V Formation’s Hilary Campton sets out the key ingredients for a successful and sustainable client listening programme
An ideal client service review or client listening programme will usually involve face-to-face client meetings to gain an independent assessment of the strength of relationships, and to understand areas in which the firm is excelling and where improvements can be made.
Done properly, client listening programmes deliver real in-depth, quantitative and qualitative insights that can be used to strengthen client relationships and guide future developments and innovations. And, more often than not, the meetings throw up opportunities for new areas of work, making them a valuable investment for many professional services firms.
But, when professional services marketing and BD teams are stretched (and when aren’t we?!), starting and maintaining an effective client listening programme can be hard work.
So how do you get started with your client listening programme?
Assuming you’ve agreed the objectives for the programme, the first job is to select the clients that will be invited to take part. If it’s the first time you’ve run a client listening programme we recommend you start fairly small (10-15 clients) to give it the best chances of success.
Go for a mix of clients in terms of relationship strength, fee income, number of service lines that they use, size and type of business, and so on. The next step is to get the meetings booked in with clients in a phased process; depending on who is carrying out the reviews, we would recommend running no more than two or three reviews a month.
For the invitation, a letter from the managing partner or lead client partner can work well, with the reviewer then authorised to follow-up directly to arrange a date and time.
There are then four essential parts to a review programme: preparation, review, feedback, and follow-up:
- Meet with the client team – ideally all who know the client or have had dealings with them. Find out about the work that has been carried out, how the client came to your firm, any major successes and also any areas of concern. Get this meeting in diaries as soon as you have booked the client review. Do the same with the feedback meeting (see below).
- Do your own research. This should be more than a cursory look at the client’s website. Understand any objectives that were agreed at the outset of the work or the relationship and the key people within the client organisation.
- Prepare the questions you want to ask. You may have some questions that you would like to ask all clients (for example if you are undertaking particular research into an area such as communications or brand strength), but your questions must also reflect the client’s business and your relationship with them.
- Ensure you know your questions inside out so that it feels like a natural conversation. There’s nothing wrong with referring to your notes to check you’ve asked everything you wanted to, but it should not feel like a tick box exercise.
- Listen carefully! And, if the client expresses dissatisfaction or concern with any area, don’t be tempted to justify or explain – you might miss a valuable insight.
- Take advantage of any offers of a walk around or a tour. A) it’s fascinating, B) the client will enjoy showing you and C) you will learn lots more about the business.
- Write up your feedback as soon as possible after the meeting, taking care to ensure it is verbatim and unedited.
- Hold a meeting to feed back to the client team. This is of course a very pleasant experience if everything is rosy, but more challenging when you have some unexpected or more difficult messages to deliver. If anything is very personal, agree how to deal with this in a more one-to-one environment; group feedback might not be appropriate.
- Thank the client for taking part – this can be as simple as a phone call or email but make sure it happens – and let them know what if any changes will be made to reflect their feedback and insights.
- This is arguably the most important part of all, not least because it will help to drive the ongoing momentum of the programme.
- Keep a log of all actions that need to be taken and check back in regularly with the client team to assess progress. Whether it was sending the client relevant industry updates, introducing them to someone else in the partnership, or changing how they are billed, it is essential to ensure that actions are carried out and the client is informed of progress.
Should we use an independent person for client service reviews?
The answer to this is firmly yes! An independent reviewer – whether from within your firm or an external provider – will be less likely to ‘edit’ the responses before feeding back. And, in our experience at V Formation of running several client listening programmes, interviewees will generally open up more to someone not directly involved with their work.
The reality is that an external person is also more likely to ensure that the reviews actually happen; as a former in-house marketing director in a busy law firm, I’m acutely aware that starting and maintaining a programme of client services reviews can be challenging if you don’t have external resource to help maintain momentum.
How much should we pay for a client listening programme?
Assuming you are outsourcing your client listening programme to an external provider, the cost is likely to depend on a number of factors, including: how many clients are involved, the level of preparation required, the feedback process, and the follow-up.
At their most basic – preparation with the account team; client review meeting and feedback, expect to pay around £500 – £700 per client. If you are running the reviews internally, factor in around one day per review (including preparation, travel and feeding back). This cost and/or time requirement would increase with a more ‘managed’ programme where the logistics are handled and detailed feedback and follow-ups are in place.
Seems expensive? It’s considerably cheaper than a lost client or a missed opportunity for an extra piece of work. And if you include qualities such as ‘openness’; ‘client centric’; ‘client focused’; ‘responsiveness’ etc etc in your values, can you honestly say you don’t need to run a client listening programme?