How to use client insights to drive decision making

Simon Rusling of Barnett Waddingham explains how his firm’s client listening programme has evolved over time. COVID necessitated a step-change that transformed it and spearheaded the creation of a client focus group. This group is now a go-to when a client voice is needed quickly.

Simon Rusling, Partner and Head of Marketing, Barnett Waddingham

Setting the scene

Barnett Waddingham doesn’t have a sales function. We do have a BD team, but the lead time for many of our services is very long - and the sales function effectively is the responsibility of the senior people in the business: the partners, principals, and associates.

Our client listening journey

We have done client listening for over ten years in various guises, but I was keen to begin formalising it around five years ago, making it more central to our marketing strategy. Listening happened organically and was a result of the combination of skills, technology and the tools that marketing had. Even down to something as simple as they fact we managed our survey monkey account, which meant people in the organisation would come to us when they needed a client survey.

We were proactively talking to the business about the fact we were engaging with clients. We didn’t just send things out to promote events and thought leadership and so on, but we were also proactively getting feedback. At that time, we were seen as more forward thinking by the business in this space.

We had all the right tools and the perception within the business was that we were already having conversations so asking clients specifically about client service wasn't a particular reach. It was just an extension of what we already did. We had a positive track record and could demonstrate that we already did it.

We were also seen as a team that was very much working in partnership with the business. We worked incredibly hard on developing positive stakeholder relationships and engagement and therefore we were trusted, which is a key part of this work. If professionals are going to let you go and talk directly to their clients, they have to trust that you are not going to embarrass them. That you are going to do it professionally.

We had started speaking to the business about focus groups and doing some more regular in-person client feedback, and then COVID hit. For us, that accelerated the need to reach out to clients even more. We had the tools to go out every week, every month, and find out their attitudes on various issues; to find out where problems were for us to navigate.

Combination of surveys and interviews

We do surveys. We use them when we go out to a wide audience, but we will typically also always go out to a subset of clients too, say all our clients in a particular market or of a particular size. We know the overall response rate to that is lower. If we go out to 100 people we might only get 30/40 survey responses, but we will then hand pick a small group to really drill down on. We put a simple tick box saying “please confirm whether you're happy to do a follow up interview” From that we tend to get a handful that works for us. We can then get on the phone and really discuss the detail and bring the subject to life.

From surveys to a dedicated focus group

We have developed a core group of clients we now go out to when we really need the client perspective. We have about 130 people who have indicated they are happy to have more regular engagement with us. There is a good mix across the business and we go to them and do interviews and surveys. We are quite a diverse business, so we didn't just want the same people. We needed people with different job roles, different company size, different service used, from our different regions across the UK. We were very careful to ensure it was representative so that we could credibly play it back into the business.

COVID played a part in shaping this group because internally we were starting to have discussions around how to navigate challenges like virtual or in-person meetings when things were changing so quickly. The business was looking at us saying “marketing, you need to tell us what our clients want”.

We are here to satisfy the needs of our clients, ultimately. We need to make sure they're happy and so their help is invaluable to help us navigate difficult periods and to innovate going forward. They feel they are influencing and contributing to BW’s success which also benefits them. I’m so grateful for that.

“You don't always get a clear-cut answer from client listening, but I don't think that's a bad thing. I think it just tells you the honest picture and you still have to make assumptions using your experience to make decisions.”

Playing it back

We summarise what we have collectively heard back to people completing surveys and interviews and thank them for their input.

We then work extremely hard with the insights gained internally. For example, when we were specifically gaining insights around COVID, we had an internal COVID working group. We would present regular updates directly setting out what clients are saying and what they're concerned about at regular intervals.

Decision making

A good example of how we used insights to drive decisions is with our events programme in marketing. COVID meant that we went overnight from roughly 90% of our events taking place in person to 100% being run virtually. Our events team was interested in what was coming through from clients and the trends we were seeing. Our insights team would sit down with our events team every two to four weeks at one point, to say: here's what's going on, here's what's changing, and here's what clients are saying they want.

The insights team were also blending that feedback with market insight being gathered too. What were our competitors doing and what was the broader professional services community saying and doing around their client events, for example. We were constantly looking at best practice and, crucially, to what our were clients saying - to try and give our events team that full picture.

That was the same across the business. Sometimes the client insights we gathered backed up what we were hearing and reading elsewhere, but sometimes it jarred with it too. And sometimes we were bucking the trend because the client insight was not supporting what the market was doing. That's one of the big things I look back on during COVID. Our insights work enabled us to make quite bold marketing decisions, because we knew it was based on facts rather than hunches or guess work.

Watch out

The hybrid meeting is one where there are there are a lot of views. Effectively what we learned from it is there wasn't one right answer, and that the client teams needed to understand their clients at a more granular level. You don't always get a clear-cut answer from client listening, but I don't think that's a bad thing. I think it just tells you the honest picture and you still have to make assumptions using your experience to make decisions. You need to talk to your clients. You need to understand what they want. And the technology is there to facilitate it. But you need to go back out and understand the clients individually.

Top Tips


Post research communication is massive. We've worked incredibly hard and continue to do so, to think about the analysis, the insights, internal communication and engagement with stakeholder groups and also thanking the clients. Don't just think it's “job done” once the stats have been collected.


If the business doesn’t trust you, there is no chance that they will let you directly interact with their clients. And trust is an ongoing thing – so always do the best possible job and always represent the organisation in the right way.

Involve all stakeholders

One challenge we encountered was some people in the organisation seeing this work as a bit of a threat. There can sometimes be a danger of “I know best. And I know what I want to do”. There's was a bit of engagement needed to get these people on board with our approach initially so they bought into it and saw it as beneficial. Ultimately, we have seen that this direct feedback from clients will make marketing and BD efforts more effective and fee earners recognise this now.

Have the right team

I certainly don’t do this on my own. My client and market insights team bring the right combination of skills and energy to make this work really shine. I am lucky to work with some fantastic, skilled professionals and couldn’t do it without them.

What’s next?

One ambition is to make our focus group even more formalised, perhaps getting them into our offices once a quarter for lunch and discussions; even potentially bringing in business area leaders to say “we're thinking of creating this new tool that allows clients to do X. We're going to show it to you today and we want your feedback”.

We’re looking at new tech solutions too – particularly investing in a new client insights platform – to help us streamline the data analysis work and improve our data visualisation to further boost internal engagement with this work.

We have also even discussed the idea of bringing a client representative into board meetings so they can help to directly shape future strategy. We know that some FTSE companies do it with great success, but professional services typically seem to have a more closed approach. This is at an early stage at the moment, but gives you an idea of the concepts we are considering developing and gives you a sense of the direction of travel we are looking at.