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In Client Interviews, How Questions Are Asked Really Matters

By Burkey Belser
August 6, 2009
In Client Interviews, How Questions Are Asked Really Matters

In our recent “Marketing Hope” survey of plans for 2009 and 2010 (stay tuned for a full write-up on those findings), 64% of Am Law 200 marketers indicated they will be investing in client loyalty interviews. That’s a smart move in any economy. But how do you extract the most value from those interviews? The answer lies not only in the questions you ask, but how your interviewer asks them.

“How are you doing, Mark?”
“Just fine, couldn’t be better.”

We all have that kind of conversation almost everyday with our friends, family and co-workers. The question really doesn’t want an answer; it’s just a convention around greeting. (If you ever doubt that, probe your teenage daughter for details and see how far you get.) In order to get a thoughtful, engaged answer, we ask the question differently. And not only form but tone makes a difference. For example, my partner will give a very different response if I say “HONEY, WOULD YOU TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE!!” versus “Honey, would you please take out the garbage?”

When firms are looking to survey their clients, they spend a huge amount of time and resources designing the questions they want to ask. They want to be able to draw statistically valid conclusions about their client base, therefore eliminating any chance of “interviewer bias.” Certainly, having objective feedback is important. But when the client and the service provider really need to form a relationship, when the people matter as much, or more, than the end product, then the manner and method of the interview far outweigh the questions that are asked!

YOU’RE TALKING TO CLIENTS ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS, NOT STATISTICS

Relationships are not widgets. “Objective questions,” asked in a consistent, “unbiased” way, are NOT the gold standard for professional services. Caution is certainly in order. You don’t want your interviewer to challenge the client, imply their answers are wrong, or suggest there is a right or wrong way to respond. Having an agenda to get a specific response is always a no-no in any kind of client feedback research.

And therein lies the rub: You want sound, methodological research with (hopefully) measurable results. But your clients really don’t care about that—nor should they. They care about the relationship.

Perhaps you go to ballgames with some of your clients. You might know their families. Perhaps your client is a single parent struggling to find time in the day to “do it all.” You try to stay in touch beyond just getting the job done. Your client made a presentation at a conference and you drop them a note of congratulations. You do a good job of keeping the relationship warm. Then, along comes your firm, saying, “We want to include your client in our loyalty survey.” Shivers go down your spine. You immediately freeze. “My client is going to be interviewed by someone in a call center with multiple piercings, purple hair and an attitude that ‘It’s just a job and it beats working at McDonalds.’”

Frankly, that would scare the heck out of me, too (and I conduct client interviews).

Just as you care deeply about your client relationships, you want anyone else who comes into contact with your client to have that same attitude. Without that, odds are your client will indeed view “Mr. Purple Hair” with a lot of suspicion and, at worst, dismiss the whole third party interview process as unbecoming of professional relationships. You want the interviewer to behave more like a trusted colleague, even a friend, than someone who is just doing their job.

CONVERSATIONS THAT INSPIRE FRIENDSHIP

Nicholson: “You want answers?”  
Cruise: “I want the truth!!”
— A Few Good Men, 1992

What do you really want from your clients? You want the truth. You want them to be forthcoming. How do you get that? Imagine your best friend just found out that their father was admitted to the hospital, with a form of cancer that is potentially fatal. You can question your friend as a friend or as an interlocutor at a call center. Here’s how the latter works:

“I just heard about your father. What hospital is he in?”
“St. Luke’s.”
“When was he admitted?”
“Late last night; I was still at work.”
“Who is his doctor?”
“Dr. Know-It-All. I don’t like him, but everyone says he’s the best.”
“What’s going to happen next? Will they run some tests?”
“Yes, he’s scheduled for an ultrasound tomorrow; that’s kinda scary.”
“Are you optimistic about the outcome?”
“Yes.”

Now imagine you respond like a real friend:
“Wow, I just heard about your father. How are you holding up?”
“It’s really stressful. I’m worried to death about him.”
“I bet. What’s your biggest worry right now?”
“Honestly, it’s not his diagnosis, but I just don’t know this St. Luke’s hospital; I don’t know anyone who has ever been in there.”
(pause) “You seem really worked up about that; it’s a big deal, huh?”
“Well yeah, of course. I mean, he has Dr. Know-It-All working on him, but there’s just something about him…”
“Hmmm, so this doctor sounds like he really knows his stuff, but yet something bothers you about him.”

You may not realize it, but you can have this friend-to-friend (or colleague-to-colleague) conversation and still include standard questions and standard ratings. In the second example, the interviewer is engaged, curious about what’s going on, tracking what the other person is saying, and present in the conversation. An experienced interviewer can achieve the same level of empathy, strengthening the relationship between YOU and your client THROUGH an expert third party. No matter how beautifully designed your questions, to be effective they must appear to your clients as “a conversation, colleague-to-colleague, and whatever you say is important to me because I care about this relationship.”

How questions are asked defines our relationships with spouses, significant others, colleagues and yes, clients too. So when you’re working with a research firm and designing all those wonderful questions you want them to ask your clients, you might want to ask some questions of the interviewer to see how that person comes across to you, because if you like how the interviewer is in his or her relationship with you, the odds are good that your clients will see them in the same way and you will really get the answers you seek.

If you like this article, you might also like Three Ways to Botch Client Surveys.