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What to do when your client feedback meeting doesn't go to plan?

If the idea of asking for client feedback terrifies you, you’re not alone. A lot of professionals are reluctant to sit with clients and ask what they really think of their work. Partly, this is because they’re afraid about a meeting in which they have little control on how the conversation may unfold – or not.

When you do client feedback, things can and will go off course. That’s how robust conversations between people (not robots) happen. You just need a plan for dealing with them so the prospect of a tough time doesn’t become a barrier to implementing your program.

That’s why I’ve developed this guide to five common problems you could encounter in client feedback meetings and how to overcome them.

1. The client cuts the meeting short

So, the client has allocated an hour to give you feedback but when you get there they arrive late and tell you that they only have 10 minutes because they’ve got other, more important stuff to do.

This is actually pretty common. And I think it usually comes down to one of two things.

The first is that the client really is very busy and pressed for time. In which case, it’s probably best to ask permission to reschedule. If you don’t, chances are you won’t get good feedback. The second is that you’ve asked the wrong person.

Too often I see inexperienced firms ask for feedback from someone too senior to be across the detail. Cutting the meeting short is simply their way of showing they don’t really understand the point of the interview or it’s unimportant to them. So check you are inviting the right person - the person who knows your work. Don’t use client feedback meetings as a way to get your foot in the door of a senior decision maker you haven’t met before.

2. The client rambles

You’ve spent ages preparing a list of questions which you intend to diligently plough through. But when you start, the client spends 35 minutes rambling on about the first question and you find you’ve got just 25 minutes left to knock over the next 10 questions you’ve prepared.

Fortunately, this one can be easily, if imperfectly, solved. You don’t have to do your best trial attorney: “Just stick to the question, Sir”. But you do need to know which of your many questions matter more than others and that will come down to what information you really want from them.

So before any meeting ask yourself what is vital to you and what is simply a ‘nice to have’? Be prepared for the rambler – leave your list of questions aside and listen. They may be shedding light on what keeps them awake at night. Then ask your critical few questions. Don’t just go through your list robotically.

3. The client asks when you’ll be doing what they say

Some clients think that whatever they tell you in a client feedback meeting will happen. “I want you to be on call constantly because I sometimes need advice at 11:30pm on a Sunday night” or “I’d like you to develop an online system for benchmarking our risks” or “We’d prefer to have Peter back managing our account because he was a great bloke”.

So be upfront. Position your client feedback program as a promise to listen to better understand (rather than a promise to do). And do it at the start of the meeting, not at the end.

4. The client tells you your work sucks

Yep, there it is. It’s the big chestnut you thought they might say and they’ve come out and said it. This is worth a whole other article in its own right. But for brevity’s sake I’d suggest you need to do a few things.

First, work out why they’re saying it. Is it the fault of one matter or one file in particular? Maybe you did drop the ball – if that’s the case admit it. Listen dispassionately to flush out what the problem is about, and sound out some ideas about how you could address them.

Second, think about what they’re saying. If they are legitimate concerns (or, if the client is an important one, even if they aren’t legitimate concerns) tell them you’d like to meet to discuss in more detail. Bring along someone more senior or someone who thinks a bit differently and will bring a different point of view. Show them that you care and you’re prepared to straighten things out. Seek to separate conflict from contest and move from blame to learning the lesson.

Third, and I reckon this is a big one, rewind things a little and be selective about the person you send along in the first place. If you have too much emotionally invested in the relationship or the work, simply don’t do the client feedback in the first place. Instead, choose people who are dispassionate and come at the relationship rationally. If you’re going to be personally offended by what they might say, you’re simply not the right person to be there.

And fourth, practice centering. You don’t need to be powerless, belligerent or defensive – instead use your best Aikido skills in conflict resolution “embrace the energy of one’s opponent and channel it a new direction that perhaps neither side originally expected but that both sides agree on”.  

5. The client tells you it’s over

And finally, it’s the worst one of all… the client flat out tells you that the relationship is dead. From now on they’ll be using the services of someone else.

Guess what? This one rarely happens. Who’s going to give up an hour of their time to give feedback on - and therefore invest in - a relationship they no longer see as alive. The answer, pretty much no one.

Unless of course these clients had an experience with you really that was so bad they need to get it off their chest. And, if that’s the case, you’ve probably already seen the writing on the wall. The thing is you demonstrated a preparedness to listen and this may be all that’s needed to limit the energy and reach of bad word-of-mouth.

And finally…

When it comes to client feedback nothing beats preparation and experience. So if you’d like help putting together an effective client listening program and preparing for at least ten tough meeting scenarios - get in touch.

Here’s our Cheat’s Guide to Starting a Client Listening Program.

Sue-Ella is the Principal of Prodonovich Advisory, a business dedicated to helping law, accounting and other professional services practices sharpen their business development practices, attract and retain clients and become more profitable.