When in doubt, ask your clients

by Adina Luca, April 7, 2018

In collaboration with Jeanne Monchovet (http://www.olystix.com/)

Small business selling to other businesses (B2B) do not do regular and consistent client interviews to check their service level and get feedback. The feedback they get is mostly based on a couple of clients’ comments received during account management visits. The assumption is that those comments represent THE feedback. The evidence is always anecdotic.

Worse still, some small businesses listen to the feedback and do nothing, dismissing the comments they get as exceptions.

Why you should ask your clients for feedback

No 1 reason: client retention

Small businesses often lose clients without knowing why. If the business is small, every loss has major consequences. Usually, in B2B deals, it can take anywhere between 18 months to 3 years to replace a lost major account.

Consistent client interviews for feedback usually lead to repeated sales or increased volume because your clients are now aware that you care, so they will make more room for you in their budget.

No 2 reason: strategy check
When asking your clients for feedback, you have the opportunity to check whether what you think your market sees in you is what they really see in you.

No 3 reason: improve account management efforts
Unless you know what makes your market tick, it will be difficult to replicate those successful relationships on a larger scale.

No 4 reason: damage control
Only by asking do you get to find out what went wrong and where and you can avoid repeating mistakes in the future.

You need a third party for this
What the client would tell you may not be what they would tell someone else about you. In B2B deals, relationships become personal and clients, too, protect their supplier relationships.

The key is in the interpretation of what you hear. If you do it yourself, you will be tempted to ignore parts you don’t like or vice-versa, you may dwell on the negative feedback at the expense of making the most of what you do well.

You get the benefit of an expert ‘ear’, who has done similar interviews before and understands areas of improvement more objectively.

Your clients’ responsiveness to your request to be interviewed by a third person is also a measure of the quality of the relationship you have managed to establish with them. If a lot of them are happy to take that interview, that in itself is good feedback for you.

Qualitative interviews, not quantitative surveys
B2B is relationship-based. Quantitative questionnaires do not evaluate the depth of the relationships. At most, numbers can open the discussion.

Quantitative data makes no sense if you don’t have a big number of clients that have a similar profile. If your business is small, you are more likely to have a couple of major accounts and lots of smaller ones, with few things in common.

Qualitative feedback will tell you what questions and themes to look for in your quantitative data and then you can run quantitative feedback forms for end of projects review. The rule of big numbers still applies, so you need to have a lot of similar projects to make sense of the results.

Step 1. Start with profiling your client base
Check your client segmentation and do your client churn calculations to have a current view of the profile of your market.

The data will help you to identify the clients you need to talk to, based on which numbers stand out e.g. major accounts, financial industries, over £20,000 a year, 80% retention rate.

Step 2. Know WHAT you are after: set your objective
Qualitative data is notoriously difficult to interpret. If you do not have a hypothesis or a specific objective that drives your interviews, it will be even more difficult to make sense of the findings.

Whatever it is – the launch of a new service line, checking additional customer service needs, etc. – be very precise on what you want to get because that would help you keep it short and sweet. For example, you can base your interview guideline on checking the pillars of your strategy. Clients will appreciate that.

Step 3. Know WHO you are after: current, lost and potential clients
Don’t go asking only your cheer-leading clients. It is useful to know why current clients love you, but it is much more useful to know what burnt the bridge with lost clients. You should also know what puts your potential market off in contacting you.

You cannot ask exactly the same questions, but try to keep the core similar for all three categories (current, lost and potential clients). You will then be able to draw a comparison and keep it consistent.

Now, the real challenge begins: what happens after that data has been collected
The most important part in asking for customer feedback is to decide what you are going to do after having analysed the results. Customer feedback must result in changes your customers can see and appreciate. And to make those changes you need to be prepared to allocate sufficient time, human and financial resources.

1. Run an action planning workshop
The best way to do so is to plan a post-survey workshop with your key people, run by an external facilitator and within two weeks of receiving the results. The facilitator will help you and your people accept the feedback objectively and ease you into the group brainstorming process to agree what the results mean and draw a manageable action plan. You action plan should include how you can leverage your strong areas and how you can improve what isn’t going so well.

Short term fixes
You won’t be able to fix everything at once. So it’s important to concentrate on the quick fixes first – items that require immediate attention, that can be addressed easily and produce rapid results. For example, changing the invoicing system or sharing market insights with your clients so that they are more aware of market development and what the competition does.

Long term changes
Bigger changes will also be required to improve customer satisfaction, and that is more difficult to put in place. These are the longer term improvements which often require a cultural change, changing the way you do things or changing your product strategy. For example, the interviews might reveal product issues such as your product not being easy to use or not being as good as the competitors’. You will have to make big decisions and review whether you have the capacity to make drastic product changes or whether you can address these product issues by making smart cost-effective changes and offering a viable alternative instead. The survey might also flag customer service issues that may require a continuous, intensive training programme.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish and what return those bigger changes will truly bring.

2. Follow-up regularly on the plan
Once you have run your workshop, you will still be faced with one last step in the process: ensuring your action plan is implemented. Converting intentions into actions is not easy, especially for SMEs, given their limited resources. So your action plan should also cover in details: what changes, why, who, by when, and how to monitor and support the progress. Monitoring and supporting the progress are the key words here, as your people will need support through the change process. You will need to listen to how they are feeling about their progress toward meeting the agreed action plan and help them in overcoming challenges. On-going communication is critical when you want people to change. You may also decide to task your appointed facilitator to be the communication agent so that people speak up more easily about their challenges and ask advice about how best to move forward.

3. Set up data monitors for changes you decide to implement
Let’s say you checked your clients’ propensity to buy an extended list of services from you. They told you they would do so if the services will be presented as part of the initial offer rather than as an add on. You adopt that change immediately – how will you monitor that the change has worked?
A bigger change required was an improvement in your customer service approach and it will take you at least 12 months to start moving into that direction. How will you monitor that you have reached that goalpost and, later on, how will you know that the change has worked?
Set up your monitoring tools upfront so that you can declare victory in the future and share the rewards. Otherwise, your team will learn that changes are a never-ending nuisance and there is no clear outcome of their efforts.