Getting a Reality Check with Client Interviews
By Don Aronson and Bruce Heintz – Aronson / Heintz Associates LLC
[Reprinted with Permission from the June 2004 issue of Professional Marketing, published by the PM Forum North America. All rights reserved.]
Feedback from a professional service firm’s most important clients allows fee-earners to head off potential problems or remedy actual ones. This is especially important for the firm’s top ten to 20 key accounts—the “Crown Jewels.”
But client executives usually don’t volunteer their feedback, especially if it includes criticism of the responsible partner or the client service team. Instead, clients often just “marginalize” the firm by sending less work.
Marketers must increase the flow of actionable feedback. This does not have to be painful. Learning what positively impresses a client can help the firm maintain and enhance client loyalty.
How to get candid feedback
The best method for candid feedback from client executives is an in-person interview. Senior executives don’t like and often discard written questionnaires. And casual attempts by the responsible partner to gain feedback too often result in only superficial responses. What's needed is a prearranged face-to-face meeting, ostensibly informal but based on a fairly thorough understanding of who the client executive is and the various services that have been provided.
To maximize candor, the interviewer should be independent of the client service team, have the appropriate stature and maturity to represent the firm and possess good interviewing skills.
What partners don’t know, clients can tell them
These actual examples from client interviews illustrate surprising information that lead partners should know but often don’ t:
1. The partner’s self-assessment was wrong — The lead partner believed that he was reasonably well regarded by the client. However, the first client executive to be interviewed stated, “We want a change in the lead partner.” The change was made and the client’s business was maintained.
2. The firm did too much — Although highly satisfied with the large volume of work the firm had performed, a key client executive observed, “It’s good to keep people on their toes—we need to give more work to other firms.” The lead partner identified “strategic” work to retain and then adopted a pragmatic approach to sourcing the other work.
3. The partner didn’t know how she was perceived — The partner got positive comments from other client executives but was uncertain about the CEO’s viewpoint. During his interview, the CEO stated that the partner “is very business savvy and acts like a business partner—I think the world of her,” removing the uncertainty.
4. The partner was unaware of competition — The firm thought it had been diligent in pursuing a client relationship, but an interview with a key client executive disclosed that several other aggressive firms had made significant inroads. This competitive intelligence made the partner pursue more active business development.
5. The partner got a warning — According to a senior client executive, the partner was perceived as “wily”—mainly working to get more business for his firm. The partner agreed to modify his approach to avoid suspicion of his motives.
6. The partner was about to be fired — Based on his own observations and a written survey from the President and the Senior V.P., the partner thought things were going fairly well. However, during an in-person interview, the president said, “I’ll never hire them again.” And the Senior V.P. stated, “If the current engagement doesn’t get more attention, it will fail.” The interviews detailed the client’ s four key complaints together with a list of remedies. Nine months later, follow-up interviews revealed that the partner had satisfactorily addressed the four key complaints—and meanwhile the firm had received two additional engagements.
These examples show how a partner’s perceptions may not match the client’s. Even if most interviews do not disclose such contrasts, how many surprises can your firm afford among its Crown Jewels?
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Donald Aronson and Bruce Heintz, of Aronson / Heintz Associates LLC, have interviewed thousands of executives as part of client feedback programs for some of the country’s leading professional services firms. Don Aronson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212.874.4181, and Bruce Heintz at email@example.com or 781.891.6850.