FAQ: Can You Survey Our Non-clients?

It’s a question we’re often asked. Usually as an adjunct to a client listening programme.  The short answer is yes, but you need to think about what sort of non-client you want views from.

While some can give you valuable and constructive insight about your firm and the market, survey someone who’s never heard of your firm, they’ll tell you nothing of use, which is just a waste of time, budget and goodwill.

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of non-clients out there. The majority of the human population. Sadly, that makes the exercise more difficult, not easier. Yes, you could stand in the street with a clipboard and ask passers-by what they think of Fischer, Wally & Stiffelman LLP but there are some significantly smarter approaches than that.

Here are some tips for getting a view on your firm from those illusive non-clients.

Who’s Who?

Start by identifying the different categories of non-client. Broadly speaking, there are four types it’s worthwhile trying to engage with and one other that you want to avoid. The different categories have different levels of direct experience versus outward perception of your service. Your research objectives should help you decide which ones you want to prioritise engaging; there are pros and cons to each.

1.First up, GONE-AWAYS. They used to instruct you but now they don’t. It could be that they’ve ceased having a need for your services, it could be that you didn’t meet expectations and they sacked you, or maybe what you delivered was okay but they substituted you with a competitor.

In my opinion, gone-aways are THE best type of non-client to talk to if you want to identify your service weaknesses and work on improving them. Not only will they tell you where you went wrong, often they’ll be able to compare and contrast your firm and its offering with that of your competitors. They’ll tell you what makes their choice of new firm better than yours. Ouch, it’ll hurt but that competitor intelligence will be super insightful.

Be warned: surveying a former client might involve opening up some old wounds so be prepared to listen to a litany of grievances – just remember that every one of them is a gift if you’re willing to learn from them. Don’t get defensive if you think they’re being unfair. And even if they seem receptive, don’t be tempted to try and sell; just listen. If it turns out they’re open to revisiting the commercial relationship, then set up a meeting to handle that separately.

The sweet spot for surveying gone-away clients is between six and 18 months since they stopped instructing you when they can still remember what your service was like but their views are less likely to be emotive.

2.The second type are PITCHED FOR BUT DIDN’T WIN. Not a very catchy category name, I know. I’m working on it. You should as a matter of course do a pitch debrief with any prospective client once you find out that you didn’t win the work. Have someone call them up and get 15 minutes on the phone. As well as finding out how you can tweak and improve your methods in pitching, be it documentation or presentations, you can get major-league competitor intelligence.

Even when that was some time ago you can still go back to these people and survey them because they at least know who you are and a bit about what you do. I’d say you’re safe to go and ask if it’s within 12 months of that pitch. Unless you made a complete hash of the pitch then since that time your firm has probably become more on their radar than before. Now they know the name of the firm and some of the individuals, when names appear in the press or are mentioned by peers they’ll be more likely to recall related information. That’s all in your favour.

These will be short interviews. Like with the gone-aways, be clear from the outset about your purpose. Ask them about how it’s going with the provider they selected but don’t try and sell to them!

3.The third type of non-client is THIRD-PARTY REFERRERS. These are completely different to the previous two categories. They’re the partnering organisations and individuals who send clients your way, usually another type of professional services organisation. Sometimes with a formal arrangement but usually based on loose ties. They’re not your target market but they know who you’re targeting very well – their clients are your prospects.

Be aware that if you can either ask them for their opinion directly or ask them what their own clients think of your firm. Both are valid but again it depends on your objective. They think their main point of contact who takes them for lunch or to the rugby is marvellous, but they don’t have that objective perspective you’re really after.

Asking them to anticipate their clients’ point of view requires that your questions be phrased appropriately. Ask for actual behaviours rather than opinions. Get them to make distinctions between the different types of clients they have. In this way you’re getting them to relay second-hand feedback.

4.The last of your warm leads are those categorised as ON THE MAILING LIST. You may find some overlap with the previous categories here. Sometimes these are warm leads that are on their way to becoming clients. But the majority are tenuous connections at best. They came to an event you did on tax in 1997, put themselves on the list and they’ve never unsubscribed.

This is where it gets tricky. They came to an event, signed up for a newsletter or downloaded a white paper. They might not remember. Their views while less detailed are still useful. You may find out about associations people have with your firm that are unexpected or confused but there may be positives you had no idea about – a campaign of some sort from years ago that still resonates and people still remember. You remember TV commercials from your childhood and similarly, people will recall your media advertising and events from years ago if they were memorable.

5.Last and least, there are those who have NEVER HEARD OF YOU. This is where egos get damaged. A partner will give you a short-list of dream clients – the leaders in whatever area. And they’re sure that their personal reputation or the firm’s precedes them in that particular marketplace. And it might. But my own experience has been that you often come crashing down to earth. Baker McKenzie? Yes, use them for commercial work in Asia. Clifford Chance? All the time for our corporate matters. Fischer, Wally & Stiffelman? Who?!

And there’s nowhere you can go with it as an interview apart from views on the market, business challenges…no hold on, they’ve NEVER HEARD OF YOU so how much are they likely to reveal about their personal or commercial needs?

Ask but be picky

The hardest thing about non-clients is persuading them to talk to you in the first place because often they’ve no incentive to give you their time. You need to convince them that talking to you or filling in a survey has a pay-off. Research companies rely on a range of incentives but it’s mostly getting your approach right; taking part in a research study has to be pitched as fun, thought-provoking, even as evidence of being a magnanimous authority. You can add gimmicks but an interesting experience with a knowledgeable interviewer is a good opportunity in itself.

So, if you’ve been put in that uneasy position of being asked to find out what the market thinks about your firm and you’ve been told to get the non-client view, don’t sweat. Before  you blow your budget asking a polling company to survey a swath of people who have nothing to say, take the smart approach – think commercial not academic – and start with your firm’s own resources (lists).

About the author: Graham Archbold

With Nisus since 2007, Graham has been involved in more than 50 client research projects for 22 different professional services firms.

Pioneering the use of RATER in professional services, most recently he has led client insight studies in legal, accountancy and property. See Bio…