7 Words for Framing Client Feedback: Interesting – I Wonder Why They Said That

June 21, 2024

Have you or a staff member ever received challenging or critical customer feedback and immediately felt anxious or reacted defensively? It can be difficult to avoid these natural human reactions and take the time to view the feedback more openly and constructively.

Framing feedback is key to responding to challenging customer feedback effectively. As easy as it sounds, seven simple words are probably the easiest way to do that. Anytime you get feedback, ask yourself…

Interesting - I wonder why they said that.

In saying these seven words, we’re invoking two traits to frame feedback:

  1. Interesting. This is about curiosity. We need to be curious and interested in what our customers tell us because it doesn't matter what they say if we're not interested in hearing it. We will most likely be unmotivated to take effective action and respond promptly (or at all) to their feedback, which could open the possibility of having a meaningful conversation with them. A conversation to address their concerns or frustrations and move the client relationship forward in a positive direction.
  2. I wonder why they said that. This is about empathy. By seeking to understand why the customer said what they said, we put ourselves in a position to protect the ego, not get defensive, and instead really focus on them. After all, the customer is the one who gave us the feedback, and they are the ones who feel the way they do. If we don't understand why they feel that way and the context that created the reaction that they're sharing with us through their feedback, our ability to solve and find opportunities for positive change is greatly diminished.

Framing Feedback as a Coaching Tool

Imagine that someone on your team receives some tough or challenging client feedback. You go over to them with all the niceness in your voice – wanting to help- and ask them what happened. The natural reaction to that question is for the team member to give a defensive answer. They want to tell you every detail of what they did and what they said to the client. Soon, the blame starts being placed on the client, and understanding the context and the ‘why’ behind the feedback gets harder to identify.

Now imagine the same scenario, but this time, you approach your staff member by saying, “Interesting, I wonder why the client said that.” If they start to get defensive, you can redirect them easily. Tell them you don't want to know what happened just yet - you’ll get there; first, you want to work together to understand why the client said what they said. This redirects their anxiety and defensiveness outward toward that more empathetic approach.

The Impact of Framing Feedback on Business Outcomes

Here is a great real-world example of the impact of framing client feedback.

The Scenario

I was working with a group of around 15 stakeholders from an engineering firm, and they had just received their first round of customer feedback.

All the feedback scores were relatively positive, except one marginally low score below expectations from Scott, a client with a $5 million account with the firm, who commented that he didn’t appreciate the $3,000 change order fee he received.

The natural defensive and anxious reactions began after the group read the comment. The principal in charge said, “Well, what about the $50,000 in free work we didn't bill for?” and the project manager said, “Of course, we’re just going to write that off.”

While they all started planning to act on this feedback, I said, wait - time out. Do we understand why Scott said what he said?  No one could understand why Scott would be so worried or upset about a $3,000 change order on a $5 million project.

I strongly encouraged the principal to call Scott to understand what that change order meant to him and his project and then to come back to her team to discuss appropriate actions.

Framing the Client's Feedback

She took my advice and called Scott, telling him they would take care of that $3,000 change order fee, no problem, but in exchange, could he explain why the change order created such an issue for him?  

Scott acknowledged that it was his fault and knew he often asked for work outside of scope. The problem was he was working for a public agency and had a fixed project budget. Any changes to that budget had to go to the board for approval – which was a pain and took too much time.

Suddenly, the principal had an ‘aha’ moment. She now understood the context of his feedback and realized it wasn’t about the money but the change fee's impact on his process and the project's progress.

The Client Win

What was more interesting was that Scott, having admitted it was his own fault and not wanting to have to worry about the same issue again, asked the principal if she could just add an extra $100,000 in contingency fees to the next contract to cover those types of change fees.

By framing the feedback she received and being curious, interested, and empathetic, she mended the relationship with Scott, grew the account by $100,000 a year, and any unused contingency would flow through to the bottom line. What an amazing win!

The Impact on the Firm's Future Business

This firm was sophisticated, and they didn't just make this a win with one client. They implemented a new process: every time they worked on a proposal over a certain dollar size, they would have a candid conversation regarding pricing options with the client during the proposal phase. Making this part of their pricing conversation and being transparent with available options pre-sale was impactful in the buying marketplace, and they found their win rate went up by about seven points.

Conclusion

By asking, “Interesting, I wonder why they said that,” when you receive challenging feedback, you can redirect those natural anxious or defensive reactions and better understand the context and real pain points behind the customer’s feedback. Framing feedback with interest, curiosity, and empathy gives you insights to respond more effectively to critical client feedback. This enables you to find better, more effective solutions for your client relationships resulting in better business outcomes.


Ryan Suydam

Ryan Suydam co-founded Client Savvy in 2004, to help firms create fierce client loyalty by designing, implementing, and measuring client experiences. He has coached nearly 700 organizations and over 30,000 professionals on the skills required to be “client savvy.”

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