Many firms temporarily put their client listening programmes on hold for much of 2020. Andrew Pincott sets out the questions to consider before starting or restarting a client listening programme.
How has the client relationship fared during the COVID era?
Some firms have kept client listening to a minimum in the past year, even with key clients, in favour of professionals’ informal interaction with clients. Anecdotally, some firms say they have increased this interaction by 50-100%. But an increase in client contact does not equate with client satisfaction: some will expect more than you can deliver, and in a time of business and personal stress it’s easy to become the focus of criticism.
If you are going to ask for a client’s feedback, you have to consider the whole process from their perspective. So, if you’ve been ‘quiet’ during the pandemic, why would they want to hear from you now?
Have I got the full support of the managing partner and Board for the actions needed?
Call me an old cynic (I’ve been called worse) but an assertion “Of course you have my full support” from the managing partner is not enough. For this to be more than a cosmetic exercise, you need to discuss with the partners the ‘what if’ scenarios to check if the practical support and intent for action is there. These scenarios should cover examples of service failure or client service partner relationship issues. A year of COVID and lockdowns may have sharpened these perceptions, so talk this through first to agree outline courses of action.
Who needs to do the reviews?
Client listening and feedback interviews need to be completed by someone independent of the client service team and who ideally can build an overall picture by completing a number of interviews to a consistent format. So, find someone separate from the busy service teams who can devote significant time to do this. For some firms, this might be the client service or business development director or an independent external interviewer.
How to do the reviews?
Pre-COVID, my preference would always be for a face-to-face discussion, often accompanied by a colleague so that notes and perceptions can be compared later. COVID has changed that. Although some executives may still be receptive to a face-to-face meeting as the economy opens up and ‘vaccine confidence’ sets in, many clients will prefer to keep their distance, especially if they are working from home. Zoom or Microsoft Teams will work better than telephone calls in such circumstances.
We are all more comfortable with Zoom calls than a year ago, though they still lack the rapport of an actual meeting. So don’t let technology get further in the way. Resist having a logo or fancy background for a Zoom call – and try to lose the headphones and boom mic if you can.
One vexed issue is whether to record the discussion. With Teams and Zoom that facility is only a button away. However, this disconcerts some clients, who may feel that once recorded, they have lost control of how the content is used – and their willingness to be candid may suffer as a result.
You also need to remember your obligations under GDPR. My advice is to use recording, with the client’s express permission, to ensure you can focus on having a productive discussion but commit to deleting it after your report has been prepared.
One misconception about client feedback meetings is that they are an opportunity to sell additional services. Not so! These interviews are purely to get clients’ views and feedback. Considering what opportunities this feedback may provide is the next stage for discussion with the client service team.
Attempts to sell at feedback stage would be bad enough: post-COVID, it shows a reluctance to listen properly and to see things from the client’s perspective.
What will you do as a result of the feedback?
Review meetings will inevitably raise expectations that something will change or improve as a result. Nevermore so than in a time of economic stress. Make sure that there is decisive and responsive action. To do less is a waste of time, money and opportunity.
Andrew Pincott has worked in professional services business development and marketing for the past 30 years, including running or taking part in formal client listening programmes for both lawyers and accountants. https://www.linkedin.com/in/andrewpincott74/