The Future of Client Listening

Insights from professional services firms

Executive Summary

Headline results from the Future of Client Listening survey, January 2021

Client listening is taking centre stage

2020 saw a shift in both client needs and expectations and how firms delivered those services. To understand how firms are doing, client listening is growing in importance. 86% of respondents said that client listening would become more important to their firm.

The case for change

Despite this, the commercial impact of client listening is not always clear. Only 64% of respondents felt that senior decision-makers see the commercial benefits of client listening.

Keeping your finger on the pulse

This commercial disconnect may be driven by when firms seek client feedback. Many processes are still built around end of matter/project feedback, which comes too late to influence that client’s experience. This could be why only 21% of respondents said that feedback is ‘almost always’ actioned.

Keeping everyone on the same page

How client share feedback is becoming a complex picture. The average firm has at least 5 different sources of client feedback, including surveys, interviews, social media and instant feedback shared through online forms, verbally and emails.

Despite 50% of respondents saying that client listening stayed the same or increased during the first lockdown, the sources of feedback reduced. Surveys and interviews were reduced as firms relied on phone calls from BD and/or client teams.

The cry for automation

As a result, it’s not surprising that only 14% of respondents rated their listening process as more automated than manual. Respondents focused their frustrations on not being able to do enough client listening because the process is too manual &/or subjective. Typical comments were that the process “should be a lot more streamlined and automated” and that “it isn’t always as structured / routine as it should be”.

The barriers to fast informed decisions

Respondents described similar issues when reflecting on why client listening programmes don’t have more commercial impact. The barriers were summed up as “lack of resources and ease of the process”.

Future-proofing client listening

So what’s the future of client listening? In an ideal world, a future-proof client listening programme would be “automated”, “streamlined” and “reaching more clients”.

Client listening is changing

Why are firms changing how they listen to clients?

The impact of coronavirus and remote working is shifting how firms deliver services. It’s also changing the needs and priorities of their clients. To keep up, firms are placing greater emphasis on client listening.
 
MyCustomerLens recently undertook some research into the Future of Client Listening. In partnership with ClientTalk and Anna Lake Consulting, we spoke to a range of professional services firms.
86% said that the importance of client listening would rise in 2021.
 
The tactical driver is the need for fast insights that help firms keep up with the evolving needs and expectations of their clients. But there are more strategic drivers at work too. 2020 kickstarted a digital transformation across the industry. Firms are now seeing the competitive advantages of becoming a tech-savvy firm.
 
For other firms, the strategy is shifting from client acquisition to differentiated client care. In the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of Briefing, Richard Crook, global head of business development and client relationships at Charles Russell Speechlys said “It will be increasingly hard to win new clients, so you really need to look after what you currently have”. Amongst other responses, his firm have more than doubled the number of full client service reviews taking place.
 

What is client listening?

Effective client listening is more than asking questions or collecting data. It’s a culture driven by a desire to understand the client’s perspective. A desire to see their situation from their point of view.
 
Have you ever wondered why your firm doesn’t do more with the data it collects from clients? It may be that feedback is being collected only to measure or respond to past experiences. When you listen to understand, it comes with a commitment to do something with what you hear. When client listening is done well, the client benefits from the process too.

The case for change

Why invest in client listening?

Professional services firms thrive on the success of their client relationships. Strong relationships lead to repeat business and glowing referrals. But B2B relationships are not immune to consumer trends. The experience economy is impacting every industry. B2B buyers increasingly expect the same experiences they get as a consumer.
 
Clients are expecting more than expertise. They want consistency, responsiveness and regular updates. Amazon may not sell legal and accounting services yet, but it’s already shaping what clients expect from these firms.
 
This is the lens through which client listening must be seen. Effective client listening is a valuable exercise for clients. It shows that a firm is investing in the relationship. It shows commitment to delivering on the brand promise and the client’s evolving expectations.
 
This investment should have tangible benefits. The feedback should enable firms to make better decisions. To focus time and resources on what delivers the best commercial outcomes – for clients and the firm.
36% respondents felt the commercial benefits of client listening weren’t seen by senior decision-makers
 
In our survey, only 64% of respondents felt that senior decision-makers see the commercial benefits of client listening. Read on for ideas on how to link client listening to commercial outcomes.

Keeping your finger on the pulse

When should firms use client listening?

For client listening to deliver commercial outcomes, it must produce timely and relevant insights. But the cornerstone of traditional client listening is often the post-matter/project review. Whether a survey or interview, these reviews look backwards at completed work. As one respondent put it “Our work can run for 3 to 18 months. Just asking at the end is too late. At that point they may say they’re unhappy to try and get a discount”.
 
To understand and impact the client experience, listening must take place throughout the client journey. Building a story from initial pitch to project completion. For example, client expectations are often set during the bid process. So getting pitch feedback should be the start of the client listening process.
 
As work continues, clients share ad hoc feedback. Emails, feedback forms, verbal comments and ‘pulse surveys’ all capture current experiences. At the end of the matter/project, there’s usually a survey or interview. For firms with individual clients, there are also reviews and social media comments.
 
When listening takes place across the client journey, the insights can support acquisition as well as retention. As Anna Lake points out, service is becoming increasingly important to buyers; often more important than price. Client listening can strengthen marketing’s impact by identifying bid improvements and a steady stream of testimonials.
21% of respondents said their firm acts on feedback ‘almost always’
 
In our survey, only 21% of respondents said that their firm acts on feedback ‘almost always’. Of course, not all feedback requires a process change or client response. But it should still be fuelling product development, employee feedback and marketing testimonials.

Keeping everyone on the same page

How are firms listening to clients?

Typical firms have at least five different sources of client feedback. To make things worse, the questions, interpretation and timing aren’t consistent across departments.
For firms to remain joined-up and client-focused, their listening processes will need to:
  • Make it easy for clients to share feedback, while it’s fresh in their minds. Clients are also consumers and are becoming used to sharing their views and experiences with the businesses they buy from.
  • Become scalable while ensuring that key accounts retain the 1-2-1 attention they deserve. Comparing feedback across clients and service lines will identify common needs and priorities.
  • Automatically link up sources of structured and ad hoc feedback. Pulling feedback together will ensure everyone across the firm has a consistent view of:
    – what’s important to the firm’s clients
    – how that picture is evolving over time; and
    – how consistently the desired experience is being delivered.
50% of firms maintained or increased client listening during lockdown 1 
Our survey revealed that during lockdown 1, 50% of firms said that their client listening stayed the same or increased. However, the sources of client feedback decreased. The focus became telephone calls and client interviews that could provide a fast and detailed view of the shifting needs and priorities of key clients.
The challenge of this approach is that even with the BD enlisted, it doesn’t scale. Interviews could only stretch to key clients. Conversations were still analysed and reported manually. Senior decision-makers got a market snapshot, but not a robust or sustainable source of intelligence, 

The cry for automation

What are the frustrations with existing client listening processes?

Existing client listening processes are giving firms some great insights. But not as quickly or comprehensively as people would like. Our survey highlighted that 86% of respondents felt that their client listening process was more manual and automated.

Their frustrations with this approach related to:

“we don’t do enough”

  • Scale“as client base increases, hard to listen so closely when process is manual”, “should be a lot more streamlined and automated”
  • Timing“difficulty in identifying the right time to talk to clients”, “(should be) timed with close of client project”
  • Alignment – “getting full law firm partner buy-in”, “tricky to standardise across a diverse firm”
  • Taking action“not sure to what extent the client feels like their feedback is addressed”, “occasional lack of ownership of the follow-up”

The barriers to fast informed decisions

What’s holding firms back?

lack of resources and ease of the process

Respondents believe that client listening could have a greater impact on their firm’s success if they had more:

  • Scalability: “lack of automation”
  • Resources: “lack of resources and ease of the process”, “resources to implement resultant change/improvements”
  • Evidence of impact: “fee earners seeing what’s in it for them, i.e. good news stories and winning more work”

Future-proof client listening

What is the future of client listening?

In an ideal world, what would your client listening programme look like in 2021? Our respondents see a future-proof client listening programme as one that:

  • Scales – enabling more clients to be heard more often – “automated, streamlined”, “more automation of the matter review process to avoid constant partner liaison to identify time of review”
  • Aggregates – bringing multiple sources of feedback together, to create a single source of truth – “everything in one digital platform, revised questions drawing on several methodologies”, “a holistic programme of internal and external feedback and implementation of cross-selling opportunities”
  • Aligns – taking away some of the subjectivity around who gets asked what and when – “more rigour around planning and scheduling”, “use of the information gleaned to feed into both client and firmwide strategies”