Asking Great Questions to get Great Client Feedback

October 16, 2020

What typically happens is a committee of people (principals, marketers, project managers, and anyone else in earshot) sit in a room and brainstorm questions they’d like to ask.  The result is a hodgepodge of overlapping and sometimes un-related questions – usually, a list too long to be practical.

Since 2004, Client Savvy has been researching client feedback, identifying, and testing many simple techniques that can restore sanity to this process.  In this whitepaper, you will learn:

  • The best length for a feedback survey
  • What type of feedback to collect
  • How to ask good questions
  • How to score responses

Client Savvy’s Client Feedback Tool (CFT) is available for companies to use constantly throughout their relationships with their clients, and includes hundreds of pre-built templates that follow these guidelines.

Great Questions Shouldn’t be too Long

Based on research done with more than 1.2 million client surveys, six to eight simple questions seem to be the optimum length of a survey.  When the questions are well written and succinct, clients can complete a survey like this in two to three minutes.  Shorter surveys tend to receive higher response rates – 40% according to our research.  Most electronic surveys receive less than a 5% return rate, usually, because they are too long, have too many questions, and are too complex.  In fact, clients are more willing to respond to several short surveys over time than one long survey sent less frequently.  Therefore, while it may be tempting to ask many questions with several nuances, it’s likely to provide you with less overall feedback.

What Great Questions Should I Ask?

The ultimate challenge of gathering effective feedback is to make the survey comprehensive while also being concise. Client Savvy has distilled the typically asked survey questions to a total of seven. For only seven questions to cover a wide gamut of client service issues, the surveys divide topics covered into two main categories: Deliverables and Relationships. “Deliverables” inventory the client’s perceptions of WHAT the firm produced. “Relationships” questions collect feedback on HOW the firm’s process worked. Deliverable questions focus on product while relationship questions focus on process. 

The key factors regarding the Deliverables include how well the firm’s products:

  • Attended to the Schedule goals
  • Addressed the overall Budget parameters
  • Included the appropriate Accuracy required to be effective
  • Confirmed the Scope of work and Fees rendered conformed to agreements

The key factors regarding the relationships include how well the staff’s process:

  • Offered the Helpfulness needed by the client
  • Included the Responsiveness desired by the client
  • Contained the level of Quality sought by the client

This breakdown of categories produces the most constructive feedback for professional service firms.  It also allows the client succinct but satisfying opportunities to offer feedback — with the goal to help produce the most successful project. While the firm gets full credit for being proactive and professional in asking for feedback, the client becomes more involved and engaged in the project and therefore feels more ownership in the outcome.

Putting this to work for you means developing a survey process that includes one question in each of the above categories.  Knowing what to ask about is a start, but great surveys also require you to ask great questions. 

How Do I Ask Great Questions?

Great questions are comfortable to answer, easy to understand, and concise.  A great deal of thought should go into crafting each question, to ensure it won’t impede someone from responding.  One common mistake is to ask questions about people, performance, and personalities.  People don’t typically intend to do things incorrectly.  If you focus on the people involved, feedback often turns to blame.  The typical outcome is trying to find someone else to “pay” for a problem.   This builds conflict between you, your team, and your client.  Conflict is detrimental to building effective processes.

Instead, talk about the process that resulted in the undesirable outcome.  By pointing fingers at a process – which is emotionless and easy to adjust, you don’t have to try to change personalities.  After all, the same person can do great work for ten very different clients.  He doesn’t have to be a different personality for each client – he just needs a process crafted to fit each client’s unique needs.   Processes can be documented, explained, understood, and modified on the fly to produce different results.  A process can be drawn on a whiteboard to identify which components work best for each person, and a consensus built on a client-focused plan.  If the client designs the process, he will take more ownership of the results.  More importantly, you’ve again trained as your client’s expert. You are now worth a premium price so your client doesn’t have to spend time training someone else.

Take this mindset into question design.  Ask questions about the processes used, rather than the people involved.  Your client can comfortably provide constructive criticism without hurting anyone’s feelings.  “Evaluate our process for addressing the project budget,” that’s a short, simple, impersonal question that works.

How Should I Score My Results?

I’m sure you’ve taken a survey at some point with the feedback scale everyone seems to use.  It goes something like:

Please rate my performance:

  1. Very Dissatisfied
  2. Dissatisfied
  3. Neutral
  4. Satisfied
  5. Very Satisfied

Scales

You’ve seen other variations (Very Poor/Poor/Neutral/Good/Very Good).  It seems these scales are what everyone uses.  But why?  When we created the Client Feedback Tool in 2004, we followed this lead, figuring someone much smarter than us must have devised that system.  We quickly discovered the reason not to use such a scoring method.

In the first year, 94% of the scores we collected were at the top level.  While this sounds like a good thing, remember the purpose of feedback is for improvement.  If your answer scale eliminates any room for improvement 94% of the time, you will not be able to fine-tune your processes.

Further, the tone of the words used is uncomfortable.  The scale sets up a pass/fail scenario, and most people feel uncomfortable giving a score less than “Very Satisfied.”  

Likewise, receiving feedback on the mid-range feels merely mediocre.

People giving feedback tend to give higher scores than they would otherwise, just to avoid confrontation and/or hurt feelings.  Rather than a bell-curve distribution of scores, our research showed a small cluster of “Very Dissatisfied” responses, a huge percentage of “Very Satisfied” responses, and very little in between.  Yes/No questions produce the same problem.  Adding more steps between (scale of 1-10) also didn’t seem to affect results by a large degree.

The scale says nothing about clients‘ perspective and their value perception of what was delivered.  Every good or service consumed is measured against the perceived value gained.  If you aren’t measuring against that value, the measurement is inherently inaccurate.  

You may not be very satisfied with the quality of a $3 fast-food burger, but you still chose to order it, and will do so again.  Likewise, you may get the best steak ever at a classy restaurant – but never go back.  Why?  It all comes down to understanding value expectations.

Measuring Performance Against Expectations

What you really need is a way to measure your performance against the expectations of your clients.  Each client has a unique set of expectations, based on their perceptions of value received for the fee being charged.   All clients have different backgrounds – different sets of assumptions based on their individual experiences.  As such, no two clients ever have the same expectations of you – even if you are selling each client the same service at the same price.  What matters is that you meet or exceed each clients’ individual expectations on a consistent basis.

So, if one client expects to be very satisfied with your work, and he is, then you have performed at a “centered” level.  You met expectations.  On the other hand, if a client expects to be disappointed (airlines are famous for this), a very middling but quite adequate service may exceed expectations.  Let’s look at our burger and steak to understand this more clearly.

Are you delivering what your clients are expecting?

Expectations Vary

If you go to a burger joint, you expect disappointing (or at least greasy) food.  But, it’s cheap and convenient and fills you up.   Therefore, you make a rational decision that, though the food quality is expected to be poor, the value provided is worth the $3 spent.  Now, what about the time when you order, and they just took the burger off the grill.  They just got fresh shipments of lettuce and tomato, and they put the perfect amount of mayo on.  In fact, you’re not terribly disappointed by the burger after all.  It’s not what you might call good, but it does exceed expectations.  If they always made it like this, you may even be willing to pay $4, instead of $3.

Now consider a special event, and you want to go out for a nice dinner.   You choose the nicest steak house in town.  The 12 oz Filet Mignon costs $37 a la carte.  You expect this steak to be perfect.  For that price, medium rare, better be medium rare on the spot.  There should be excess fat or gristle.  The flavor and texture should excellent.  This is, after all, the most expensive steak you’ll ever buy – it better be one of the best.  Instead, it’s slightly overcooked, there’s one stringy corner that you don’t eat, and it needs salt.

Now, given the choice, you’ll probably opt for the not-quite-perfect filet mignon over a not-actually disgusting burger.  It’s more satisfying.  However, when you factor in expectations given your value judgments, the cheap burger exceeded expectations while the steak was merely acceptable.

Be Aware

Consider the two restaurant managers. Understanding their restaurants’ performance based on expectations is the more critical business information to have.  Knowing the effect of expectations, the fast-food manager knows freshly made burgers with fresher condiments are worth more.  He can decide to manage this goal and increase his prices accordingly.  Or he can make the decision to keep prices (and quality) lower.  He can evaluate the business case for each, identify which maximizes his profit, and be successful.

The steak house manager, on the other hand, realizes his business is based on being the best, bar none.  He either needs to put additional quality control measures in place to justify the high prices, or he can lower prices, which would lower expectations going in, and maintain his existing processes.  Either way, he is working to match the food he provides to the expectations you have, based on the value context.  If he fails to match his steaks to diners’ expectations, people will stop buying his steaks and the restaurant will close.  If he’s only asking about satisfaction rather than expectations, he’ll miss this critical distinction.

Value Expectations

A service business (architects, engineers, lawyers, etc.) must make the exact same decisions.  Your fees are based on the expected value provided.  If you do not know what your clients’ expectations are, and how you measure against them, you are flying blindfolded.  

Most professionals will use a combination of metrics to set their fees – usually based on what competitors are doing (and often that information is flawed and from limited sources).  However, if your clients expect you to be better than the competition, then you can charge more.  There is perceived value.  However, the only way to know this is to ask.  You need to ask early, and then throughout the life of the project or relationship to make sure you are maintaining performance in alignment with their expectations.  

Expectations will change constantly.  Every time you deliver, new expectations are being made, adjusted, and tweaked based on the perceived value and quality of your job performance.  You need to ask.

Where does this leave you?

  • You must measure our clients’ perceptions based on their expectations.
  • You must measure constantly because expectations change.
  • When you exceed expectations, continuing to perform at that level will become the new expectation.
  • Feedback must be comfortable to give and receive.
  • Feedback systems must be flexible enough to capture the subtleties of each expectation.

Measuring Client Perceptions Based on their Expectations

To address these unique needs, Client Savvy’s Client Feedback Tool (CFT) uses a patent-pending feedback scale and ranking device seen here.  

“Met Expectations”

First, notice that “Met Expectations” is in the center of the scale.  When someone first views a question and sees this scale, the slider is set in the center at 4.0 / Met Expectations.  This is where MOST feedback should occur.

After millions of surveys sent using this scale, research shows data more closely fits a bell curve.  Met Expectations is not a “C” score – it’s not a measure of mediocrity.  In fact, meeting expectations is GREAT!  You have successfully delivered a service that matches the value as perceived by the client.

Kinesthetic

Second, the scale operates by dragging the slider up or down.  By engaging the respondent in a kinesthetic activity, they must assess their ranking and decide where to move the slider.  

On the more common “Satisfied/Dissatisfied” scale you have to select one of five buttons.  It’s just as easy to select an extreme score (Very Satisfied) as it is to select a centered score. As such, people have the tendency to select scores on the two ends of the scale.  

Using a sliding scale requires some effort to change the scale, so people change the score ONLY when they have a reason to do so.  Thus, if a score is “Excellent” you know the client provides that score with intent, and not just to complete the question/survey. 

The pie chart below shows the actual distribution of feedback obtained by users of our CFT.  You can see that only 22% of the scores obtained are in the top-scoring category.  This distribution helps you clearly identify where you have the biggest successes, and where you’ve created optimal value.

Self-centering

Third, the scale is self-centering.  If you exceed expectations consistently, that level of performance will become the expected.  This allows for continuous improvement of your services.  

If you consistently receive feedback of “Very Satisfied” you have no room to innovate.  By constantly resetting in the middle, this scale gives clients the opportunity to repeatedly applaud innovations that worked well so you can incorporate process improvements repeatedly.  Maintaining high scores of “Exceeded Expectations” proves you are continuously creating additional value for your clients. 

Comfort

Fourth, everyone is very comfortable with the words.  Not only do the word choices at “Met Expectations” and above indicate a job well done, but even the first notch down, “Acceptable”, is not a “bad” word.  

If something just barely missed the mark – the performance was acceptable.  Good enough.  There’s no hurt feelings like you might have with “dissatisfied” or “poor.”  

Going down, “Needed Improvement” and “Unacceptable” both focus on the process used, not the person.  The results were unacceptable – not the person.  While strong action is necessary to correct this course, it is as easy and comfortable as possible to both provide and receive this kind of corrective feedback.

Granularity

Finally, the scale offers incredible granularity.  The slider can hit not only the seven key markers, but any of 10 slots between each – a total of 61 possible answer values.  This makes it very easy for a timid soul to move the slider down to a 3.9 when he may be afraid to criticize.  

Likewise, when looking at the breadth of service, the nuances of what worked well really come out.  Life is full of shades of gray, and supporting that variety is critical if you want the most honest, accurate feedback.  With this scale, you can truly identify the little tweaks that can add up to a top-notch performance.

What Does the Research Show?

Client Savvy’s Client Feedback Tool uses this consistent approach to help an entire industry gather feedback.  The results of these feedback interactions produce some very clear trends, with both expected and sometimes surprising results.

Correlation

First, we have observed a clear correlation between strong performance and high response rates.  Firms that score highest overall, also tend to obtain the best participation with their clients. 

Feedback is not just for firms with problems — it’s for everyone.  In fact, the more feedback you receive, the better indicator you have of true client loyalty.  Above, observe the chart for a recent random sample of 40 firms around the US and Canada, which demonstrates the correlation.

Response Rates

Overall, firms using the Client Feedback Tool (and the best practices shared in this guide) receive more than a 40% response rate. Within this data, we observe a common pattern of performance in key drivers of loyalty, as noted below.

These patterns have remained steady within professional services for more than a decade. Undoubtedly, clients’ greatest demand is for responsive interactions.

Firms that perform best in this category are consistently leaders in loyalty (as measured by the Net Promoter System) and are twice as likely to be in the top quartile of financial performance for their peer group.

Another common misconception is that “our fees are too high.” Yet, when asked about how well fees match value, only 3.74% of clients have a complaint versus 59.07% who say fees represent an “Excellent” or “Exceptional” value. The message here is that most firms are habitually undercharging or over-delivering.

Schedule management remains the top concern of clients, with 1 in 12 (8.14%) sharing a concern in this area. Overall, 24.2% of clients surveyed lodge at least one score below “Met Expectations.”

Trends

As projects progress, we also observe trends in the typical phases.  Early in projects when you provide some of your most creative and necessary services, feedback from clients is highest – they value your role most highly. 

As projects progress, more opportunities for problems and other challenges arise, and scores tend to drop.  Feedback works very well here to uncover issues and ultimately bring resolutions to light.  We see this most clearly by the radical uptick in feedback between the final phases of a project and the post-project survey. 

The low scores and discovered problems do not diminish the firm’s value. Rather they lead to a higher degree of value as they are addressed in time to affect a better outcome for all.

Taking Action — What’s Next?

Overall, feedback is simple to do and do well, if you have the right tools and processes in place to capture good information quickly and efficiently.  Most feedback programs fail due to fundamental flaws in feedback collection.  

A service professional that solicits feedback without focusing on the client, his expectations, and his value perceptions will not only get poor feedback data if he gets any at all but is missing a huge opportunity to discover what really makes his relationships work.  Armed with that knowledge, you can do the best work for your client, meeting his needs better than anyone else, and maximizing your own long-term prosperity.

If you would like to speak with someone who helps design and implement feedback and experience programs, Contact us to learn more, or click the button below to chat with a client experience expert today. Also, be sure to check out other articles on our blog


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