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Client perception audits: more important now than ever

“Perception trumps fact: every day of the week”

Right now, it’s likely you do not have an accurate understanding of what your clients think about your business. More importantly, you may also not understand how they perceive your service delivery (i.e. the client experience you deliver). While we typically post about our work in ESG and Broader Outcomes, one of the most critical and often overlooked areas of an effective market strategy is to gather honest, meaningful feedback from your key clients.

At The Bridge, we refer to this process as a client perception audit, as it needs to be conducted with independence and authenticity. It also must deliver actionable insights that you commit to following up on (see the Dos and Don’ts section below, as many internal client feedback programmes fall down in one or both of these regards).

Whether you want to understand how your ESG initiatives could have a greater impact on your clients’ own plans, or just as part of enhancing your client centricity or value proposition, effective client listening programmes are critical. In most instances, they have fallen by the wayside in many professional services firms over the last two years due to COVID disruptions. Conversely, these same professional services firms are busier than ever with unprecedented demand, as well as grappling with the war on talent.

This raises an important observation: when your client demand exceeds your supply of workforce (a good state to be in), one of your biggest risks will be client delivery and a failure to appreciate any shift in your client experience. Yet so few firms seek independent client feedback while they’re in this state (let’s call this “Scott’s law”).

So, what are you going to do about Scott's law? Here are some suggestions based on how we conduct this process at The Bridge:

Dos and Don’ts for effective client feedback:

Do: get someone independent of the client relationship to undertake the interview and brief them thoroughly. Ideally choose someone unassuming and non-threatening that encourages the client to open up.

Don’t: have your CEO or Managing Partner undertake these feedback sessions. While it’s tempting and you want to convey how important they are, clients will always temper their feedback to this senior principal. You will miss out on the richness of their views.

Do: conduct these sessions in person or via Teams/Zoom – particularly for key clients you want to focus on.

Don’t: send your most important clients an electronic survey. It’s good to do this at times, particularly if you have a vast range of customers. However, if you are focused on 10 or so key clients, the insights will be far richer for conducting them via an interview with a skilled practitioner.

Do: interview a range of people at different levels within the client organisation. Often the most useful insights come from a project manager or on-site delivery manager. Also choose a range of clients, including those that you worry may give negative feedback (this is often where the gold is, yet firms tend to avoid including them).

Don’t: limit your targets to the most senior executives from the client, or to a handful of great clients that will just give glowing feedback. This is not an exercise in flattery.

Do: have a plan to go back to each of your interviewees – both immediately to thank them and then over a period of weeks (not months) with demonstrated actions you have put in place to address their feedback.

Don’t: dispute or challenge the feedback they gave in the interview. As noted, perception always trumps fact. The client holds a valid perception for a reason. Instead, focus on the constructive themes you can take action on and prove you have listened with humility.

The only question that matters

You will likely be familiar with Bain Consulting’s Net Promoter Score system and the only question that matters: i.e. whether this interviewee would actively recommend you and your work to another colleague or relevant friend in a similar role. In our view, it’s still a critical question to ask.

In a New Zealand context however, we’ve found the 1-10 scale doesn’t work well due to the understated nature of Kiwis. I’ve had fantastic feedback - raving about the client with no areas for improvement - and then the interviewee often responds with an 8/10 NPS score (which is a neutral). Instead, we ask: “On balance, based on the work delivered, would you say you are a promoter; neutral; or a detractor of [ABC Ltd]? It’s then far easier to identify and sort the 1s, the 0s and the -1s; and devise action plans for each.

The biggest determinant of future work

A final point to consider is that conducting these perception audits could be one of the most important decisions you make from a business development perspective with your key clients. In our experience, any clients you've delivered services to and the work hasn't gone well for whatever reason (even on the smallest detail) are less likely to engage you for further work. The reason for this may not be that they don't rate your business.

Here in New Zealand, we tend to be more introverted and avoid confrontation at any cost. Clients tend to hold negative views close to their chests and don't get the opportunity to air their views. All you may notice is that a certain client drifts away over time. Conversely, by conducting a client feedback exercise with the right interviewer, you encourage them to open up and vent the "warts and all" feedback. If the process is managed properly (with actionable insights), they are dramatically more likely to shift their view and engage you for more work - and who doesn't want that outcome?

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