• Anna Lake

Why client listening is more than just asking questions

Questions are the core element of a client listening programme, there is no doubt about that. The questions you ask provide insight into how your clients are feeling, their view of your brand, an opportunity to learn about your clients’ forthcoming priorities, and much more. You of course, need to give thought to the questions you ask, and I’ll touch on that later but there is much more to a successful client listening exercise than just the questions.

How you structure your programme

Early thought needs to be given to how you structure your programme. If this is a new activity for you, you might run a pilot first. A pilot can help you to refine your programme at an early stage so that when it’s rolled out more widely, it will have maximum impact.

When you’re looking at the structure of your programme, decide whether you want to gather insight through an online survey, through interviews or a mix of both. If using a mix of both, think about the nature of the relationship – online surveys are ideal for clients buying transactional, one-off services but long-standing clients, and those who buy from a number of areas of your business warrant a person-to-person interview.

Why are you listening in the first place?

Gaining regular client insight should be a core part of any marketing strategy (I would say that wouldn’t I!) but client listening isn’t always about getting feedback on your service levels. It can be used to give you an evidence-base for your wider marketing activities too.

Seeking insight from your clients, referrers and other stakeholders can help you to develop your marketing content. Messages based on what your clients actually say you deliver and how you add value to their business are so powerful. You can also discover what your clients’ priorities are for the coming year and what information will be most helpful to them which should increase the effectiveness of your marketing activities.

The CIM textbook definition of marketing is ‘anticipating, identifying and satisfying customer needs profitably’. But how often do you launch something to the market without proper research because you think it’s new and innovative and what clients and prospects want?

Client listening can help you to assess the viability of market opportunities before you waste time and resource running a campaign to promote something no-one’s going to buy or that is already widely offered!

The questions you ask

The questions you ask should be linked to the overall objectives of your programme – no surprises there.

If you’re sending out online surveys, think about what’s most important for you to know.

Online surveys should be short because people are asked for feedback by everyone from their doctor’s surgery to their broadband supplier so survey fatigue sets in and people don’t want to spend ages filling them out.

When you’re thinking about qualitative interviews, you need to make sure the questions are open and provide the best opportunity for clients to provide detailed answers. Be prepared to ask follow-up and/or clarification questions when required to really get to the nub of any issues raised. Listening interviews should be a safe space for clients to share their views and experiences, if you’re using internal team members to conduct the interviews, they should resist the urge to try and deal with any issues or respond to any mention of future opportunities – this isn’t a sales conversation!

The act of gathering insight is an important client experience in itself

I recently received a cold call on behalf of an organisation who’d provided my business with some support. The caller asked if I’d be happy to have a conversation with them to gather feedback. As this is something I do for my clients (albeit not cold), I felt some empathy, and I


The caller said the conversation would be recorded for training and quality purposes and asked if I was okay with that. Again, this is something I do with my client listening calls, so I said I was fine with it.

It then became apparent that our reasons for recording calls weren’t aligned. I record calls to enable me to provide my client with a transcript, but more importantly to have an engaging and free-flowing conversation with the interviewee.

My experience went like this:

Caller: Asked qualitative question

Me: Gave my answer

Caller: Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap as they recorded my answer and I hung on the line

This was repeated a number of times then followed by a number of quantitative questions with so many options I couldn’t remember the first ones they mentioned!

The lady asking the questions was delightful, but the overall experience wasn’t great. My tips for a great experience are:

Schedule the call beforehand so it’s convenient to the interviewee

Record the calls (with permission) and give the participants your full attention. They don’t want to hear you tapping away at your keyboard while you record their answers or see the top of your head while you furiously scribble notes

Don’t ask quantitative questions with lengthy options

If you can avoid it, skip quantitative question altogether on a call. They give you lots of data for graphs and charts but limited in-depth insight – save them for online surveys. The one exception to this is one ranking question such as Net Promoter Score or Customer Satisfaction Score

Now the work really starts!

Once you’ve got some data to work with, this is where the fun begins. There is absolutely no point investing in a client listening programme if you’re not going to do anything with the insight you’ve gathered. The real value in the programme comes from closing the feedback loop and acting on what you’ve learned.

Firstly, address any immediate issues which were raised. Deal with any little niggles or gripes which could turn into bigger frustrations – often clients say, ‘things are great but....’ Sort out what comes after those ‘buts’ quickly and decisively and go back to the client to let them know the issue has been resolved. More often than not it’s issues with systems or processes which cause annoyance, and these things should be fairly straightforward to rectify.

If fundamental problems were surfaced, involve necessary colleagues and discuss the best course of action. Depending on the nature of the issue, you may need to involve departments such as HR – serious people issues are usually identified and dealt with before they are raised by clients in listening interviews, but it does happen occasionally.

It’s important to point out that client listening programmes are not witch hunts. Their purpose is not to actively seek out problems or to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but they are a good way of identifying issues which might not have otherwise been raised. Many clients say the firm would know about it if they weren’t happy but that’s not always the case.

Let’s now focus on the good stuff! If individual team members were singled out for praise by clients, make sure they are thanked and acknowledged. Your team are more likely to continue to deliver exceptional service to clients if their efforts are recognised.

Client listening exercises give you a goldmine of positive comments for use on your website, social media channels and bids for new clients (just make sure you ask the client’s permission before using them!). They also help you to identify advocates, people you can turn to for references and people who are likely to recommend you to others (free marketing!).

The positive sentiment can be used for internal purposes too – it’s really important to tell your team what a great job they’re doing and how much clients, and the you appreciate it. If the client is happy to do so, their comments can be used for annual review purposes and to support promotions.

I always suggest to the businesses I work with that they truly close the feedback loop and show they’ve truly listened by publicly talking about what’s happened as a result of the listening exercise. It shows humility and integrity and builds trust with your clients and wider stakeholders. You don’t need to go into huge details but saying things like ‘our clients told us we could be more responsive, and we now reply to all emails within 48 hours, even if it’s a holding reply’ is a great way to show clients they haven’t wasted their time.

Much of the reluctance to complete feedback surveys comes about because people don’t believe anything will change as a result of their input. Sharing the actions you’ve taken is a brilliant way of demonstrating your commitment to your clients and the value you place on their opinion.

It’s no longer enough for businesses to rely on their technical expertise to keep and attract clients. Buyers want an excellent experience and are often willing to pay a premium for it. You need to know what your clients are thinking and feeling. Client listening can help you to find out, but you need to think way beyond the questions.

Top tips for gaining the most value from client listening

  • Choose a cross section of clients – not just the ones you know are going to say positive things. It’s from the less than perfect reviews you’ll gain the most opportunity to improve.

  • Schedule the calls in advance so clients can choose a time most suited to them (apps such as Calendly are great for this purpose). Clients can also prepare for the call and you’ll get better quality insight than if they’re not expecting the conversation.

  • Record the calls (with permission) and give the participants your full attention. Trying to take note of what they’re saying there and then elongates the call so takes up more of their valuable time. It’s also useful to have a record of the conversation to refer to if necessary.

  • Focus on open, qualitative questions which provide a greater depth of insight than quantitative questions. Take the opportunity to ask follow-up and clarification questions if you need to dig deeper in a particular area.

  • Act on the feedback! It’s a waste of your budget and your clients’ time if you don’t close the loop. Acting on the insight demonstrates integrity and clients are more likely to participate in future if they know action will be taken as a result of their feedback.

Anna Lake is a freelance consultant specialising in client listening for organisations ranging from B2B companies through to charities. To find out more email Anna or visit her website

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