How will you know when your clients are sick as a parrot?
Comparing the running of a business with managing a football team is a well-rehearsed analogy, best articulated by arguably the greatest of them all, Sir Alex Ferguson.
After vacating the dugout for the last time, the former Manchester United manager was invited to participate in a study at Harvard Business School so that company bosses could learn about his unparalleled longevity and success in the game.
A subsequent report identified not one, but six, key themes that had influenced his career and made him a serial winner.
When I started to look at how professional services companies listen to, and interact with, their clients, the football analogy hit me like a thunderclap.
When they want to know what they are doing well and badly and what they should do in the future, the default for most firms is still to conduct a survey.
The platform may change – most are now done through online questionnaires rather than face-to-face or by telephone – but the methodology remains the same and has done for decades.
Essentially, firms ask their clients a series of questions – some may commission an agency to do the work while others will do it themselves, in-house – the answers are collected and sifted, meanings interpreted and converted into ‘findings’, which are then compiled in a report that’s presented to decision makers.
The process is formal, lengthy, and often expensive and, as such, it is done periodically – at most quarterly but more often annually, or even longer.
While surveys have the benefit of being detailed and exhaustive – companies committing significant resources to such exercises will want to ensure they have covered all the possible bases – they are also limited, in that they can only ever represent a snapshot in time.
By the time board members get to read what their clients think about them, the responses may be several months old and no longer relevant. Whatever issue the questions sought to address, things may have moved on, the situation may have been resolved or become exacerbated.
So, where does the football analogy kick-in? It struck me that businesses commissioning an annual customer opinion survey, is equivalent to a Premier League football manager waiting until the end of the season before offering any coaching advice to their players.
That is clearly absurd and any team that operated such a system would inevitably be relegated. As anyone who follows about football – or any other team sport – will tell you, players need to be constantly coached, informed, cajoled, and encouraged.
New tactics need to be employed, depending on circumstances, systems used and adapted and setbacks responded to. Individuals who are not performing well may need to be deployed in other roles, given a break on the side-lines, or moved on.
Of course, all managers should also do an end-of-season debrief, so that their players can learn from their mistakes as well as their successes, but it must be as part of an ongoing system of continuous feedback.
Just as a coach will alter their tactics from match to match, a business owner should be able to react to client feedback while their work with them is ongoing, rather than at the beginning or the end of a project.
Asking a client for feedback several months into a contract, will inevitably provide information about how they view progress and the quality of the work at that moment.
But it will not cover things that have been done well or badly at the start of the process, or things that have yet to happen. Crucially, it will not provide feedback on whether the business has fulfilled its brief and met all of its targets outlined at the start of the process.
An effective client feedback gathering system requires it to be ‘always on’ meaning that businesses have an ongoing measure of what they are doing right and wrong and what’s popular and unpopular.
Many business owners are unaware that information they are already gathering, proactively or otherwise, can represent valuable and potentially actionable data – from social media comments, client interviews, feedback forms, operational data and unsolicited verbal and email comments.
‘Always on’ platforms such as MyCustomerLens uses AI to aggregate that information, to identify themes and trends and to create heat maps and mood charts which record and map how clients and their services are viewed.
Constantly collecting and monitoring customer feedback in a centralised location and automating analysis, it also puts the information in context and allows clients to engage more effectively with their customers.
As well as ensuring that everyone in the organisation is on the same page with regard to its performance, it helps managers to make more informed decisions quicker and to avoid blindspots, false assumptions and perception gaps.
This helps to reduce complaints, to build stronger client relationships, develop more sales and referrals, protect revenues.
It’s a funny old game, running a business, and giving 110% might not be enough if you can’t hear – or are not listening to – what your clients are saying when it matters.
Paul Roberts is CEO of MyCustomerLens