Noises Off: Client Listening. Why Bother?

Noises Off is our feature in which we ask some of our most noted associates and contributors to offer a personal perspective and, who knows, maybe ruffle a few feathers in the process. Here’s Ed Stott, client relationship lead at Browne Jacobson, tackling the theme of this issue – listening.

Ed Stott, Client Relationship Lead, Browne Jacobson

There is no doubt client listening and seeking feedback has become more common in the management of professional services firms. Where a firm having a feedback programme was once viewed as progressive, it’s now considered a necessity if you want to have that competitive edge.

At its best, listening promotes a deep understanding of the client, how they tick and what ticks them off. A blend of service performance feedback with a real insight into the client and where they place most emphasis that promotes actions is the holy grail – that is certainly how we shape our discussions with clients at Browne Jacobson.

At its worst, a feedback interview is superficial and self-gratifying on the part of the service provider or even an individual but, even then, the biggest step has at least been taken in seeking feedback.

So why is that harder than it sounds for some firms? And how can seeking client feedback be seen universally as a must rather than a nice to do?

Beating the blockers

When you look at the perceived blocks to independent client listening, protectionism from the client relationship partner’s point of view is often at the heart - “not being the right time for the client” being a classic response to the suggestion.

Sometimes it might legitimately not be the right time to ask a client to take time to speak, but resistance on the client relationship partner’s side to allow the possibility of negative or developmental feedback is the common curse.

This is surmountable of course through good old-fashioned persistence and by also placing an emphasis on the benefits client listening allows rather than any suggestion this is asking the client a favour.

“Will your competitors be doing this?” Whether they are or not, it is a positive move. “What are the risks of not asking our clients what they think?” “I did it with this team/client/partner and we saw this benefit in the relationship.” These are questions and challenges you will likely have heard before…that is because they work. It’s rare a client is offended or sees a negative connation to being asked for feedback, and frequently they see it as a pro-active gesture demonstrating you care what they think.

Of course, it’s right to seek permissions from a partner to approach a client for feedback, and any resistance or fear internally can be quickly allayed by highlighting why we should do it rather than asking why we shouldn’t. Where the above needs reinforcement, senior stakeholder buy-in will also emphasise the expectation of the “blockers” to engage with the interview process.

What we need to get ‘colour’ and feedback is never identical for two clients, but we only know this through inviting input from all those involved rather than one individual. This also mitigates the risk of a feedback interview being self-serving.

A collaborative approach

In my experience, the more collaborative the approach to deciding who is asked for feedback, how it is sought and how it can amount to agreed actions, the better the results.

We, the client relationship team, ask the client relationship partner and key stakeholders who they feel is best placed to give feedback. We don’t tell them who we think it should be beyond suggesting it ought to be the person who can give the most insight as well as constructive feedback based on experience rather than merely on strength of relationship and job title.

We ask the business development team to input and take part in the process end-to-end, from establishing who we approach at the client to a briefing where we set out objectives through to debriefing, circulation of the write-up and agreeing what needs to be done off the back of it to promote accountability around driving these actions.

What we need to get “colour” and feedback is never identical for two clients, but we only know this through inviting input from all those involved rather than one individual. This also mitigates the risk of a feedback interview being self-serving.

Alongside the specific relationship focus, the broader picture gathering client feedback can provide is also important and often underestimated. It’s a wasted opportunity not to collate feedback into trends for the firm, departments, sectors, and any other filters important to the structure of the business.

In fact, not to share and promote thematic learning, discussion and cultural impressions that can be drawn from and either encouraged or deflected will create silos in approach where key objectives (such as cross-selling and making connections) requires collaboration and a shared direction informed by what is being said.

This is, of course, dependent on getting these routine touchpoints with the clients built into as large a critical mass as possible and asking questions that allow analysis to pick up themes and categorisation. It underlines the need for feedback to be seen as something pro-actively and routinely sought by the wider group and not just individuals who want it.

The commercial meets the emotional

The benefits of effective client listening are both commercial and emotional. Gaining a client’s feedback is a business development tool, enhancing their feeling of being key and important, promoting loyalty and often being a differentiator in terms of placement on the client’s radar for when the next piece of work arrives.

It is invaluable to both parties. The client is looking for the best possible service that can lead to actions and outcomes and to promote a partnership built on understanding as much as the supplier is seeking to be a trusted advisor.

Emotionally, it’s a human trait to enjoy being heard. Independent client listening formalises and invites that in by opening-up a dialogue, whereas less structured client review meetings can be transactional and inhibit clients to say what they candidly think. It feels personal and caring to ask someone for an honest view pro-actively as part of a dedicated process rather than as an agenda item.

Is client listening a tool we use to work with clients? Or a rule, something we need to state as mandatory to happen across our organisations and across our client base? I think it’s both. It’s a tool deployed with clients in gaining actionable insights into the outcomes we want but it needs enforcing in a softer way than merely instructing it must be done.

The true value of client listening is realised when the client feels they need and want to take part rather than being required to indulge it. The key to this is setting out the benefits to them - and to the firm -more broadly: the opportunity to routinely seek the client’s view and, of course, making sure whatever insight and feedback is received is reported back as actionable - and acted on with support.

As the above outlines, client listening and setting out a programme that achieves all these things is by no means easy but progressing towards it is fundamental to relationship management in its best form. It will be hard to find a client who disagrees…if you ask them.