Part of my job is to conduct client reviews. I’d say about two-thirds of the reviews have some negative feedback. This is largely selection bias – when things are going very well, clients often don’t take me up on my offer to do a review, but if there is something we could be doing better, clients will often want to let me know.
Of course, in a professional services business, ideally you want to seek feedback on a continuous basis. At my organization, we’ve implemented a bit of a third-party approach: I head up business development and am no longer in the weeds on individual projects. Therefore, I know our service lines well and can offer a review outside the members of the project team, in which the client may feel more comfortable being frank. Here are some things I’ve learned in the last couple of years.
1. Tailor the “ask.”
Not all client reviews are created equal. How you position the invitation to a review can influence whether the client takes the bait. And you always want the client to say yes.
Some clients might not be interested in being singled out, and therefore, positioning the review as an annual or quarterly assessment that you’re doing with a number of clients might sit better with them.
Some clients have invested in a huge project, so instead of waiting for the project to be done, you may ask to do a mid-term, interim review to see how things are going and position it as an opportunity to make course corrections through the rest of the project.
For some clients, just giving them an opportunity to vent their frustrations about the industry, their internal politics, and the project difficulties to an outsider helps to release some steam and gives the opportunity to commiserate on joint challenges.
Sometimes, things are going well, and you want to confirm that you’re on the same page. Those are nice, too. (In these cases, make sure you confirm they are willing to be a reference or willing to write a testimonial.)
2. Do your homework before the review.
Interview the project team(s). Who last spoke to the client, and about what? Any difficulties or frustrations the client mentioned recently, even off-hand? Where are/were the pain points in the project? (You as the reviewer don’t want to be blind-sided if the project team knows full well about a sticking point with the client.)
Look up the company/industry for recent news. Is there anything – potential acquisition, product controversies, huge upticks in sales volumes – that might be giving people heartburn? What are their competitors up to? What do you think might be keeping your clients up at night?
3. Have a discussion guide, but roll with it.
Have a few questions ready, but let’s be clear: the clients who signed up for this rodeo probably have a thing or two they’d like to share. Unless you need to get some particular information out of the review, let them drive and listen.
4. Seek out opportunities. Turn a negative into a positive.
As I mentioned, most of my reviews have some negative peppered into them. Sometimes, you need to pull it out of the clients, though. If you ask people how it’s going, and they tell you all is peachy, I would probe further. Clients might not even be aware that our organization can help them for other business problems unrelated to a project we worked on. Probing to discover what their larger organization is grappling with may present some opportunities for additional business.
But negative feedback can be tough to hear. The key is to drill down to the core issue that represents an opportunity for change. When the work on things the client asks for is spectacular, it would be even better to have someone on our team do some horizon scanning for them and bring issues and possibilities up to the client that might not be on their radar. I love this because it allows me to go back to the project team to find ways to truly partner with our clients.
5. Implement real change, and measure it.
It’s not enough to bring the feedback to the project team. I try to work with our teams to evaluate how we will do things differently in the future. Make it tangible, make it measurable.
The client would have liked more proactive communication? Turn your emails into calls, and ping yourself with a weekly reminder in your calendar. Document your conversations and the outcomes/next steps with your client and team.
The client was concerned you may not have been operating at optimal efficiency? Review the roles and throughput of team members and make recommendations on changes to implement by a specific time, and determine how you will assess efficiency compared to baseline at the next invoicing cycle. Or, if you are at optimal efficiency, determine an effective follow up with the client that educates them on the work requirements and communicates the complexity (and value!) of the work by reinforcing what they get out of it (or perhaps adjusting your deliverables so it’s clear!), or illustrate what minefields they are avoiding.
Bottom line: what will the organization do differently so that this piece of negative feedback isn’t heard next time, or with another client?
6. Follow up.
Client reviews are pointless without a follow up to confirm that issues previously raised were addressed, and addressed well.
Did the client confirm that it actually worked? Good. You’re not done. Make sure everyone in the organization knows about how the project team turned it around, created a new best practice, has a favorable client management case study, landed a follow-on project, etc. Spread the love throughout the firm. Give props to the people who turned that negative into a positive.
Client reviews can be intimidating. It’s important to be prepared, let the clients drive, let the feedback fuel real change, and check in to make sure the change hit its mark.