Welcome to the second of my four-part series of The Friedman File articles on client and market research. My last article discussed how to use powerful open-ended questions in the business development process. Today, I’m addressing client research — arguably one of the most misunderstood and underutilized tools in a firm’s practice management arsenal.

“If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” This truism is applicable to business development, and it’s particularly relevant in client research. There’s so much valuable information to gather, yet asking the right questions, of the right people, at the right time requires a specific skill set. There are three primary types of client research:

  1. Client/prospect perception studies
    Typically conducted every 2–3 years, often as a precursor to a strategic planning and/or marketing/business development planning session
  2. Continuous client monitoring
    Ongoing brief interviews of current clients, via phone or in-person, that are used to assess client satisfaction, elicit market intelligence, or other information
  3. Project satisfaction surveys
    Typically conducted mid-way and/or at the conclusion of a project — ideally in person, but sometimes using a written survey tool

Conducting client/prospect perception studies

In this article, I will focus on the first type. A client/prospect study is, first and foremost, a strategic relationship-building tool. The real value in this undertaking comes from:

  • Sending a clear message that you don’t take clients — past, present or prospective — for granted. It says that you value their feedback, and that your organization values self-reflection and continuous improvement. While many firms tout how much they value client service, few put their money where their mouth is by regularly soliciting candid feedback.
  • Strategically selecting individuals to target. Which relationships at which organizations should be strengthened? Who are the influencers and decision-makers with whom you should be speaking? This may mean interviewing more than one individual within an organization.
  • Reaching out with potentially four “touches”:
    1. The initial letter signed by your CEO
    2. The interview (usually conducted by an independent third party on behalf of your firm)
    3. A handwritten thank you note sent by the appropriate client manager/client leader
    4. The follow-up meeting or phone call to discuss the interviewees’ opinions, questions, concerns, recommendations and needs
  • Feeding interview data back to the client leader and project team to address any weak spots. Going further, this feedback should be shared with client sector leaders and others charged with crafting marketing, business development and project delivery strategies and processes. You can also share the data with your HR and finance and accounting staff — what you’ve learned could impact hiring, retention and invoicing.

Unfortunately, many A/E/C firm leaders believe they already know what their clients will say. It’s true that if your firm leaders, PMs and project personnel are perceptive, communicative and good listeners, much of the feedback you get shouldn’t surprise you. But not only is it presumptuous to assume that you won’t learn anything new, it indicates a lack of understanding about the power of this type of research. A well-conceived interview guide employs open- and close-ended questions that elicit information on vital topics, including:

  • Issues keeping your clients/prospects up at night
  • What they need from a firm like yours, and how they anticipate these needs changing
  • Trends (demographic, economic, legislative, regulatory) impacting their business
  • How they gather information and learn (i.e., their go-to trade publications and associations)
  • Immediate needs and challenges they’re grappling with
  • Competitive intelligence — who they view as the leading providers of services x, y, and z
  • How they perceive your firm with respect to:Knowledge of your services
  • How you compare to the competition
  • The value you provide
  • Your project performance and experience

Still skeptical about the value of client/prospect studies? Just listen to what a few interviewees from studies I’ve conducted had to say:

  • “This (study) made me feel valued, and I appreciate it. We’ve realized here at (Organization Name) that this research they’re conducting makes them a more impressive company.”
  • “Undertaking these interviews demonstrates to me that (Firm A) wants to be poised to provide the services its clients need, and that they’re not sitting back on their laurels.”
  • “I think it’s great that they’re doing this type of study — they need to do this if they’re going to be successful. We don’t want to have to rely on just (Company C.)”

In my next article, I’ll debunk myths about client/prospect studies, discuss common mistakes and offer strategies for maximizing your ROI. If your firm has recently conducted a client research study or is planning to do so, give me a call (508-276-1101) or drop me an e-mail to share your thoughts, successes and challenges.