The pandemic disrupted traditional client engagement. Face-to-face relationships went digital overnight. Boards faced new decisions that old client insights couldn't inform. The shift forced professional services firms to listen differently. They gathered more feedback, from more clients, more often. As the world adapts to hybrid working, two types of firms are emerging: those returning to passive client listening; and those expanding when, where, and how they listen. This raises an important question: who is best placed to carry out client listening?
What is a client listener?
A client listener is someone who goes out and asks questions to clients (past and present), targets and referrers. These questions are aimed at finding out how a firm is doing, to improve delivery not only to the person being asked but also to others.
There is no fixed way of going out and asking questions. Some approach this as a market research exercise, where there are set questions to be asked, and where there are specific themes that need to be raised. We see this as a firm-led approach. Our approach is different. Our listeners are also coaches. This means that we have been trained to actively listen. We are human-centred. We are client led, rather than question led, and it is this approach that we are starting to see firms adopt.
Who should conduct client listening?
We are unique in the market in that not only do we go out and gather feedback on behalf of our clients, but we also train firms to do the listening themselves. We coach teams and individuals to act on what they have heard and to be comfortable receiving constructive feedback. That means that this question is one which we can answer holistically. We will not say 'external' merely because that means we can then go and conduct your interviews for you. Likewise, we will not say 'internal' because we think we can then train you.
We want firms to actively listen to their clients, expand their listening programmes and be always on when it comes to gathering feedback. Why? We believe that it is the single most important thing firms can do to grow.
What are the options for gathering feedback?
The main options when it comes to conducting client interviews are:
Business Development teams
External Independent Listeners
A combination of the above
There are advantages and challenges to each of these options - we have summarised these in the attached document which you can use to generate conversations in your firm.
When we are asked the question ‘What is best?’ we also take firms through a series of questions.
1. Does the client listener need to be independent of those delivering the service?
An independent person could be an external person, but equally, it could be someone within the firm who is not involved with delivering the service to the client.
There are lots of reasons why this independence is helpful. The main reason is that there is less likely to be judgement when someone is independent, which makes it much easier for the person to stay in listening mode. Trying to fix a situation, jumping into giving advice and interpreting are all things that can get in the way of active listening.
There can be advantages for the person giving feedback too. Many of us struggle with giving feedback, particularly where it can be seen as personal. Clients are often more likely to open up when speaking to an independent because they can raise things that might be difficult to do with the person they are speaking about.
Professionals can be reluctant to trust their clients with someone who sits outside the relationship. The independent client listener might (if they are internal to the firm) also be worried about feeding back sensitive information to their colleagues. Reframing and coaching can be solutions here.
Given what we have said, you might think that independence is always best. We don’t think so. Having the person delivering the service ask for feedback is a great way to build trust with the client. If the professional understands the difference between advising and listening, they can skillfully jump between these two types of conversation and it is here that contracting and framing the client conversation is essential. The professional needs to give the client permission to be open; as well as give themselves permission to hold a conversation where they might not be providing answers.
Skilled internal listeners can jump from a conversation where they are giving advice, to a conversation where they are gathering feedback. This enables them to constantly be listening and niggles can be dealt with in real time.
2. How far along in your listening journey are you?
Most firms have experience in gathering feedback, however, there are differences when it comes to the formalities that exist around client listening programmes.
Firms that are early on the journey have an opportunity to shape the future, unencumbered by what has gone before. This means that they need to think about where best to start based on the challenges that they are seeing. Often we recommend that a short series of interviews be conducted externally first. This helps to show people the power of feedback; helps to build buy-in; and can allay fears.
Firms that are further in their journeys tend to turn to internal listening when they want to scale. For larger programmes, internal resource needs to be utilised. Reliance on external listeners links scale to budget, not client need, so there will always come a tipping point when firms need to look within.
3. What does the resource you have available look like?
The truth is that often the driving forces which determine who does the listening are time and money. There is always a trade-off. If you look inside the firm then you are not limited by budget. However, professionals will need to balance delivering for their clients and going out to listen.
Business development teams will also be limited as to how much of their day can be carved out for client listening. Be realistic about what the resources you have look like and come to a solution that provides the best value for your firm.