As part of a research project last year, I interviewed a major developer client of one of my clients. The questions I asked were general -- essentially, "How do you feel about your architecture and engineering consultants in the following categories?" (The final product was a "report card" on A/E industry service.)
This developer told me that he was completely dissatisfied with the service he received from his architecture and engineering consultants. In particular, he was unhappy about how often their fee estimates ballooned with additional services and overruns. He told me that he had changed consultants before because of this problem and that he was thinking seriously about doing it again.
The loss of this developer would have been a major blow to my client. But because this interview was confidential -- not to mention part of a project for another client -- I couldn't really come out and tell my client what I'd heard. I have managed to nudge my client toward rectifying the issues the developer has with them without breaking my pledge of anonymity. I also encouraged my client to open a dialogue with the developer about their performance. For now anyway, the relationship is salvaged. (We'll see what happens when development picks up again, however.)
This incident reinforced to me the tremendous value of client relationship surveys. In my days with a major management consulting firm for the A/E industry, I managed dozens of these surveys. Even when the results were largely a reassurance of what the client already knew, my clients told me it was money well spent.
Our preferred process for these surveys is to conduct them by phone. We schedule a time (but are always ready to do the survey when the contact person is) and request about 10-15 minutes of their time. We'll ask approximately 10-12 questions, making sure that these questions allow the interviewee the opportunity to provide constructive criticism in an open-ended manner. Surveys that are primarily quantitative, in my experience, are much less valuable and telling than those with qualitative data.
At their least, these surveys send a clear message to your clients that you care what they think. It also affords a firm the opportunity to make contact with clients (and in some cases, strong prospects) multiple times. In addition to the actual survey process, you can send an introductory letter, a thank you letter and even a summary of the results.
At their best, these surveys can provide information worth many times their cost. I remember a case where one of my client's largest customers was a Fortune 50 manufacturing company. My client had a tremendous relationship with the corporate office and worked all around the country for this manufacturer. As it happened, on the day I interviewed the manufacturing company's contact person, he had received word that the company's leadership had decided to begin decentralizing much of their construction project duties. As you might expect, this news resulted in a radical change in how my client now needed to market this company.
(I called my contact the second I hung up the phone, of course. I don't think he would have been too happy to find that gem buried in the report two or three weeks later.)
Sure, it was a coincidence that we happened to be in the right place at the right time for our client. But it was also an illustration of how important it is to be in constant touch with your clients -- especially your best clients -- and to continually ask them about their satisfaction with your services. In this case, a client survey costing a few thousand dollars probably saved my client millions.
A customer relationship survey can offer you many other benefits, but only if it’s done right. A third party with excellent interviewing skills should conduct the survey. The questions should be open (to allow for elaboration) and not be leading or softballs (e.g., "Did we meet or exceed your expectations?" Come on!). Much of the value from these surveys comes in the followup questions, so it's important to have someone who understands your business asking the questions. At the same time, if it's someone within the firm -- especially the client's primary contact -- the survey process can be strained and/or bog down. (The primary contact should be talking with the client informally all the time, anyway.)
Surveys can be anonymous, which ostensibly leads to more candid feedback, or completely open. I prefer the latter because the value of knowing who said what usually far outweighs the supposed "openness" benefits of a cloaked survey. Most of the time, interviewees tell me that they prefer to have their comments attributed to them.
Here are a few more benefits of client surveys:
Reassurance. For most good companies, positive feedback usually outweighs the negative in a customer relationship survey. And while everyone loves a pat on the back, there is also measurable value in this type of feedback. A well-designed customer relationship survey can provide you with needed reassurance that most of your customers think you're doing a good job. You can then take that information and concentrate on making sure you keep doing the things your customers like, and you can spread the word internally to help keep up morale. This is particularly important in these economic times.
Inside information. By surveying your customers you can find out about unannounced projects or opportunities, trends in their industry, and actual leads on new work. During a survey I did for an engineering firm, I interviewed a manager who had just been hired by an organization my client coveted as a customer. This manager felt stuck with the board's choice of consultants and told me, “If your client can do anything to help me get rid of my current engineering consultant, I’d be indebted to them for life." As soon as I hung up the phone, I called my client and relayed the manager's comment. My client said, “That information just paid for this whole survey.” Surveys aren’t always this fruitful, but you’ll usually get some leads if you ask the right questions the right way.
Marketing goodwill. Believe it or not, people like to be asked about what they do. Think about it. People spend day after day, year after year at their jobs, but unless they're celebrities, they're very rarely asked to talk about what they do. I’ve never conducted a client survey of any size that didn’t include at least one interviewee saying something like, “Tell them I think it’s great that they’re doing this.”
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