relationships. If you are not one of them, what’s stopping you?