An effective feedback program improves service

This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310) Issue # 823
Originally published 8/03/2009

Guest Speaker: An effective feedback program improves service

> Here are three important practices that will dramatically improve your firm’s client feedback program.

It always surprises me to hear that my competitors aren’t regularly asking clients for feedback. At MacKay & Sposito, Inc. (Vancouver, WA), a 67-person civil engineering, planning, land and construction surveying, landscape architecture, and construction management firm, our client feedback process is a cornerstone of our project execution and business development programs. There are two specific instances during any client relationship when we seek targeted feedback. First, we debrief after submitting any significant proposal. If your team isn’t willing to spend a couple of hours investigating why you either won or lost a contract, the project/client must not have been worth chasing in the first place. Second, we schedule a client assessment after significant project milestones and after project completion. These assessments inform us about team performance and identify any adjustments needed to improve service quality.

Proposal debriefs and client assessments are two tools that, if implemented consistently, will dramatically increase client satisfaction, improve marketing effectiveness, and give important insight about your competition.

* Increased Client Satisfaction. My favorite client response to our feedback program is, “Everyone says they are going to do this, but no one except you ever do.” In my experience, this type of program is a major business differentiator. We work for some very nice people. Occasionally, they offer criticism about how we do business. Unfortunately, they are rarely willing to give us constructive criticism unless we ask for it. Wouldn’t you rather hear criticism early, before it affects your customer relationship?

* Improved Marketing Effectiveness. We recently won a significant and highly competitive public project with an existing client. Instead of celebrating the win, we immediately scheduled a proposal debrief to understand what the client liked and didn’t like about our submittal. Interestingly, we were the only firm who debriefed with the client following the selection. This extra effort sent an important message to our client and increased our advantage in future proposals.

* Insight into competition. Our feedback program also allows us opportunities to learn about our competitors. Use proposal debriefs and client assessments to ask important questions, like: “How did our firm perform on this project / proposal in comparison to Competitor X?” For public proposals, ask to review proposal scoring criteria and competitor submittals. Understand exactly what the client liked or disliked about each firm’s proposal. This information will prove invaluable during the next project or request for proposal.

To effectively implement a client feedback program, follow religiously these three practices:

1. Send the right people. It may be uncomfortable for some clients to give meaningful and constructive feedback. As a result, it is important that the right people are sent to conduct client interviews. Consider using a non-technical person who, preferably, is not involved in the project team. Send someone who is empathetic, and who understands that the interview is a relationship building opportunity, not an opportunity to defend a proposal or justify a team member’s performance.

For example, we recently partnered with a firm to submit a public proposal. Unfortunately, the project was awarded to a competing firm. As prime, our partner agreed to interview the prospective client to understand how we compared in our proposal submittal. I was disappointed to learn during her report, that she spent her interview with the prospective client debating the merits of our proposal. A significant relationship development opportunity was lost.

2. Be consistent. Like anything else, consistency is important. As you are consistent and your clients grow more comfortable with your feedback process, the feedback will become more candid and meaningful. Of course, if you ask for constructive criticism, be prepared to act on this feedback by improving your services.

Consistent proposal debriefs will impress on your prospective clients your strong desire to service their needs. I often mention our proposal debrief policy to prospective clients prior to submitting a proposal. This effectively puts the client on notice, and encourages them to invest extra effort in scoring and documenting our proposal submittals.

3. Have a plan. Approach every feedback interview with some level of planning. Yes, it is important to get unbiased feedback from the client. However, the interviewer should be aware of known client concerns and preferences, or known project issues. This information will allow the interviewer to probe deeply on important issues if needed. In some cases, these client feedback interviews may represent the best opportunity to improve a new, or perhaps damaged, client relationship. Interviewing without a plan will lead to lost opportunities.

As stated previously, a well-executed feedback program will increase client satisfaction, improve marketing effectiveness, and garner important competitor information. However, to realize these benefits, a firm must be strategic about how it seeks constructive criticism. When seeking customer feedback, consider carefully the people you send to conduct client interviews, consistently implement your program, and approach your interviews with a specific plan. Following these practices will dramatically differentiate your firm in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Derrick Smith is a senior vice president at MacKay & Sposito, Inc. (M&S) (Vancouver, WA). Contact him at dsmith@mackaysposito.com.

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