UK: You’ll Only Know If You Ask...

Last Updated: 31 August 2007
Article by Barbara Hamilton

Barbara Hamilton looks at how firms are getting useful client feedback.

Client service is a key differentiator for professional practices and something on which firms increasingly compete. To get it right, they need to be sure they know where they stand and devote resources where needed. We look here at how firms are obtaining competitive advantage through feedback, and how we can be better at obtaining feedback as a sector.

Eversheds partner and head of client relationship management, Geoff Harrison, says: "We can tell ourselves we have the best possible approach to client care and service but unless we ask our clients how they rate our service delivery such thinking has no practical value."

Resistance and barriers

Ideally, client feedback is ongoing, with fee earners obtaining comments directly, supported by independent processes that fit each client.

Yet many firms are still not seeking comment from their own clients on how well they are performing. Jo Summers, director of researchers Acritas, says: "In our experience some professional firms still fear the dreaded ‘client feedback’ programme as it is tantamount to the 360 degree appraisal."

Acritas’ research, carried out with over 800 in-house heads of legal in the early part of 2007, revealed that an overwhelming 60% had not been asked for their feedback. This is surprising considering that when Acritas conducts client feedback for professional practices, it typically achieves more than a 75% participation rate – suggesting that clients want to take part.

The main barriers to obtaining feedback are time, resources and cultural resistance. If the firm and its partners are busy or stretched, undertaking client feedback seems like a luxury. And no-one likes having the finger pointed at them. While it is only human to find fault, this does no good in the long term and certainly does not reward the client’s honesty. Instead, whoever is responsible for feedback should agree with the client as to how he/she wishes the news to be passed on and then deliver it appropriately, focussing on actions.

Why do it?

Feedback can be used for everything from improving profitability and matter management to cross-selling and service improvements. Firms undertake client feedback to:

  • listen to the client and adapt services
  • raise their profile with their clients
  • address service and performance issues
  • identify opportunities for new business
  • find out how well the firm and its partners are doing
  • pick up training needs
  • increase profitability and improve efficiencies
  • manage risk
  • identify rising stars
  • identify rogue partners
  • manage reward and recognition for fee earners
  • meet initial promises made to client
  • protect clients from predators
  • match client-service teams to the client
  • introduce new people to the client.

How firms are obtaining feedback

Approaches to client feedback are as diverse as firms themselves. It can be conducted in-house or externally, face to face, by telephone, online or on paper, and via rolling listening programmes or annual feedback.

Furthermore, feedback can be formal or informal, matter or transaction-related, individual or group, quick and dirty or indepth, firmwide or individual. It may take the form of a post-secondment/fieldwork debrief, or be topic-related such as on brand or tenders.

Traditionally, feedback has been client to firm, but more recently, two-way feedback has evolved, such as service level agreements.

An independent voice – who should do the work?

Figure 1 illustrates who might undertake client feedback. An in-house researcher in a law firm might be a professional support lawyer and an in-house consultant might be a semi-retired partner.

Some firms only use partners to undertake feedback, but use a different one each year. This maintains independence, creates cross-selling opportunities, and spreads the relationship – especially useful in transactional or project-based environments.

However, doing something internally does not always represent better value for money. Taking time-costs into consideration, it is often more cost effective to use external agencies than to take up partner time. And, arguably, an independent point of view is more valuable. "Who is asking more often than not affects the answer," says Joe Bell, a director at market intelligence firm Winmark. "Clients tend to be more forthcoming with people they don’t already know."

Using external providers can also deliver skill benefits and objective opinions. Partners cannot claim to be expert interviewers, and their time could well be spent better elsewhere. "Any perception that a firm has of how clients perceive them is all conjecture unless validated by people outside the firm. Only the client really knows," comments Dr Jim Hever of Addleshaw Goddard LLP’s client development centre.

Alternatively, incorporating feedback into the way firms work helps if you can’t outsource it. Most transactions or other compliance projects provide plenty of opportunities for feedback.

Acting on feedback

Feedback needs to combine qualitative opinions along with hard data. It is then possible to analyse and benchmark the results.

Figure 2 illustrates the results of a client feedback survey undertaken by researchers Resolve Marketing. Ideally, a firm’s performance should sit close to the diagonal line so that it matches the importance a client places on it. Too far over or under the diagonal and the firm is either wasting resources and energy or not meeting expectations.

What is learnt from client feedback needs to be responded to, as feedback is very visible to a client and he/she will expect to see his/her comments acknowledged. "Client feedback can be a negative experience for the client if the information is not acted upon or if the actions taken are not communicated back to the client," says Liz Bostock of Resolve Marketing. For feedback to be useful, it has to be properly planned and delivered within the context of the strategic objectives of your firm. Before undertaking any feedback, firms should determine why they are doing it and what they hope to achieve. This is as important as who and what you ask.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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