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ROInterest

By Joe Walsh and Sue Stock Allison 
January 13, 2012
ROInterest

Like many of you, we’ve learned that the highest immediate return on marketing dollars is realized in interviews with existing clients.

Think about it. The cost of interviews with a professional interviewer is somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500 per client. Let’s do the math. $1.5k is less than a quarter-page ad in a glossy trade or a table at a charity event. Hmmm. Nothing against ads or the rubber chicken dinner circuit (we do each regularly and believe in the long-term value of both), but for immediate returns, smart marketers also invest in client interviews.

Done right, client interviews are a demonstration of genuine interest. They show that you listen, they strengthen bonds, discover growth opportunities, reveal service issues (large or small), unearth personality conflicts or broadly spot cracks in the relationship foundation. In short, they have a direct link to preserving and increasing revenue. Don’t take our word for it:

“The fact that they are even bothering to conduct this interview with me makes me think much more highly of them and makes me think they truly value this relationship, which bodes well for the future.” –Law Firm Client

“They are the only outside firm that does this client interview and that’s very valuable to me. And quite honestly, with the cost pressures I face internally, it’s easier to talk about that with you than with them directly.” –Law Firm Client

“Just asking, ‘Are we doing a good job? Is there anything else we can do?’ They learn about the business that way.” –Accounting Firm Client

“We’ve been a client for decades, we even share the same building but rarely see each other … in ways we feel like we are taken for granted, like an old marriage where you drift apart under the same roof.” –Law Firm Client

I’d like to do interviews, but face the “over your dead body” issue.

There are too many on the client front lines that don’t understand (or fear) the difference between their chats with a client and an in-depth interview designed to elicit deep-seated emotional reactions and root causes of problems.

We’ve often heard partners and managing directors dismiss formal client feedback programs with, “I keep in touch with my clients; I’d know if there were a problem.” Unfortunately, it is too often the case that they only think they would know if there were a problem.

Keeping in touch with their clients, while critical, tends to be social or issue-specific. Not rising to the level of a formal client interview, it fails to address details of problems or even potential business opportunities.

How do you overcome “powerful” internal objections to client interviews or satisfaction programs? That’s a management issue, not marketing, but maybe we can help. If you can’t get backing from your firm’s top leadership, a champion from the partnership can still help you get started. With the right advocate, it takes only a success story or two to get the ball rolling.

I’m going to do (or do more) interviews; how do I do them right?

Assuming you can get the program launched, how do you make the most of your investment? Here’s some guidance:

Choose the right technique

Sounds rudimentary, but client interviews need to be interviews. With the best intentions, many firms, in lieu of interviews, elect to send anonymous mail or web surveys. They drop a survey in the mail. Or send out a web survey as a link in an email. Write ‘em up. Send ‘em out. Easy, right?

Wrong.

Your clients are sophisticated decision-makers who expect your personal interest. Something faceless mail or a web survey can’t provide. A mail survey does little to reassure a client that you really care about what they think or are prepared to act on their response. If you’re asking them to remain anonymous, that’s precisely how they’ll feel.

Moreover, with anonymity, you can’t take specific action. You don’t get to ask a follow-up question. And the lack of personal interaction prevents the client from telling you about a lurking issue your initial question may not have anticipated. In a good phone interview under the right circumstances, you’ll find out information you didn’t anticipate discovering. That is, if you’re asking the right questions the right way.

Treat the interview as a conversation, not a questionnaire

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 people matter as much, or more, than the end product, then the manner and method of the interview are at least as important as the questions that are asked!

This is about relationships, not statistics, (although you can have both). But no matter how beautifully designed your questions, to be effective they must appear to your clients as a conversation; colleague-to-colleague.

Ask questions the right way

What do you really want from your clients in interviews? 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. 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 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.

If you don’t have the needed interviewing talent in-house, an experienced interviewer can achieve the same level of empathy, strengthening the relationship between YOU and your client.

Be prepared to take action.

One misstep we see firms take too often is spending the time and effort to gather client feedback, then ignoring the results. Big mistake. Perhaps the biggest.

Why?

Clients expect action. In doing interviews for our clients, we can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard the interviewee say that it was seemingly pointless to talk to us since “they expressed their issues last year and no action was taken.”

Your program will pay off only when you acknowledge the raised issues. You are expected to take action with specific steps to correct identified problems and to take advantage of newly discovered opportunities. A best practice is to schedule a face-to-face meeting to assure clients that their feedback is understood and has been addressed.

“Our firm won new work at top rates, new opportunities in an overseas office and new attorney introductions when our client service team acted on each potential opportunity uncovered by one client interview.” –Law Firm CMO

Return on interest.

In a world where ROI is questioned in all marketing activities, client interviews have many advantages, not the least of which is that they should pay for themselves. Beyond the numbers, they are highest forms of interest you can show in a client and they should yield many happy returns.