In the first of this two part post, I wanted to discuss how a firm that is new to client listening might do well to heed seven key factors to implement it successfully.
The first three discussed in that post were: Setting objectives; Sorting the strategy; Working out how best to listen.
In this the second part, continuing on the route for virgin listeners we move on to points four to seven:
4The data basics – identifying the target sample is almost always more difficult than it looks. Let’s ignore the politics of partners biasing the sample for a moment and go back to the basics of the data on the CRM system. This should tell us whom we know in each client organisation, how well we know them and how important or relevant they are to the relationship. This information should provide most of the clues we need, but all too often the data in the CRM database is the equivalent of a teenager’s bedroom – messy and difficult to find anything. A cleaning exercise may be a pre-requisite before setting out on the listening project.
First step on client data: ‘Review the CRM data to ensure it is accurate, clean and up to date. Start this early – it always takes longer than you think.’
5A business exercise or an ego exercise? – the value of research is the insight into clients’ needs that it provides, which allows the firm to ‘strategise’ and deliver its service more effectively and so hopefully gain advantage over the competition. This is contingent on the sample being robust before we start drawing all sorts of conclusions and if partners are allowed to bias the sample selection on the basis of who will give them a positive endorsement, then will compromise the validity of the findings. This is a tough one, but the sample should be selected using objective business criteria, not subjective partner preferences.
Turn a deaf ear to partners: ‘Select clients based on objective business criteria, not partners’ preferences.’
6Caring and sharing – Once we’ve sorted this lot out and run the fieldwork (I’m holding back questionnaire design, fieldwork and analysis for another day), then we need to get the results out and in plain sight. Some firms find this difficult. Some even want to spin the results, especially to their clients. If clients give you a list of constructive criticisms and your firm reverts saying all is rosy in the garden, the client will lose faith in the exercise and the firm quickly, and your return on investment will be negligible.
Resist the temptation to spin: ‘Share the results, be open about strengths and weaknesses and what you intend to do to address the latter. That applies to partners, staff and clients equally.’
7Change the culture – won’t happen overnight, but by listening, speaking openly about the results and committing to making the requisite changes, clients will be impressed. If only the rest of their panel would do the same. But to make this happen means the partners need to buy into the programme. A lot of firms operate with a culture of tripping from one matter to another and never giving the client a backward glance. That’s the inverse of what client focus is about. Once the research is done, they are the ones who must face up to the clients, having the honest conversations and agreeing to implement change. Then they have to make it happen, not just promise it will happen. Ultimately, this may require the firm to hold partners’ feet to the fire and make this integral to their performance assessment.
You can’t outsource all the dirty work. ‘At some point, the relationship partner and more besides need to step up to the plate and put some time in that isn’t billable (even if that sounds like sacrilege). It will pay back in spades.’
Reap the benefits
In another recent post I put forward this client focus matrix. I think it applies just as much in this post. If you want to get to the happy place, your clients have to have a positive view of you and your firm. And a large part of achieving that is listening to them, to understand their needs and what they think of you.
One of our clients decided that rather than agree to an uplift in the listening budget, they would instead ‘invest’ in more original artworks for their reception. Maybe they got a return on that too, but I doubt it. So much of professional services is about personal relationships and chemistry, which is to say empathy. A proper client listening programme shows a commitment to the relationship and in my book, that’s empathy in a bottle.
About the author: Tim Nightingale
Tim founded Nisus Consulting in 1996 with the aim of helping professional services firms become more client focused. Tim has an MBA from Cass Business School, is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and a full member of the Market Research Society. See Bio…