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Are you really listening?

It’s time to bring a personal perspective back into client listening, says Andrew Pincott. Here are six ways you can.

Recent commentators have remarked that ‘client listening’ is currently flavour of the month. And so it should be. Every month.

Yet the blanket term ‘listening’ is often used for a wide range of approaches to client feedback obscuring the clarity we are all seeking.

The recent growth of data-driven solutions has greatly improved firms’ ability to capture and analyse many aspects of client feedback and behaviour. But they are only part of the story. So, what is ‘listening’?

At a time when peoples’ ‘lived experience’ and ‘own truths’ are given as much credence as factual analysis, it’s worth getting the personal dimension to client feedback via an interview. So what are the key aspects of that ‘client listening’?

Are you a good listener?

My wife occasionally asks if I’m actually listening to her. Leaving aside how common this marital gripe is (or whether she is right), it’s worth thinking what this means. To me, based on 30 years’ experience of client listening programmes, active client listening has six key aspects – preparing, hearing, understanding, acknowledging, acting and checking.

Preparing: while common sense dictates you should have background facts at your disposal before interviewing a client, speaking with the key members of the client advisory team beforehand builds a human picture – and a benchmark for their views before they allow the client’s feedback to ‘adjust’ their perceptions (‘I could have told you that’). Armed with background you can ask more insightful and probing questions of a client.

Hearing: client contact, messaging and behaviour, as well as data-driven analysis, all provide messages it is foolish to ignore and – as previous correspondents have remarked – it is common that partners feel it is actually they who know everything about their clients. Yet a client interview frequently yields new insights for a partner.

Understanding: sounds obvious, but have you ever briefed someone in your team and wondered whether they have fully grasped what you would like them to achieve? Discussing things directly with the client, then playing back to them what you think you understood not only shows you have grasped what they are saying – but often allows them to add more detail and clarity. This reduces the need for you to make assumptions or to infer what they mean: sometimes they also add conflicting views, unclear thinking or assumptions. It’s all grist to the mill.  

Acknowledging: If you don’t acknowledge what the client has said, they will not believe you are listening to them. You don’t have to agree with them, but you do need to acknowledge that you understand their perspective, their experience and truths.

Acting: asking clients for their views and showing you have understood their perspective inevitably increases their expectation of action. If you – or more likely your client teams – do not act on the information received, then all the good work so far is undone. Sounds obvious? Has the BD team followed up with the partners to ensure all the action points from a client listening episode have been completed? Has a BD Manager been fobbed off with the phrase ‘leave that with me’ by a partner, without evidence of action?

Of course, action does not automatically imply change. Acknowledging that a client thinks their fees are too high might mean they are, or that the work and its rationale isn’t clear to them, or simply that they begrudge any professional fees, however modest. Sometimes reviewing an aspect does not require change.

Checking: Above all, it’s important that you or your client team complete the circle with a client to ensure any issues they have raised have been considered. They may not always have been addressed to their satisfaction, especially when they are gripes about compliance fees, etc, but you need to check they realise this has been reviewed (hopefully to their satisfaction).

In my view, unless your listening programme includes personal contact with a client, and recognises you understand their perspective, along with follow-up that is visible to the client – then your listening programme will go unheard and its benefits unrealised. Just saying.

Andrew Pincott has been in the professional services sector since 1992. He was the Marketing and BD director of three firms between 2002 and 2021. He is now an independent client listening consultant and can be reached by email here.

Matt Baldwin
Matt Baldwin
Co-founder – Coast Communications

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