When Is Client Feedback A Bad Idea?

This is a cautionary tale of how my 6-year-old has the power to influence corporate strategy.

It was on a family trip, going through Gatwick airport, when he first realized that his influence extended beyond his exhausted parents.

gatwick feedback

On that day, as we juggled suitcases and security, I turned around to find him repeatedly hitting the ‘sad’ button on the airport’s new client feedback system. “Stop doing that.” Click. “I said stop doing that.” Click, click, click. “This is the last time.” Click.

In mere seconds, my son had given the airport at least five separate instances of negative feedback based on a series of smiley faces, graphically presented on big buttons from ‘clearly unhappy’ to ‘sublimely thrilled’. It could just as easily have been positive feedback but he thought the sad face was funnier. A staff member walked by as it was happening and hit the positive button three times in an effort to balance it out.

As someone who has devoted a big part of my professional life to helping clients gather and use client feedback in a meaningful way, this was appalling. Unfortunately it wasn’t an isolated example of how client feedback strategies can go terribly wrong.

Fast forward a year and the same scene played itself out in a sporting goods store, except this time I saw it coming and stopped the stream of negative feedback before his little hands could hit the screen. Good for me.

The lesson seems clear. In an effort to find simple, inviting ways to involve the customer in providing feedback, we may be fundamentally distorting the data we receive. To the extent that corporate strategy is affected by that data, we’re probably giving six-year-old children a disproportionate and somewhat ill-informed vote. It’s a good example of doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons.

Getting Feedback It Right

Getting feedback right is partly about process (as my tale of woe suggests) but very much about the kind of information you’re gathering. Feedback for the sake of feedback isn’t helpful. To get a little more specific on the kinds of information you can gather, consider the following as a strong starting point.

  • Assess the overall quality of the relationship. You may choose metrics such as satisfaction, loyalty or Net Promoter Score (likelihood to refer). This information is a starting point to evaluating performance over time.
  • Assess satisfaction on a range of more specific service issues, such as confidence in the team, frequency of contact or confidence in the plan.
  • Assess what is most important to your clients in your relationship. This provides you with critical information on what your clients value and will help you assess your current positioning and prioritize your time.
  • Assess client expectations regarding the scope of contact, as well as the form of contact. This information allows you to manage expectations and structure a meaningful service plan.
  • Assess preferences with respect to receiving client communications (e.g. newsletters) and the way in which you communicate (e.g. e-mail vs. mail). This information allows you to assess your return on the communications/events that you provide to clients and, potentially, to streamline the communication process.
  • Assess specific marketing opportunities among your clients, including referrals, share of wallet and cross-selling opportunities. This information allows you to target your client marketing efforts and increase average revenue per client.

Done well, client feedback can also help you understand what your client’s really value.

And while it’s clear that over-simplifying feedback can lead us in the wrong direction, good client feedback doesn’t have to be complicated. Over many years in helping advisors gather feedback, I’ve uncovered a few simple rules that help you balance simplicity with accuracy and depth.

  • Ask questions on a range of topics. Consider the following question categories when structuring your survey: satisfaction, expectations, communication, opportunities and profile. These question categories will allow you to structure, measure or refine a meaningful client experience and uncover additional opportunities among existing clients.
  • Keep it short. An effective survey should take no more than 5-10 minutes for a client to complete. You can consider a shorter survey to increase response rate, however you should balance that against the quality and depth of the information that you gather.
  • Dig deep. It’s not only important to understand how clients rate you on specific aspects of service, but also the value they place on those things. By asking about both, you can prioritize your effort, focusing only on improving those things that are most important to your clients.
  • Ask actionable questions. It’s important to generate feedback on aspects of the business that are within your control. For every question that you want to ask of clients, ask yourself a simple question: How will I change my behavior, or my business, in response to the answers to this question?
  • Set the stage. Help your clients understand the importance of the survey, not only to your business, but to your ability to meet their needs. A cover letter/email is your best opportunity to build your case and encourage your clients to take an active role in the relationship.
  • Include a deadline for returning the survey. In order to allow you to analyze your survey results effectively, you’ll need to ensure that you receive all responses by a specific date. Two to three weeks is a reasonable time frame, the former if all surveys are online and the latter if you are using paper surveys.
  • Include an incentive to respond. An incentive to complete the survey should be included and clearly linked to the deadline you have established.
  • Make the client’s name optional. While it’s frustrating to get specific suggestions from a client whose name is not included, making the name optional will increase your response rate and encourage clients to respond more honestly. Many researchers will disagree with this comment; I believe it allows you to gather robust data while make it highly actionable.
  • Follow up with all clients. Send a follow-up communication to your clients, whether they responded or not. It’s important for clients who completed the survey to know that you have reviewed their comments and are making changes to reflect the needs of your clients. They need to know it was worth their time to participate.
  • Include an open-ended question. Include at least one question that asks clients how you can improve the business. It allows them to compliment or criticize, with fewer restrictions than the other questions

Oh, and don’t use smiley faces in a public place frequented by 6-year-old boys.

Re-frame the Client Conversation

Perhaps the most important lesson learned is that while a written or on-line client survey provides great strategic insights, feedback may be even more important as a way to drive or re-frame the client conversation. Consider questions that lead to deeper discussions.

For financial advisors, for example, those might involve uncovering concerns or fears about the future. Consider a provocative, open-ended question that will lead to a meaningful conversation the next time you meet the client. Example: Are you at all concerned if your children are prepared to make good financial decisions?

You might also consider sending separate surveys to both people in a couple; differences in perception may drive differences in engagement and that’s critical information to help you work effectively with couples.

difficult feedbackSome time after the infamous Gatwick incident, I received another request for feedback. In this case, they went the opposite way and made it far too difficult instead of ‘6 year old easy’. I received a letter in the mail. It wasn’t the easy ‘open the back of the envelope’ kind of mail, but the sort that required you to carefully tear three perforated sides off before uncovering the contents – a survey. After asking me to do some work to get to the survey, I then needed to find a stamp and mail it back. Let’s just say they won’t be getting my feedback, at least not directly.

Perhaps a final point to consider and that is easily lost. While there are many ways to go very wrong in gathering client feedback, it’s still a critical part of client engagement. It matters to clients and it matters to your business. We just need to find a way that works.

Thanks for stopping by,


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