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Keys To Effective Client Surveys: Ask the right questions the right way

By Pieter Oomens,

‘The right approach to retaining customers starts with trying to understand more about them, and then to work out what to do with the knowledge.’1 This proposition prompts the intelligent reader to ask, ‘How best do I get to understand what the customer (or the case of professional services, the client) wants?’ It is this question which lies at the heart of the following article.

A piece in The New York Times sums up the mood of today:

‘[R]equests for feedback, like relentless tugs on the sleeve, now seem to come with every purchase… On the telephone, in the mail, on their computers, smartphones and iPads, …consumers are being solicited as never before to express their feelings about coffeemakers, hand creams, triple-bypass operations, veterinarians, dry cleaners and insurance agents.’2

And one might add to the list: ‘lawyers’.

There is a place for surveys of the type referred to in NYTimes’ quote, especially when the seller deals with a mass market or sells, for example, a single-use generic product. But what if the seller is a law firm, with an established clientele with which it has long-standing and deep relationships or relationships which may not have such history but which have arisen as a result of exhausting and expensive tender campaigns?
As a means of obtaining information, online surveys have a number of positive characteristics: they are by their very nature inexpensive to run; having set up the process, they do not take up much management time in their administration; and they allow for large-scale sampling of opinion. However, many go uncompleted for the very reason that people are fed up with the war of attrition that they represent. They also, again by their very nature, do not allow for a drilling down of detail as to what is exercising the mind of the person to whom they are addressed.

A qualitative client survey (QCS) is an in-depth interview of a client or key personnel within a client organisation. Ideally, QCSs are conducted one-on-one by an experienced third party engaged by the provider. For the purposes of this article, the provider will be referred to as the law firm.
The first thing that a client learns about the law firm when it asks whether the client will participate in a QCS, is that the law firm really does care about its relationship with the client. The law firm is prepared to invest real money in ensuring that the relationship develops and endures.

The law firm will have an opportunity to have a candid assessment of how it is performing. The news may be good or may be bad. Either way, the law firm will be better informed and if the QCS is properly followed up both parties will gain.

If the news resulting from a QCS is good, the law firm will have an objective basis for rewarding those in its team involved with that success. It may also derive lessons that may be applied to other parts of the law firm’s business. Receiving positive feedback like this will also serve as the foundation for exploring the possibility of expanding the firm’s service offering to the client.

If the news from the QCS is bad, the law firm will have obtained a timely warning to lift its game. The alternative may have been something that occurred further down the track such as a polite letter from the CEO of the client advising that the law firm’s engagement is at an end, a piece of news arriving altogether too late for the law firm to remedy any underlying problem.

Surveys may influence how a user regards the provider.3

A law firm that properly sets up and conducts QCSs with key personnel of a corporate client for example may increase awareness within the client of the law firm’s presence and its commitment to the client. Equally, genuinely asking for the opinion of a client – and appropriately responding to its expression – is likely to induce the client to continue to engage the law firm.

So where to start? The first thing is for the law firm to identify those who are to be interviewed. If those identified are employees of an organisation, not only should they be asked whether they would be prepared to be interviewed but, if further authority is required, then their superiors should be informed of the law firm’s intention. Of course, the organisation may request conditions attaching to the process and these will have to be addressed before the law firm can further proceed.

A QCS should not be conducted by members of the law firm itself. That gives the wrong impression from the get-go. If there is bad news to impart, the prospective interviewees will be immediately on the defensive. A third party, experienced in conducting such interviews and alive to the importance of using follow up questions to obtain further detail is by far to be preferred.

At the outset of each interview, the process that will be adopted should be explained by the interviewer: there will be a written report of the interview and it will be shared with designated personnel at the law firm; the law firm will set out its plan to address any problems that are referred to by the interviewee; and the report and the plan will be communicated back to the interviewee. If it is the case that the interviewee has any objections to any aspect of the process then those objections must be satisfactorily addressed.

Follow up is vital. All the good work in establishing the framework for a QCS and in conducting the interview will come to naught if the law firm is not committed to providing an effective plan to remedy any shortcoming identified through the QCS and implementing such a plan. After all, the purpose of the QCS is to strengthen the relationship with the client.

And if the result of interview has been positive? Well, the law firm will have the comfort of knowing that it is on the right track. The plan might well be to broaden the scope of its service offering and the interviewee will be one who can assist in that regard.

There most certainly is a place for online surveys in the armoury of many law firms. Getting results that indicate a high level of satisfaction with the services of the law firm may serve as good advertising, especially if the law firm is making use of its social media presence in attracting clients. Even a law firm that has a corporate base may find that, should it achieve high scores from those at the coalface who engage with the firm, it will have a useful piece of information to add to the next tender.

In order, however, to truly strengthen relationships with those clients who are important to the future of the firm, there is everything to be gained by the law firm developing an effective QCS program.4

PTM is experienced in designing and conducting QCS programs.

  1. The Economist, leader article ‘Keeping the Customer Satisfied’ July 14th 2001 edition
  2. The New York Times, article by William Grimes March 16, 2012
  3. See Harvard Business Review, ‘How Surveys Influence Customers’ by Paul M. Dholakia and Vicki G. Morwitz
  4. While this article focusses on existing clients, QCSs are a sophisticated tool that can be used as part of a long-term strategy to secure new corporate clients, as will be explained in a future article.