We had read many articles touting the benefits of an organized client feedback process, and so we wanted to go through one ourselves. It worked great – we learned a great deal and we’d highly recommend it – and we thought we would share some of what we learned.

You can’t do this yourself

It’s always a good idea to ask directly for one-on-one feedback, but for an organized, structured program there’s no substitute for having someone not in your firm solicit anonymous feedback from a group of clients.

·       It’s easier for a third-party interviewer to elicit frank feedback. Clients may be reluctant to give negative feedback while they’re eating that turkey sandwich you bought them. They will be especially unlikely to criticize the performance of Jones in the presence of both Jones and Smith. When clients know that their comments will be mixed with a larger group of comments – and therefore at least somewhat anonymous — naturally they will speak more freely.

·       Your interviewer won’t be reluctant to follow-up. When you talk with clients directly, you may think you know what a client means by an ambiguous comment. You may be wrong. You may also be reluctant to push for details, especially when the client is being critical. The third-party interviewer is more likely to tease out meaning from comments that the interviewer finds unclear or overly general.

·       Feedback that comes from multiple sources is easier to accept.  It can be easy to explain away individual criticism, and it can be difficult to see patterns in critiques from multiple clients. When your trusted third party tells you what the clients said, it can be easier to accept the criticism as legitimate and perhaps to accept it as constructive.

Your interviewer must understand your clients

When we started our process we talked to law firm consultants who had experience conducting surveys like ours for other firms.  What we determined, however, was that we needed someone who understood our clients’ business – and not just our business. That is, when the client talked about what we were doing, or not doing, we needed someone who understood how that information related to the clients’ challenges, and who could therefore help us understand the implications for our work. We were surveying a group of local government finance professionals, and we chose a retired local government finance professional to conduct the interviews – it turned out to be a perfect choice.

You need some focus in who you talk to

Perhaps it’s possible to survey clients across an entire firm and draw useful conclusions, but even in a very small firm like ours we wanted to start with clients in one defined practice area so that we would get feedback that was specific enough to be actionable.

You will attract your clients’ attention

Our interviewer says that almost everyone who was approached to participate was happy to do so, was surprised we were asking, and tried to give helpful, thoughtful feedback. We worked closely with our interviewer to design open-ended questions to address topics important to us and to invite constructive criticism. Our questions produced detailed, meaningful answers. If the clients had not been interested, and had instead limited their responses to “everything’s fine, they’re great,” we would have had a disappointing outcome.

You will learn something

We hoped for primarily positive feedback, and that’s what we got — these were, after all, long-term clients, including some of our most important clients. We had an inkling about where a sore spot would be, and we were right about that, too.

At the same time, there were aspects of the feedback that we wouldn’t have expected. So once again, clients demonstrate that the lawyers don’t know everything.

You need to respond to what you hear

After we had our feedback – debriefing with our interviewer, we quickly sent an email to all those who participated in the interviews. We thanked them for participating, gave them the highlights (good and bad) of what we heard, and outlined our plan for addressing the common concerns. Outlining those plans helps commit us to those plans, and turns all of those clients into additional accountability partners.

In the end, we hope we will have shown our clients that we care, we will have improved the areas that need improvement, and we will be better-positioned to provide better service to all of our clients. In addition, perhaps we will have opened the door to receiving more constructive criticism from our clients on an on-going basis.

If you’re not interested in hearing negative comments and working to address the issues, then don’t start a feedback process – that will only work against you. You will even lose the benefit of the Hawthorne Effect.

We are already thinking about what we’ll do the next time. We may survey in a different subject area or choose a different group of clients — we took more or less a cross-section this time; maybe we’ll look for those who are our newest clients, or for client representatives that we know have more experience with multiple law firms.

Please see our disclaimer and let us know if you’d like to talk to us about our project.  For further reading on the idea of a client feedback process, you can read articles here, here and here.