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5 future-proof steps to listen to clients (and get results)

Personal client relationships have always been at the heart of an accounting firm’s success. But remote working has changed the game – starting with how to listen to customers, writes Paul Roberts.

The pandemic magnified the importance of listening and responding to client needs and expectations. Those who could do this quickly gained a competitive advantage.

Now the challenge has evolved. How do you continue making sense of the growing volume of client feedback, without the process becoming overwhelming? This article shares 5 simple tips that all firms can try out today.

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Forward-looking businesses are moving on from traditional customer feedback processes. Sporadic research and annual surveys are being replaced by an ‘always-on’ model of customer feedback. This provides fresh and relevant insights that are always available to decision-makers. But, this isn’t as complicated or expensive as it sounds. In fact, you can take great strides using the tools and people you have today.

5 tips for future-proof client listening:

1. Always be listening

Traditionally, formal feedback has only been collected at the end of a client project. While this provides a valuable snapshot, actionable intelligence is being missed. That’s because feedback provides the richest insights when it’s fresh.

For example, the best time to ask about how clients found your firm, is at the start of the engagement. The best time to ask about how you can improve their experience is when you still have time to change things.

Always be listening, means collecting feedback across the whole client journey. This doesn’t mean sending lots of surveys. It means consistently asking 1 or 2 questions at different touchpoints. For example:

While onboarding a new client – “what was it that made you choose us?”

When a project starts – “what would a great experience look like to you?”

Halfway through a project – “how are we doing?”

You are probably asking these questions already. Future-proof client listening means asking all your clients and recording the responses.

2. Ask open questions

As you already know, the best way to understand your client’s perspective is to ask open questions. The same is true when collecting feedback. Open questions give people the space to share what’s on their minds. In contrast, multiple-choice questions limit the responses to what’s on the firm’s mind. While this makes the data easier to analyse, the simplicity comes at a price. By limiting responses, closed questions create blind spots. If your existing survey reports are greeted by “we already knew that” or “so what”, then you’re probably asking too many closed questions.

A good rule is to:

  • Use multi-choice questions to collect facts.
  • Use rating questions to measure experiences.
  • Use open questions to discover the ‘why’ behind the ratings.

My two favourite questions are simply: “what are we doing well, and what could we do better?”

Future-proof client listening means avoiding assumptions. This comes from asking open questions that reveal client experiences in their own words.

3. Centralise your feedback data

Clients are willing to share more feedback in more places than ever before. As well as surveys and interviews, they’re sharing online reviews, verbal comments, and complaints. This isn’t just personal clients. Corporate clients are also getting used to rating services and writing reviews. Most likely your feedback data is ending up in different places, which makes it hard to analyse. Our recent survey across professional services revealed that feedback is most likely to be stored in individual documents, people’s heads, notebooks, and email inboxes.

To be able to spot emerging themes, root causes and new testimonials, you need all your feedback in one place. To start with this could be a shared folder or a shared spreadsheet. Somewhere that everyone can save relevant documents, research, and anecdotal feedback. We’ve also heard of firms sharing client feedback through Teams or Slack channels. Future-proof client listening means having a single source of truth. One central place where everyone goes to find client feedback.

4. Include your employees’ view

Accounting is a people business, and your people have a crucial role to play in client experience. As a result, they have a different perspective on client experiences that often gets overlooked. Specifically, your people have two valuable views:

Inside-out view: your people get to see the experiences that your clients are having. They will be noticing what instructions and information they need to repeat, what confuses clients and what brings them joy.

Outside-in view:  your people will also be seeing how your processes, policies, and culture impact client experience. They see what works well, what could be improved and how those changes would benefit clients and the firm.

Collecting these staff views doesn’t require more surveys, and it’s not about traditional suggestion boxes. Instead, give people a simple and consistent place to share what they’re seeing. This could be a shared spreadsheet or dedicated Teams/Slack channel. If something more private is required, create a simple capture form on your intranet. Future-proof client listening means collecting all client-related feedback. This includes feedback from clients, employees, and your wider networks.

5. Close the loop

Having collected, analysed, and summarised your client-related feedback, it’s time to close the loop. Report back to clients and employees about what you’ve heard and what you’re doing in response. For your clients, this could be creating a regular section in your client newsletter that has a ‘you said’, ‘we did’ table. This consistent transparency has two important benefits. It shows the clients who are sharing feedback, that you are genuinely listening. It also shows the other clients that their peers are sharing feedback and getting a response. Both benefits build trust and improve future response rates.

Secondly, you must close the loop with employees. Share what you’ve heard from them and your clients, what you’re planning to do about it and how it may impact them. Also, take the opportunity to celebrate success. Make sharing and collecting feedback a positive experience, by highlighting examples of great client experiences. Some of our more client-centric firms even have quarterly awards for staff who get the best customer or peer feedback.

Future-proof client listening means closing the loop with both clients and employees. This builds trust, drives up future response rates and creates a platform for celebrating success.

Summary – from disconnected data to shared feedback intelligence

Forward-looking accounting firms are developing feedback intelligence by adopting an ‘always-on’ client listening process. This enables them to reduce decision-making blind spots by hearing from more clients, more often. To start realising these benefits, your firm can adopt 5 principles today:

  • Always be listening.
  • Ask open questions.
  • Centralise the data.
  • Include your employees view.
  • Close the loop.

About the author

Paul Roberts is CEO & co-founder of MyCustomerLens.

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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