Informing a client-centric stategy

What would happen if your strategic decision-makers spent 2 hours of every month calling random clients? Not "their" clients, not key clients, not happy clients; but random clients. What would they hear and how would it inform your client-centric strategy? This won't become common practice any time soon. But is it really so crazy?

How do you put the voice of the client at the heart of your strategy?

At one level, you could argue this is old news. Every fee-earner will tell you that "I know my clients". Therefore the voice of the client must be shaping strategic decisions already.
But on closer inspection there are a few things about this argument that don't work:
  • "I know my clients" is not same as "we know our clients". The traditional approach is decentralised. Vital client and market intelligence lives in an individual's head, notebooks and inbox. Unless every fee-earner is invited to every decision-making session, the group will be left with blindspots filled by assumptions.
  • The notion of "my client" implies that one person in the firm works with one person at the client firm. In reality, day to day work is a many to many relationship, and these experiences get lost when relationship reviews focus only on a 1-2-1 discussion.
  • But the biggest elephant in the room, is the assumption that "my client would tell me if there's a problem". As any independent or directories interviewer with tell you, few client relationships are 100% sunshine and roses. There are usually some points of friction, emerging needs or changing expectations. These start small, and often don't get considered and shared until prompted. Even strong relationships have things that go unsaid.

Why amplify the voice of the client?

How firms engage with their clients has changed. Hybrid working, digitised services and competitor innovations are all reshaping expectations. What clients need, and how they expect it to be delivered, is changing. Inside the firm, staff priorities and expectations are also changing.
As needs, expectations and priorities evolve, assumptions about the status quo become dated. This creates strategic opportunities and threats. The firms that can discover and respond to client needs quickly, have a competitive advantage. This isn't about responding to individual client needs. This is about the firm as a whole discovering ways to remain relevant.
New insights require new ways of working. Traditional client listening has focused on collecting seasonal insights from selected "key" clients. The resulting data would drop into different siloes (spreadsheets, shared folders, PMS etc). Client listening teams faced the manual tasks of finding, tagging and reporting on the data.
Firms still following this traditional approach face several risks:
  • Only approaching friendly clients risks hearing "we already knew that" responses
  • Seasonal reporting leaves an insight vacuum that gets filled with old assumptions
  • The approach cuts most staff and clients out of the process

Always-on client listening

The alternative to this traditional approach is adopting the mindset of 'always-on' listening. Instead of limiting insights to key clients, everyone is encouraged to share their experiences. Instead of collecting feedback at the end of an engagement, it's collected throughout the client journey. Instead of decision-makers receiving powerpoint reports, all staff have access to a single source of truth.
Always-on listening enables firms to put the collective client voice at the heart of strategy. Client insights aren't just a section in the strategic plan. They become the lifeblood of strategic execution.
When everyone has access to the collective voice of the client, execution becomes more consistent. Brand promises become easier to deliver. Emerging needs become easier to identify.

Undiscriminating customer listening

So how does a firm get closer to its entire client base? My benchmark here is MBNA, before it was sold to Bank of America. MBNA's internal mantra was 'think of yourself as a customer'. It was written above every doorway and on every piece of stationary. It was their culture and their strategy.
To deliver on this promise every Manager and above had to do 2 hours of customer listening every month. From the CEO down it was measured and tracked. Why? Because you can't make customer-centric decisions if you're disconnected from the customers.
The key learnings here are that:
  • Customer listening was mandatory. Every month you spent time on the phone, or working in the credit department, talking to customers.
  • There was no discrimination. You didn't talk to hand-picked customers, happy customers or the best customers. You spoke to the next customer in the queue.
Make listening a strategic priority
What would your strategic decision-makers hear if they called 6 random clients every month? Imagine them sitting in the same room having 15-minute conversations with 6 clients and then discussing as a group what they'd heard...
I can already hear the cries of "we're too busy to do that", "the lost fees would be huge" and "I talk to my clients all the time".
I can't see it catching on any time soon. But there again, how can your firm have a client-centric strategy, if decision-makers only hear from a select few clients?

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