Why don’t we hear what clients have to say?

“You see, but you don’t observe,” Sherlock Holmes said in A Scandal in Bohemia. Having spent part of the last few days looking at client feedback surveys done by two different firms, I’m tempted to add that we listen, but we don’t hear.

Consulting firms are certainly listening. I don’t know a single large firm that doesn’t send out questionnaires to their clients or dispatch senior partners to have in-depth conversations with their key accounts. My question is whether they’re really hearing.

In The Writer’s Tale, Russell T. Davies, a television writer, wrote that realistic conversations don’t consist of someone talking while someone else listens, but of someone talking to someone who’s busy framing what they’re going to say in response. No one actually listens – which is why so many of our conversations, if you read them back, sound disjointed and why screen dialogue can sound so artificial.

So let’s not fool ourselves: put a senior partner in a room with a major client and one of the things in the former’s mind is to sell more stuff. No, I know it’s really not intended to be the primary purpose of the discussion, but experienced consultants find it very hard not to step into sales mode. In one of the projects I’ve just been looking at the client was fairly bouncing up and down in frustration that, when asked for feedback, they’d tried to raise issues only to be apparently ignored. Conversely, I was talking to a senior executive recently, someone who uses a lot of consulting services, and he mentioned a big problem they’d had with a particular firm: rather than sweep the issue under the carpet, the firm had organised feedback sessions with all those involved and then arranged a meeting in which they presented the results – warts and all – to the combined client and consultant team. “It was actually quite cathartic,” he said, “but it was also the foundation of what’s become one of our most successful projects ever.”

You’d think that feedback surveys should work better: they do what it says on the tin, there’s no hidden agenda. But most surveys we see are hideously badly designed. Is whether a project finished on time and within budget really the most interesting thing to ask? It’s not unimportant but saying that it scrapes the surface is being kind. Typically such surveys only go to a subset of the people involved in a project and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that the project or account manager who decides who’s on the distribution list may ‘accidentally’ omit names of people likely to be critical. Research also tells us that the people at the bottom of a project hierarchy are most likely to be critical (ten times as likely as the people at the top, in fact), because they end up working alongside the consulting team but without any idea of what’s going on. The views of these people are rarely canvassed in our experience.

Moreover both approaches – the qualitative and the quantitative – are flawed because clients want an easy life. If you, as a client, think that telling the truth is going to raise all sorts of questions and result in wheedling calls from the consultants involved, asking you to change your scores before their careers fall off a cliff, then you’ll give everyone a steady eight out of ten every time.

Client feedback needs to: be genuinely objective; ask difficult, interesting questions; be totally anonymous; involve junior people, not just senior stakeholders; and the results, intelligently analysed, must be shared with the people who provided the information. We need to hear, not just listen.