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An Interview With Bruce Heintz About Client Interviews

 
 

1. Why Should a Firm Consider Client Interviews?
2. What Are Client Interviews?
3. How Are Client Interviews Used?
4. How Are Client Interviews Different from a "Client Survey"?
5. Why Is It Best to Use an Independent Third Party, at Least Initially, to Conduct the Interviews?
6. Why Conduct the Interviews In-Person Rather Than by Phone?
7. Who Should Be Interviewed at Any Particular Client?
8. How Many Persons Might Be Interviewed at Any Particular Client?
9. How Do You Prepare for the Interviews and How Are the Interviews "Tailored"?
10. How Is the Client Interview Conducted?
11. How Is the Interview Recorded?
12. What Makes for a Really Great Interview?
13. What Kinds of Things Do Executives Reveal During Client Interviews?
14. How Do Executives Feel About Participating in a Client Interview?
15. How Are the Interviews Documented and Translated into Action Plans?
16. What Is the Cost/Benefit of Client Interviews?
17. Getting Going

 


1. Why Should a Firm Consider Client Interviews?

Client Interviews are both defensive and offensive in nature. Defensively, such interviews respond to how confident partners feel regarding the flow of future work from any particular key client company or from the firm's largest or "crown jewel" clients, collectively. For example:

Are revenues from a particular client stagnant or declining? Any hints of dissatisfaction at your best clients? Suspicious about competitors' attempts to intrude on any one of the firm's most valuable, and possibly vulnerable, clients? Not sure the firm would rate and A+ in all critical areas?

On the other hand, offensively, a firm may be looking to expand its relationships with its existing client base and wants to use Client Interviews to acquire insights about how to accomplish this at each of its key clients.

These reasons notwithstanding, a firm may also decide to initiate Client Interviews to ensure that a top client is receiving top-level attention. Or just to confirm, once all the facts are known, how happy a client really is or whether some potentially big problems are quietly incubating.

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2. What Are Client Interviews?

These interviews are designed to elicit feedback about the strength of the relationship between a professional services firm and any one of its major clients. The views of selected executives at the designated client are sought regarding the firm, its personnel, service quality, cost/benefit and comparisons to the competition – and how satisfied or dissatisfied is the client in any of the above areas and with the overall relationship itself? These interviews are usually conducted one-on-one, in-person and, most effectively, by an independent third party. The interviews should not follow a pre-scripted list of standard client satisfaction questions but, rather, each interview should be tailored to the specific client and the executive being interviewed. I'll discuss more about this tailoring [see below].

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3. How Are Client Interviews Used?

Feedback from the interviews at any particular client company are used to develop action plans – some remedial in nature to fix problems and others involving expansionary goals, for example, to further broaden the firm's relationship with the company. Generally, the three objectives of conducting Client Interviews include: (a) preventing small problems from escalating into larger relationship issues; (b) converting good clients into great clients; and (c) determining and enhancing competitive positioning.

Along these lines, Client Interviews represent one aspect of management's due diligence and serve a valuable risk management function for a firm. For example, in many professional services firms, the job of quality control often falls to the Relationship Partner who "owns" the client. However, certainly at the largest accounting and consulting firms and, with growing acceptance, in the legal profession, management oversight of quality is being mandated, or at least considered. At one firm that I assisted, the partner who led the Client Interview program offered this supporting rationale: "In many cases, the partners had previously heard what was said to the interviewers. But the big difference was that it wasn't in black and white so they didn't have to deal with it – and no one else was aware of it. There were also a number of cases where what was heard was a big surprise to the partner and the Firm."

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4. How Are Client Interviews Different from a "Client Survey"?

While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, Client Interviews are typically focused on a manageable number of the firm's largest clients, with the goal of strengthening the relationship between the firm and the client – one client at a time.

In contrast, a Client Survey typically involves interviewing one representative at each of a sample of clients for the purpose of determining, for example, the firm's overall image, position in the marketplace, and strengths and weaknesses – in order to set the stage for strategic planning or to be used for refocusing the firm's marketing communications. However, with regard to Client Surveys, be aware that client satisfaction feedback that is collected from a broad range of clients and is presented in the form of santized, firmwide findings is often found to be not very compelling by individual Relationship Partners who, rightly or wrongly, conclude, "That's not true at my clients!" Instead, what's needed to ensure action from the Relationship Partners who are responsible for the firm's most valuable clients are specifics – that is, verbatim, attributed feedback from the executives at those Relationship Partners' "own" clients. If you're interested in Client Surveys, I'll be pleased to discuss them with you.

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5. Why Is It Best to Use an Independent Third Party, at Least Initially, to Conduct the Interviews?

Some professional services firms have been able to build effective client satisfaction feedback programs using interviews conducted by their own senior partners or, in rarer cases, conducted by non-partner in-house personnel such as business development professionals. Certainly, to reach a large proportion of a firm's client base, using in-house interviewers might be a cost-beneficial approach. Nevertheless, this approach is not ideal. For example, it's generally accepted that the greater the independence of the interviewer from the interviewee, the more candid the feedback will be. Hence, although some in-house personnel may be considered more independent as interviewers than the Relationship Partner, even they may be perceived by the potential interviewees as coming with an agenda, for example, to sell more services. Too, internal biases and politics on the part of in-house interviewers may create a situation where the feedback is filtered positively or negatively, either intentionally or inadvertently. The foregoing would not be issues with a third-party interviewer.

Also, the latitude granted to these in-house interviewers regarding who may be interviewed might be narrower than if a third party were employed. For example, a General Counsel, wanting to maintain control of the relationship with a law firm, might not want one of the firm's partners to meet with the CEO. Or, in the case of lower-level interviewees such as working-level managers, the client may not feel that it's fair for them to be interviewed by a firm's chair, because of the disparity in their relative positions. However, when I conduct the interviews as an independent consultant, it seems very natural to corporate clients and, hence, I'm usually given the opportunity to meet with whichever executives or managers the firm suggests might be appropriate.

Hence, a third party will be able to operate with the most independence when conducting Client Interviews – and, depending on whom the firm hires, certainly with the most experience – and, therefore, should be able to elicit the most candid, complete and useful feedback. This is important with regard to interviews conducted at the firm's key clients. In these cases, you'll particularly want to hear any feedback that is evaluative of individuals at the firm, find out how the company selects its outside advisors and elicit comparisons of the firm to its competitors – all subjects that an interviewer who is a member of the firm may find difficult to pursue.

Another big thing: using a third party gets the interviews done, often within two to three months of designating which client is to be interviewed. In contrast, by taking the in-house route, the availability and, sometimes, the foot dragging of the firm's personnel – both on the part of the Relationship Partners and those who are assigned to complete the interviews – often stymies progress.

Furthermore, in my experience, many client executives clearly state that they prefer the involvement of a third party for such interviews.

Therefore, even for a firm that believes it should establish a Client Interview program that will ultimately utilize in-house interviewers, the best path is to start by using a third-party interviewer in order to demonstrate how it's done and to prove the value of the program, both to the clients and the partners. Then, once such successes have been achieved, a firm can begin in-sourcing the interviewing for suitable situations. However, the firm should continue to retain the third-party advisor to train and assist the in-house interviewers and, whenever appropriate, to conduct any particularly important, difficult and/or sensitive client interviews.

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6. Why Conduct the Interviews In-Person Rather Than by Phone?

A major corporation is typically populated with executives, managers and professionals who are highly sophisticated. At the same time, the relationship between a corporation and one of its professional advisors can be complex and nuanced, involving perceptions and assessments of interpersonal and organizational behavior, sometimes flavored with politics. While phone interviews would seem to be easier to schedule and complete, the potential profundities inherent in a Client Interview warrant its being conducted in a manner that maximizes the opportunity for the kinds of intimate discussions that might only occur when both the interviewer and interviewee are face to face. Often, it's in these in-person settings that empathy and even bonding can occur, which then set the stage for heightened frankness.

Of course, when one of the executives to be interviewed is, for example, traveling during the time of the Client Interviews, a phone interview may have to suffice. For any client individual who is deemed important enough to be interviewed, it will need to be determined whether the on-site interviewing and travel costs, especially for overseas locations, would be worth the expense.

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7. Who Should Be Interviewed at Any Particular Client?

One interviewee at a corporate client of a significant professional services firm is usually never enough. Who should be interviewed often comes down to the question, posed to the Relationship Partner, "Whose views and opinions at the client do you really want to know about – or can't afford to miss?" At each client there are usually a number of individuals who might be considered "touch points" and the development of the interview list should include consideration of those persons who are economic decision makers or key influencers in the decisions regarding the purchase of the firm's services. Following these guidelines, interviewees would typically include both staff persons (for example, from the law, finance or IT departments) and line business executives.

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8. How Many Persons Might Be Interviewed at Any Particular Client?

Again, one interviewee is usually never enough. Typically, the number of executives that I interview at each key client of a major professional services firm ranges from four to six. However, for very large clients, the number of cost-beneficial interviews conducted can range as high as 25 or more if the firm provides a wide variety of services to the client and/or if the client itself is geographically disbursed or otherwise organizationally complex, such as a large bank.

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9. How Do You Prepare for the Interviews and How Are the Interviews "Tailored"?

As I mentioned, each interview that I conduct is tailored to the client company and to the particular executive being interviewed. To do this, I review information about the client and each interviewee from several sources, including inputs from firm management, research about the client that the firm's marketing professionals may have prepared, my Pre-Interview Orientation with the Relationship Partner and Client Serving Team, my own Web-based research about the company and its executives and, particularly, insights coming from the partners who know and have worked most closely with the client. From this information, I identify and develop an understanding of the issues to be explored, either specific to a particular interviewee or applicable to all of the executives being interviewed, and then construct an Interview Guide for each interviewee. Of course, I also bring to each interview my years of broad experience in business and in working with professional services firms and their client relationship management issues – because some of the most productive "tailoring" happens live during the interview!

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10. How Is the Client Interview Conducted?

I employ an unscripted and open-ended interviewing technique that lets the interviewee set the agenda. That is, I'm interested in learning what is on his/her mind, what are his/her emotions, priorities, likes and dislikes, and hot buttons – all expressed in the interviewee's own words. I don't ask a series of pre-scripted or standard client satisfaction questions. These, I've found, can lead the interviewee off the subject, not toward what he/she sees as important and needs airing.

Based on my years of interviewing experience, I try to make the interview a free-flowing discussion with, of course, the interviewee doing most of the talking. Since most of the interviewees are business executives or professionals, I'm usually able to engage them in an analytic and problem-solving give and take. Certainly, when important subjects come up, I tactfully probe to ensure that the interviewee and I get to the heart of the matter. And during the interview, if an issue that I have been alerted to as important during my discussions with the Relationship Partner doesn't come up naturally, I diplomatically raise it.

I also pursue, among other subjects, how the company selects its outside advisors, how the firm compares to the competition and what are the interviewed executive's expectations regarding the firm and its services, going forward.

So, I'd like to think that conducting a Client Interview is an art and that the results of each interview are highly dependent on the background, stature, personal style and technique of the interviewer. Furthermore, I believe that the output is affected by the extent to which the interviewee perceives the interview to be "legitimate" and the interviewer "trustworthy" and, as a result, the level of comfort the interviewee has with opening up – which is the atmosphere that I'm usually able to create.

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11. How Is the Interview Recorded?

I take copious handwritten notes but, of course, attempt to do so in a comfortable manner. I feel strongly that use of an electronic recording devise (including during phone interviews) will act to chill the interview's free-flowing discussion. This is particularly true with interviewees who are lawyers. My handwritten notes record, verbatim, all of the interviewee's key statements.

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12. What Makes for a Really Great Interview?

I used the terms "empathy" and "bonding," above. The interviewee understands, especially after I stress it, that the Client Interview is intended to be mutually beneficial to both the client company and the sponsoring firm. That is, the more complete and specific the client can be in expressing his/her current perceptions and future needs, the more the firm will be able to respond. In this process, although I'm very careful not to overplay this, I am acting as a "client advocate." And during the interview, it's apparent that I'm actively listening to and, hopefully, understanding the client's viewpoint. Because of this and because I am a neutral and objective party, I'm usually viewed as a helping relationship. Therefore, the interviewee often feels natural in "partnering" with me to achieve the objectives of the Client Interview process.

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13. What Kinds of Things Do Executives Reveal During Client Interviews?

Happily, and what should be considered a very valuable result, the outcome of many Client Interviews can be classified as "business as usual." For example, the interviews show that a good client is getting very good service and that "everyone is happy." In some of these cases, added feedback is provided that might help the firm get "from an A to A+." So, if the message that comes back is, basically, "keep up the good work," the Relationship Partner will now be more fully informed about what he/she has to do to continue to perform in a manner that can be characterized as particularly "good," and the firm's management can sleep better knowing that all is well with regard to this important client account.

However, there are other kinds of results from Client Interviews, including the following:

(a) Some of the interviews can yield feedback that represents a real bombshell. Examples include: It's discovered that a key client sponsor wants the Relationship Partner or other team member replaced due to shortfalls in experience or performance; the client doesn't see an appropriate successor to a soon-to-retire partner; or the firm is in jeopardy because a company is implementing a cost-cutting program by concentrating its professional services purchases in fewer firms. The sources of these "surprises" are usually from the revelations of an interviewee who turns out to be particularly candid. I'd like to attribute such frankness to the effects of the Client Interview process. Otherwise, the question must be asked as to why hadn't the firm learned about this information previously?

(b) There's a strange and wonderful phenomenon that occurs rather frequently during my Client Interviews. One or a number of interviewees within the same company offer "invitations," usually opening the door for the firm's representatives to meet with client personnel for the purpose of exploring what further services the firm might provide. The only explanation I have for these occurrences is that some interviewees are so flattered by being asked for their feedback and actually being listened to, that as they get into the swing of the interview, they feel that they must reciprocate by offering back some opportunities to the firm. I'm not sure, but I doubt that as many of these types of invitations occur when firm inside interviewers are meeting with representatives of the firm's clients.

(c) Sometimes, a number of executives are interviewed at a particular client and no one interviewee says explicitly what is later recognized as an important piece of feedback. However, after I have interviewed each of them, enough hints have been given, that I can deduce, intuit or theorize an insight. Later, especially working with the Relationship Partner, he/she and I can interpret and translate that insight into related actions that can be used to improve the firm's relationship with the client. One example that comes to mind was a company whose executives couldn't quite put their finger on it, but the feeling was, as it was ultimately interpreted, that they were "being taken for granted" by the Relationship Partner and the firm. To see more samples of what executives have said during their interviews ...

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14. How Do Executives Feel About Participating in a Client Interview?

While getting an hour of a busy executive's time is never to be minimized, executives are rarely bothered by being asked for an interview and, in fact, usually enthusiastically accept the invitations. Most of these executives know the value of customer feedback and customer relationship management and are often actively involved themselves in such activities for their own companies. Many interviewees have thanked me or gotten back to the Relationship Partner to say how easy and enjoyable the interview was, how valuable they felt the ideas discussed were and how impressed they are with the firm for having sponsored the interviewing process. Some executives even expect such interviewing to be de rigueur, "We spend [several] million dollars a year on the Firm. So, they owe it to me to send someone out here to listen to what I have to say!"

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15. How Are the Interviews Documented and Translated into Action Plans?

In addition to my effectiveness as an executive interviewer, I believe that the greatest value I add comes from the thoroughness and usefulness of my Client Interview Reports. The organization and language of these reports has been worked out during more than 15 years, involving hundreds of client satisfaction assessments. Almost always supported by attributed client direct quotes or, at least, very accurate paraphrasing, all the findings are synthesized and interpreted to yield a prioritized, very comprehensive list of Recommended Actions. I would suggest that any Client Serving Team that implemented all of the Recommended Actions from one of my reports would have a very satisfied client, indeed.

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16. What Is the Cost/Benefit of Client Interviews?

The cost of the interviews at a particular client company varies and, of course, is based primarily on how many executives are interviewed. But the costs are always diminimus compared to the fees the client generates for the firm and to the potential value that can be added. In one sense, the cost of the interviews might be considered similar to the premiums paid on an insurance policy for a valued asset. For example, the combined fee and travel costs for Client Interviews for an important client of a law firm could be less, possibly much less, than one percent of one year's annual revenues from that client. Or, for an accounting firm with a Fortune 100 client, one half of one percent. Or, for a consulting firm with a large contract, one twentieth of one percent. And such an outlay for a smaller but up and coming client company, could be in the realm of a few percentage points, one-time investment of the current year's revenues.

And consider the payback. For example, what I discovered during my interviews at a client of a management consulting firm, for which I charged the firm $12,000 in fees, resulted in the rescue of a $12,000,000 piece of work from almost certain loss. Not a bad payback. In other words, the feedback that Client Interviews can provide might change the course of a relationship, and that transformation might be valued in millions of dollars. And even if the benefits could be measured in just hundreds of thousands of dollars, it would still be a very worthwhile effort.

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17. Getting Going

Okay, let’s say that you are interested in establishing a Client Interview program in your own firm. Where to start and what to do?

Some firms, when contemplating such a program, have turned inward and concluded, rightly or wrongly, that client feedback is ultimately the individual responsibility of each and every partner. And it is felt that, anyway, the firm and/or its clients would be hesitant to involve a third party in the interviews. So, the conservative decision is made to hire trainers who then coach the partners in the “modern way” of conducting client satisfaction assessment interviews with their own clients. But, will taking this route yield homeruns in terms of heroically saved clients and greatly expanded revenues? I’m not so sure. When taken as a first step, often such skills training goes unused by partners who, for whatever reasons, are hesitant to perform the intended feat – namely, leaving their office, going down the elevator and facing the client, upon whom they have a dependent relationship, and risking rejection. This is not to mention the added challenge, in this case, of acquiring candid and complete, critically evaluative feedback when the partner, or even the partner’s partner, conducts the interviews.

Also, it sometimes seems harder for larger firms to initiate a bona fide Client Interview program than it does for smaller ones. This may be due both to the differing scales of organizational logistics involved and to the fact that larger firms can, in some cases, more easily harbor independent and entrepreneurial partners who, in effect, run their own fiefdoms.

Accordingly, all of the above-described difficulties cry out for a simple, almost universally applicable, solution, namely: hire an independent consultant to perform a pilot project involving the clients of a few secure, team-player, volunteer Relationship Partners. Then, with this learning under the firm's belt – plus some feedback from the involved clients and Relationship Partners regarding their experiences with the process – you’ll be ready to move onto the next steps, toward building a customized Client Interview program that works wonders for your firm.

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Want to learn more about Client Interviews based on a consultive interchange with Bruce Heintz focused on your specific needs and questions?

 

     
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