Client care research is a tool used by an increasing number of professional services firms to keep their clients loyal, and guarantee continued income.
If you have a long history of working with a number of clients, it is easy to fool yourself that this happy state will continue forever. Unfortunately, if your standards slip, you are giving clients a reason to let the competition in.

Client care research can tell you if this is happening and will inevitably give you unexpected insights into how you are perceived. The information will contribute to strategic marketing, as well as improved client service. Nearly all respondents look favourably on the fact that their professional advisers have taken the trouble to consult them.

When preparing to carry out a client care survey, a number of issues need to be considered:

Where is your starting point?

Have you carried out any previous research?

Who was interviewed? What were they asked, and what did they say? Was any action taken?

Who should be involved?

It is crucial that the people providing the service are involved. They are the ones who will be responsible for implementing the changes clients call for. They should contribute to the survey’s final shape at a senior level. It is unacceptable to try to drive something like this from the marketing department without their support.

What are you trying to find out?

Most firms are trying to uncover which services clients think are important, and how they measure up against them. Client service can be broken down into distinct areas:

  • Senior management’s availability and access

  • Senior management’s attitude and helpfulness

  • Support and administration staff’s attitude and helpfulness

  • Main service effectiveness

  • Consistency of team

  • Knowledge and expertise of team

  • Response time and turnaround

  • Use and understanding of IT

  • Whether there is an opportunity to sell additional services.

Questionnaire design

A marketing consultant will be able to help you draft a questionnaire but you should be able to highlight the key areas, with a full brief on the background to each area. At this point, the production of the final questionnaire should involve all interested parties.

To some extent, the nature of the questions will be influenced by the means of data collection.

Data collection methods

For businesses with thousands of customers, client satisfaction or care research will often use a qualitative and quantitative approach. For large and small construction firms, it is mostly business-to-business with fewer clients, and so quantitative techniques and sampling are not required.

The method of data collection will depend on the interaction of factors such as the budget available, the geographic disparity of clients, and the importance and value to the firm of these clients.

  • Face-to-face interviewing This is the most expensive method, but the most effective. It allows the interviewer to build up a rapport with the respondent. The interview will often last longer than anticipated provided the interviewer is able to ask questions that lead to discussion.

In the context of the value of most clients, the cost of a half day to elicit exactly what a client’s perceptions are about your department/ firm/service against the background of their needs is a good investment. Often, the findings from just one client help to reinforce or build that business, and easily justify the cost of the whole survey.

  • Telephone surveys These can be used, but often the questionnaire is necessarily shorter and offers less scope for discussion. Generally, clients show a reluctance to answer, so you should not expect to have their full attention.

  • Postal surveys Putting a questionnaire in the post is low cost but throws the burden completely on to the client – they can choose to ignore or misinterpret questions, as well as offer no explanations. Postal surveys should never be used if you truly want qualitative research.

Who should you contact?

Although a cross-section of clients is required, so is a cross-section of views. Service providers have been known to try and bias the sample to clients that can be relied on to endorse their service.

Far more is learned from respondents who are honest and direct to the point of being brutal. However, your service providers need to be reassured that the exercise is not a witch hunt.

Do not forget that ex-clients often provide a wealth of information and constructive criticism. Prospective clients can also be included, although you cannot gauge their satisfaction. Add to this the clients that offer the best prospects and clients where you feel future work may be under threat.

After you have selected which clients to approach, decide who to talk to in each organisation. Interviewing the managing director may be appropriate in some instances but in others, it is the day-to-day contact – the middle or lower manager – who should be interviewed.

Approaching clients

Clients will always open up to a professional third party rather than someone within your firm. The interviewers should be introduced to the clients directly and clients should be reassured that they are bound by the Market Research Society’s code of conduct. The letter should also state that their answers can be reported anonymously.

Report, analysis and conclusions

The interviewers should offer you a detailed report that will include the key findings and conclusions the consultants drew, including specific recommendations. These should be given in a personal presentation by the consultant to allow for discussion. This gets the maximum value out of the research, and helps to secure shared ownership of and commitment to implementation of the recommendations.

Polling your clients

Research will tell you how clients perceive you and help you stop them from wandering. To get the most from it, you should:
  • Not leave it to the marketing department. Get the people who will have to implement changes involved from the start
  • Do face-to-face interviews. They are not cheap, but the detailed insights you can gain make the investment worthwhile
  • Decide whether to poll the client’s managing director or the staff you deal with every day
  • Talk to prospective clients and exes, too