A Seven Point Route Map for Virgin Listeners

I come across people, mostly partners, who think client listening is a bit ‘fluffy’. Others can’t see the point or don’t want to risk their relationship with the client by sending them a questionnaire to answer.

I really don’t get this. If you have a high value service and the business model dictates that you trip from one matter to the next, hitting billing targets, juggling more than one matter at a time, it is common sense that someone takes stock. Someone asks ‘How did we do? How did you get on with the team? What should we improve? Will you instruct us again?’ I think this would best be done by the relationship partner over a coffee, ideally, but the business model often doesn’t afford the luxury of that contemplative, non-billable coffee. So, someone else should do it. I don’t care who, so long as they do it and they do it well.

Client listening isn’t a nice to have, and it’s not a one off, tick the box – been there, done that – exercise. It’s a fundamental tenet of a firm’s business and how it delivers its service. And it doesn’t have to be complicated, no matter who listens – everyone can do it: senior partners sent to interview the client; the relationship partner who makes time to have that off the clock coffee; assistants working on a matter or even the accounts team chasing up an invoice. Everyone should listen. Get it right and clients remain loyal and it is easier to win more work from them. Profitability should improve as well because it is received wisdom that happy clients aren’t just more loyal, they are more profitable.

For anybody dipping their toe in the waters of client listening for the first time, here is some of the ground to cover:

1Set objectives – this project is likely to be a fairly intensive exercise involving the clients’ time and your money, so some clearly defined objectives are a good starting point. What do you want to get out of it and what should the deliverables be? How will the resulting data work at different levels? Firms often dispatch senior partners to do their interviewing. They have an informed conversation with each client, but if a consistent template isn’t applied, and often it isn’t, then it is difficult to identify patterns in the findings across the firm. It works at the relationship level, but not above that.

The objectives may read along the lines of ‘Find out where our strengths and weaknesses lie and how we sit relative to our competitors’.

2Next the strategy – if the objectives tell us where we’re trying to get to, the strategy should inform how we’re going to get there. In the example above, the initial target audience is the key clients. Assuming these are defined as a group, we need to work out who we need to listen to in terms of which companies and which individuals within those companies. For smaller firms there may be just one decision maker and for a global management consultancy selling in to the largest corporates, those decision makers could be multiple and all over the world. Deciding who we want to listen to is crucial as this will drive decisions further down the chain.

The strategy may be ‘Speak to key decision makers in all our key clients to gauge the health of each relationship and see what the implications are for the firm at the strategic level’.

3How will we listen? Three choices: you go and sit in front of them and have a conversation. Costs lots but can build rapport and provide a rich seam of insight. Pick up the telephone – cheaper and easier, which means you can do a greater number than face to face, which helps if there are lots of decision makers and influencers, but of course you don’t get the same depth. Third, you can send out a web survey. Don’t be sniffy about this, it delivers lots of responses for very little money. It can give you hard benchmarks and real insight into the competition as well, plus it requires much less of your clients’ time. You can pick one or perm two from three and, if you want to go the whole hog, mix and match all three approaches.

The listening plan: ‘Get in front of at least one senior decision maker whom we rely on and who knows us well. Mop other influencers with a web survey to capture benchmarks.’

Alternatively, a simpler approach may be easier to implement: ‘We will conduct telephone interviews on all completed matters that are worth more than £X,000.

In the second part of this post, we will run through points four to seven on getting the listening programme right.

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…