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What to do when you get patchy feedback

It can be a confusing thing when clients come back to you with mixed reviews. Why is it that one client loves me and another hates me when I do exactly the same thing for both of them? Why can’t they get enough of this part of the firm, but they wouldn’t touch that other part with a 40-foot barge pole? And why do they have unrealistic expectations about some of our team, but not others?

I think, far from scratching your head, you should be treating patchy feedback as a wonderful thing - an opportunity to sharpen your focus and work out what you really want to do.

So, if you’re getting inconsistent feedback, here’s what I think you should do.

1. Look long and hard at your strong client relationship partner(s)

A good client relationship partner should be a shepherd. They’re the person gently guiding your clients through every part of the firm, making sure they know the partners and practices that can make their lives easier.  When times are good, they’re the ones reminding the client it won’t always be this way. When a storm is brewing, they’re the ones who lead them to shelter.

They can do this because they know your clients’ businesses inside out and they’ve helped orient your firm towards servicing them. They’re a beacon of trust, a bridge between the two organisations and they’re the go to person for everyone on both sides. 

If your client relationship partner doesn’t sound like this it could be because becoming a decent client relationship partner takes a serious amount of time and effort. It’s not something that can be mastered on the half hour commute into work each morning.

So look hard at your client partner’s workload and ask yourself, are you giving them too much to do by putting them on too many accounts? 

If you expect your client relationship partner to spend up to three (non-billable) hours a week on each of their key clients (as many large firms do), and you give them 20 clients to look after, you’re in trouble. There simply aren’t enough hours in a week.

If it’s more than that - and it really is the client relationship partner themselves - give them the skills that will help turn them around. (I can help with that.)

If they’re not prepared to change, replace them. They’re holding you back.

2. Build better briefs

In my experience, patchiness is often the result of internal referrals gone awry. And, when it comes to referrals, I think it’s also too often overlooked that there are obligations on both sides: the referrer and referee.

Often the referrer thinks their job is done the minute the client is introduced. That usually leads to a situation where the referrer knows the client’s expectations and how to meet them. However, the referee has no idea at all. 

If the internal referees in your firm are getting bad reviews, could it be because you’re simply not briefing them properly? For instance, did you tell them about how the client likes to receive their advice? Did you let them know about the client’s price sensitivity or what motivates them (i.e. how their KPIs are set, how their bonuses are calculated and so on)? If you’re writing off time you spend on their account, did you mention that? Did you block out half a day to have an in-depth workshop about how to treat the client so you retain and grow their fees? Nope, didn’t think so.

3. Reward the right behaviour

When it comes to rewarding partners and staff for bringing in a new client, I’ve noticed many firms only ever give the credit to the originator. If there’s a bonus to be had or a percentage of fees to be handed over, the person who brings in the work gets it all. That might - and does - encourage some serious rainmaking behaviour that can give the bottom line a massive ‘new work’ boost. But I think it’s also a recipe for client churn.

Let’s face it, it’s holding onto clients that create successful firms, not acquiring them one minute and losing them the next. But by rewarding only the sale, you’re promoting a culture of hunting and killing, rather than one of cultivating and growing.

When you consider it like that, you also need to consider how vested in a client’s success a professional will be when their hard work directly boosts their colleague’s bank account and not their own. They face the double indignity of not only having the money denied to them, but also having it channeled into the pockets of someone who’s most likely a rival.

I think a better approach is to check your incentivisation scheme, and share the spoils of a new client with everyone who matters - the person who brings it in, and the people doing the work. Of course, the originator should receive a serious part of any payday. They just shouldn’t get it all.

4.   Take your time

When it comes to onboarding a new client, I’m a massive fan of the idea of slowing down to speed up. That means taking the time you need at the start of the relationship to get things off on the right foot.

When you do, turn the clock off. The long-term benefits of this approach will far outweigh any short-term loss of billable hours.

You should also be checking in at regular - say 30 day intervals - for the first 12 months or so, just to make sure things are progressing as they should and that any problems and unrealised expectations get ironed out or explained early, before they become serious.

Formalise this process if you can. But, at the same time, don’t be robotic about it. You should also be taking the time to do the small things too.

I like the example that one of Australia’s most successful corporate lawyers gave me when I sat down with him recently. He built a practice worth millions of revenue each year. When I asked him how he did it he replied. “Simple. I just called every one of my clients every Friday afternoon and asked them how they were.”

Communication counts.

5. Understand your baggage

A lot of professionals are skeptical, battle-scarred people. They don’t let anything get past them if they can help it. But then, when it comes to examining their own practices, they revert to being babes in the woods. They become shoddy salesmen who expect their clients to be talked into things they never would be themselves.

Here’s the thing. Clients don’t like being cross-sold to and they know when you’re doing it. So be aware of how you’re coming across. Also be aware that the client will probably be super-critical of any new part of a firm they’re talked into using, especially if they’re happy with who they’re using at the moment.

They’ll also be constantly comparing them to the incumbent. That means if they weren’t completely dissatisfied with the last guys, it was always going to be hard to retain them.

6.  Aim for consistency, not cookie cutter

As I said before, the hallmark of any good business is consistency. But being consistent doesn’t mean being identical, especially in professional services.

In what we do, people are essentially paying for our brains and they expect a person, not a robot. So don’t shoehorn your people into some kind of factory line set up where they become miserable, just because you think that’s what the client wants. Instead, prepare the client for what consistency really means - applying the same principles, but adapting them to the context.

For example, if one of your goals is responsiveness, let the client know that being responsive in a fast-moving piece of commercial litigation may mean getting back within the hour. But being consistent in a slower-moving property deal may mean the next day.

Be upfront about these differences and don’t commit to silly and non-essential mantras like “we return all calls within 24 hours”. In my experience, they do more harm than good. They give clients unrealistic and unnecessary expectations and they take professionals away from the work they should be doing for non-essential tasks. 

Point out the bigger picture to the client too. If you had a heart attack, would you prefer not to see the world’s leading heart surgeon just because they had poor bedside manner? Of course not.

So focus on what matters, and score your people on these thing, not on peripheral and superficial KPIs. Then do everything you can to make sure your clients are judging you on the same things too.

7. Stop treating all feedback as equal

I’ve written many times about the need to focus on your good clients and break up with bad ones. That’s because business success (and personal happiness) comes from replicating good clients and doing the work you love, not from bending over backwards and busting a gut for clients you don’t even like.

And, just as all clients weren’t created equal, all feedback wasn’t created equal either.

Before you get feedback from a client, ask your partners to rate them first. Then compare this assessment to how the client rates you. If the scores come in low at your end and low at their end, it won’t be any surprise. If they come in high at your end and low at their end, you’ve got problems.

Why not also consider using a system like the Net Promoter Score to map your feedback and business goals and find out who you should be putting in the most effort with, as well as where your firm could and should be heading? (Just as an aside, this won’t work if you’re collecting anonymous feedback which is why I question the value of anonymous feedback altogether.)

Sometimes keeping a client happy simply makes bad business sense. Getting bad feedback from them is merely a sign it’s not working at either end. And you should feel relieved they feel the same way as you.  

Want more?

Finally, if you’d like to know more about how to deal with patchy client feedback, or if you need help building a client feedback program in your firm, get in touch.