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Client listening: Sugar coating feedback

We have all been there. We have something to say. We know that delivering the message will be of value to the client and to the professional. BUT something holds us back. We end up sugar coating feedback, which leads to miscommunication and the right actions not being taken.

Why do we sugar-coat feedback?

On the face of it, it’s easy. You have been empowered to go and speak to a client in order to find out how you can make the relationship better. If they share information with you, they are doing so because they want to make the relationship better and they want to vocalise issues that can be resolved. You are entrusted with a message.

1. Fear

If we think about who is often delivering the message, and to whom, we can see that a reason is likely to be fear. There is an imbalance of power here. You may be in a situation where a business development expert is needing to deliver a message to a partner. Even if you have a culture where marketing and business development teams are respected, and this is not always the norm, the partners are the owners of the business. They are ultimately employing them.

Marketeers and business developers work to serve the firm and will view the professionals as their internal clients and stakeholders. Delivering a hard message to the person you serve is difficult.

2. Lack of incentives

When we think about the action needed to respond to constructive criticism, the impact is often felt as personal loss, even if the firm ultimately benefits.

Let’s take the most extreme example, where a client says that they are happy with the firm, but they do not like one of the individuals working on the account. Now, there are, of course, conversations to be had here around why they don’t like this individual, resourcing, not bowing to the pressures of individual clients…BUT… assuming that reasons are well founded and the issue with the individual is not one that is easily resolved, what personal incentive does this individual professional have to remove themselves? They may lose face with colleagues, their pride will be hit, they may be financially penalised because their billable hours are reduced. Arguments around the good of the firm are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Now, this is an extreme example, but we can make the same argument for almost all types of feedback that identifies a development point. There is often little or no reward for the individual to act on the feedback, even if the firm ultimately gains; incentives work on a personal level.

The reverse is also true, what incentives are there for the messenger to deliver the message? As we have said, often the messenger is a client developer. Most client developers have no incentive to have these difficult conversations. If the person who is delivering the message feels that it might be a case of “shooting the messenger” and gets no additional benefit from collective growth, why bother? This is likely to be particularly pronounced where there is a theme to feedback.

“They have heard it before and haven’t changed, why should I stick my neck on the line now.”

3. Lack of support from the top

This, perhaps, is key. If we don’t have support from the top, then fear and lack of incentives are more pronounced. Furthermore, support from the top is needed to resolve both of these things. Most firms would say that there is support from the top. Isn’t every professional services firm top priority to keep existing clients happy? This priority needs support from the top and this support needs to be visible. Questions should be asked around:

  • What behaviours are rewarded in the firm?

  • What is the culture between those who are client facing and those who aren’t?

  • Are the senior team delivering the hard messages and having the hard conversations or delegating these?

  • Are those who must give open and honest feedback fully supported?

What’s the solution?

Giving feedback is hard. Even if you are supported from the top, even if you know that the person you are talking to might be receptive, it is still hard.

There are ways to get people more comfortable with giving and receiving feedback and creating a culture where it is easier to have those challenging conversations.

Having the right conversations

As with so many things, the best place to start is by having the right conversations internally. Talk about the problems that surround giving negative feedback. Get partners to reflect on the feedback in the abstract. Invite them to notice how they react to feedback and to think about how that might impact on the person delivering the message.

Coaching can be an asset. Coaching works not only for the individual who needs to give feedback, helping them to overcome any concerns that they might have, but also for the individual who is receiving the feedback. Whilst we haven’t delved into mindsets here, people with a growth mindset are more likely to be open to feedback, rather than those with fixed mindsets, who might become defensive or dispirited. Coaching can help overcome some of the limiting beliefs getting in the way.

Who needs to know?

One of the biggest challenges with client feedback is that it is personal. Where a client shares information about how an individual delivers a service, they are offering a critique about that individual. There might be themes in the feedback, but even if more than one team member suffers the same misgiving, individuals are opening themselves up to assessment.

One of the things to think about in this context is confidentiality. One of the reasons that coaching works is because it is both non-judgemental and confidential. A coach offers a safe space for individuals to reflect and to gain insight that helps them to grow. One of the complications with client feedback is that it is not always confidential, and it can be seen to be judgemental.

Who in the firm needs to hear the feedback? Where in the firm is the feedback stored and who has access to it? When the hard conversations are had, who else knows about the subject matter in advance. Is the professional the last to know?

By creating a culture where feedback is given honestly, and received openly, the benefits will be felt beyond client listening. Feedback needs to be dealt with systemically. At the level of those who are having the conversation, but also thinking about the wider support system in place. Understanding what is rewarded and how.

If you would like to discuss how your firm can embrace feedback and get everyone more comfortable with giving and receiving it contact us. Our team coaches are experienced at helping teams create coaching cultures and getting professional services firms more comfortable with feedback.



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