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How to figure out what clients want - Communication Resources

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April 25, 2007
How to figure out what clients want
rchitectural, engineering and construction firms are continually seeking new ways to attract and retain clients.
While creative collateral materials and dynamic presentations help establish your image and close a sale, there’s no
substitute for client service. No amount of business development or marketing can overcome a bad
product or tarnished image.
When firms have no idea what clients
think, know, want or need, they don’t
understand the level of service that’s
required to retain them. These firms
must second-guess their clients’ expectaNorthwest
tions, which can be detrimental to their
long-term success.
So, how do you find out what delights
clients? One way is by gathering indepth, candid feedback. Successful firms
research clients’ needs and expectations,
and then structure their business to
meet them.
Research must go beyond “Tell us what
you want in a consultant.” Ask yourself
what you want to know, and how you
would use the information you get.
Don’t start with questions. Instead,
determine broad areas of study that are
important to your firm, such as:
• Overall impression: Size, areas of expertise, strengths or
weaknesses, focus
• Selection issues: Reasons for selection, how selections are
made, areas in which the client would/would not hire the
firm, impressions of proposals/presentations, suggestions
for improvement
• Performance issues: Schedule, budget, teamwork, communication, quality, staffing, principal leadership, innovation,
• Competitors: Competing firms, characteristics of superior
firms, ways to be more competitive
• Business development: Contact preferences, means and
methods of effective contact or communication
Ask the right questions
Once you’ve selected core areas of study, develop a set of
strategic questions to guide your research.
For example, if you want to know how to improve your “hit
rate” in short-list presentations, ask your clients what they
want to see in an interview. Use that information to design
your interview presentation. A good rule of thumb is: don’t
ask anything you don’t really want to know. This doesn’t mean
you should avoid tough questions about your firm’s performance, qualifications or perception in the marketplace. That
kind of information is invaluable to cultivating stronger
client relationships. Rather, make sure that the questions
correspond with your firm’s overall strategy.
For example, asking a client “What are the characteristics
of a superior firm who provides XX services?” will help you
understand at a much deeper level the service they desire.
Make your questions focused and unambiguous. They
should ask only one thing, and they should be easy to understand. For example, a national survey of client satisfaction
asked the following question: “How is “Firm X” at meeting
and beating schedules?” There are two faults with this question. First, it assumes a fact not in evidence: that it’s possible
and, in fact, desirable to “beat” the schedule. Second, it asks
two questions: how did the firm meet the schedule and how
did it beat the schedule? Generally, clients will answer one
but not both parts, which leaves you to decide which part
was answered.
Gathering the data
There’s considerable debate about data gathering strategies. While “high touch” methods such as face-to-face or
telephone interviews can be more expensive in staff and/or
consultant time, they help build relationships and typically
yield more comprehensive data.
Because many of us receive literally hundreds of solicitations for our time, research programs that rely solely on
Internet or mailed surveys may not yield either high quality
data or the desired response rate.
To increase data quality and consistency, interviews should
follow a clearly written, rehearsed guide. At the same time,
interviewers must be flexible and listen. A mix of flexibility
and structure will gain good, detailed data, and communicate
Reporting back
Results should be reported to three groups: management,
employees and client subjects.
Managers need to know how to improve client service.
Employees need to know how the firm is doing, and how to
improve their performance. Clients need to know what you
found out, and what you intend to do about it.
Most importantly, communicating the results of a research
program can foster important dialog within a firm and with
clients about preferences and performance. Any time we
open up channels of communication about how we work
together, everyone wins.
Meg Winch is president of Communication Resources
Northwest, a management consulting firm.
Article reprinted by permission of the Daily Journal of Commerce (
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