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Client feedback: The importance of consistency

Claire Rason was recently invited to join Matt Baldwin, editor of The Professionals, to speak about all things Client Feedback and Client Listening. Find out what she said below, or watch the interview here.

Matt: Claire, I thought maybe the first question that would be good to ask is, is just what is the difference between a client feedback and a client listening programming? And how did the two sit together?

Claire: I think the clue is in the name. And it's that word ‘feedback’. With a feedback program, it's about looking backwards. A client listening program is more about looking forwards. So to answer the question, whether they can sit together? Yes, I think they absolutely can, because I think there is an element that we need both. For me, client listening is really key. It is about being forward looking and thinking about the client, and what they want to tell you, rather than looking back and perhaps thinking about what you might want to find out.

Matt: With a client listening program, and that the last few years have made it quite difficult, I suspect for many firms to have really meaningful client listening programs, and perhaps has made client feedback a little bit easier. What have you seen over the past two years with client listening programs?

Claire: What the last two years have done is they've highlighted that looking back has its uses but is limited. Particularly when the first lockdown hit us, firms quickly realized that information that they had from clients, even a couple of months prior, was no longer relevant. Things have been changing constantly over the last two years. It's really shone a light on the importance of making sure that those conversations with clients are continuous. Because pain points, opportunities are changing all the time.

In terms of how easy it's been to implement client feedback or client listening. What I've noticed is that it has been easier to get time in with clients. I think initially, March 2020 when the UK went into lockdown, there was a bit of battening down hatches and firefighting. Making sure that clients were okay with what was on the desk at the time. But I think as 2020 moved on, there was a real move towards “Okay, well, let's take advantage of the fact that we can schedule a zoom call or a team's call with our clients, and just find out how they're doing”. That's something that pre-pandemic firms weren't doing. Firm's have, and not all firms, but I think the firm's that have seized that opportunity to have really in depth conversations with their clients are the ones that have put themselves in the best position now to move forward.

Matt: It's quite interesting, isn't it? I mean, it strikes me that there's a sort of slight shift from very formal programs, pre pandemic to slightly more informal programs, but with a lot more contact. Does that sort of make sense?

Claire: Absolutely. There's always some bias here, as that is certainly my approach to client listening. It's something that has to be continuous. Whilst there are benefits to having a very structured formal process, what they do is they force a firm to listen at a certain point in time. And as I said, there are reasons why you might want to have that, and why that might be something that can accompany a program, but actually thinking about: how can we constantly be listening to our clients? How can we be constantly building on the information that we have, is something that is extremely powerful.

And I think in terms of the informality, you know, firms struggle with informal feedback, and that can be constant feedback. But it's something that I think has been made easier, in a strange way, because of the pandemic.

Matt: It might be quite helpful to give our viewers and listeners an idea of what an informal program might entail, and how it can actually work. A a lot of people are very familiar with that sort of quite formal, once a year sit down with a client sort of program, but when it's more ad hoc, more informal, how does it actually look and work?

Claire: The first thought I've got is around this use of the word informal, because I think there is an element of informal feedback that isn't captured. And that's not what I'm talking about. Now, perhaps we can come on to that later on in this conversation. But in terms of thinking about a program that is more consistent, I think, when we think about traditional client listening programs or client feedback programs, perhaps they happened at a certain time. Maybe at the end of a transaction, or the end of a piece of litigation, or project, or whatever it might be. Firms will go in and ask their clients, "how did we do?". That's kind of typical feedback mode.

It could be that a firm might decide, okay, well, every March, we're going to do an exercise where we will go out and we will interview clients, and then we'll bring that back. We'll think about it, we'll action it (hopefully), then we'll come back again in 12 months time. Now, I think that there's absolutely a place for that. And it's something that I do, so something that I do believe in. But it's that gap between the 12 months, if it's an annual program that you've got, or perhaps it's asking a client for feedback at the end of a project. It's moving to finding out how they how are across the life of a project. Checking in at the beginning and finding out: What are your expectations of us? Why is it that you've chosen us? It’s checking in midway through and asking: How are we doing? Asking that question at a point in time where you can do sometactually do something about it. So, I'm not sure informal is the right word, I think consistent is probably the word I use in that context.

How does it look? How does it feel? It's making sure that it's something that you're building on across the year, rather than having snapshot moments.

Matt: It makes an awful lot of sense. And I suspect that that represents quite a cultural shift for many firms. And how should a firm or how does the marketing and BD team help change that culture?

Claire: The psychology behind all of this is really interesting, and it's something I could go on about for hours. I'll try and keep my answer short. I think that, again, there will always be a spectrum, from firms which don't really do any kind of listening, or don't really gather any feedback, through to those firms that do a lot of this already. Maybe it's shifting either those individuals who are the outliers and who really don't want their clients to be approached, or perhaps they're happy with the way you can go and ask them once we've finished the job, but not in the middle when things that things are tricky.

What can marketers and business developers do? I suspect they're doing a lot of this already. But thinking about some quick wins. So what examples have they got where actually listening made a difference and a positive difference.

I think there's an element around feedback of people getting information from clients and if they say something positive, then the reaction is “great, I kind of knew that already”. If they tell us that we're doing something badly, the feeling is “that's going to impact on my relationship, it's going to impact on me, as an individual within the firm”. That makes people feel uncomfortable. So, it's making sure that you create an environment where people can see that if we get something that perhaps is a little bit more constructive, we take it as something that is constructive. It's not something that's used to punish. It's not something that's used to hang individuals out to dry. Demonstrating how that can be used in a constructive way is really helpful.

Matt: I mean, it sounds also to me that actually having a very rigid format for program that has to apply to all partners probably is going to get you unstuck, there needs to be some degree of flexibility to reflect the individuals that are involved. And I guess also, the other interesting point there is actually acting on the information that you're given in these programs. And, there is that concern that partners and other fee earners may have, but how should you approach then where action is needed? Not necessarily internally, but maybe with the client? How should you approach those discussions with colleagues in a firm?

Claire: Again, lots of different thoughts going around in my head. And I think with action, there's a difference between actions which are quite individual to the clients, or at that particular client, and then there might be actions, which relate to themes that are perhaps coming out in the firm and perhaps requires a broader approach.

In terms of individual actions, when we're thinking about specific relationships, if you go out and ask for feedback, we're wanting to better, and I am conscious of where we started this conversation. But if you go out and listen to your client, and you hear “we want you to do this better, we want you to do more of that”, it doesn't always have to be negative, the reason why a client will share that with us, is because they expect it to be acted upon, they want the relationship to get better. Starting from that point of view and understanding – that the clients told us this because they want us to improve the relationship, is a nice place to start.

That communication, making sure that the client knows you're acting, is really important. I think often times what will happen is, firm will gather feedback, they might well act, they might well change their processes, they might have conversations internally, but that's not communicated back to the client, and that loop isn't closed. It goes back to this consistency point, going back to the client in a month's time saying, we heard, this is what we've done, have you noticed a difference? How does it look? How does it feel? Is there more we could be doing?

For those bigger, firm actions, it's about making sure that you're continually listening, and closing that loop all the time. So going back to clients and saying, look, we've heard you ,this is what we've done, does it meet with your expectations? Is there more we can be doing?

Matt: It sounds like, it's a very time intensive process for marketing, marketers, and business development and people like yourself, I mean, does technology play a role in in facilitating this in enabling firms to reach many more clients? Or do you have to blend your approach by using technology to reach some clients and a more personal approach with other clients? How does that work together? Let me phrase it in a slightly different way. I mean, how does technology help or hinder this process?

Claire: Technology can help and hinder the process. I always find it funny when I talk about technology, because my focus is always on the people. And you know, I'm someone who has a little bit of a fear of technology. So I always find it strange when I talk about it.

I think technology can help when you know what problem it is that you want technology to jump in and solve. Oftentimes with technology, you're sold this fantastic all singing, all dancing, CRM, or whatever it might be and it doesn't actually solve a problem that you've got.

So thinking about what we're talking about, and thinking about the problem. It's time consuming. Yes, absolutely. The problem is that we're getting information all the time. So we need to try and capture that. Then there's the problem of reading across. We need to be able to think about what themes we are seeing across all of these different clients. How can we draw them all together?

Technology can absolutely help and technology could be as basic as an Excel. I think people forget some of the basics, and it is not that I'm recommending Excel to everyone. But think about what technology you currently have that you could use to solve the problem.

There are providers out there that are doing great things. My Customer Lens are a firm that's doing great things in this space. They're using AI to help make sense of feedback, to help to collect feedback, and to help to read across feedback. There will be other providers out there that do similar things, I'm sure.

Technology can absolutely help, but I think if you focus on the technology and forget to listen, it's not going to take you anywhere.

Matt: It all comes back to listening then, how do you think as we come out of the pandemic client feedback programs are likely to change and evolve?

Claire: I hope that what the last few years have taught us is the need to empathize with our clients. I've mentioned over the course of this conversation, how are our clients feeling, think about emotion. I think that in the last few years we have opened up our homes - a good example of that today, both of us sitting in our respective homes. That's been replicated with client-firm relationships. That has led to deeper conversations. I hope that continues, and I hope that those deep conversations are built on.

The last few years have accelerated the need to listen. Firms have been forced to put to one side their formal programs, and think, "what do clients want now?" And then in three months time, "okay, what do clients need now?" I hope that consistency is something that's carried forward into the future.

I've mentioned informal feedback, and discussed it in one sense, but I think there are lots of informal conversations that are had and aren't captured.

If we think about the water cooler moments that you have in an office, that has been the topic of many a conversation over the last few years, how do you recreate those in a virtual world? I think you have lots of those moments with clients.

Hopefully, the last few years have demonstrated the value of those conversations that we have in a corridor, in a lift, in a taxi, at client events. Maybe looking forward, the firm's that can think about how we capture those moments, and put those into the mix, will be ones that will really see the dividends with their listening programs.

Matt: Sounds like firms should keep up some of the good habits that they've learned over the last two years.

Claire: Absolutely. We've been forced to change, and firms have been forced to listen in a way that perhaps they wouldn't have done before. And, you know, with all periods of change, it's good to reflect. Pause and say “what have we done over the last few years that surprised us? What's really worked for us, and how can we make sure that we don't forget about that when we start getting back into the office and meetings start popping into the diary in real life?”

Matt: Thank you, Claire. That seems like a very good place to draw a close. Keep listening everybody. Claire, thank you ever so much for joining The Professionals.



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