"Listen or be gone" should be your mantra in 2004. Successful companies listen to their clients on a regular basis, not just while they are going after their business. Unsuccessful companies can't understand why their clients keep "asking the same stupid questions," and eventually lose these clients.
Here's a little test to see how well your institution listens to its clients:
1. Do you know what's important to your clients in the next two
to five years?
2. Do you know where their business comes from today and where they expect it to come from tomorrow?
3. Do you understand the issues they are facing today?
4. Do you understand the larger meaning of your clients' day-to-day concerns?
If you answered "yes" to all four questions, your institution probably has a good track record getting and retaining clients because you have a true understanding of what they want. If you answered "no" to any of the questions, you've got some work to do.
Right now, we are experiencing a unique window in time that can help us improve our institutions' ability to actually hear our clients. We have been through the most exhausting customer volume we have ever experienced. That volume created a hectic business environment in which there was less time available to actually listen to our clients and make process improvements. All we could do was keep our heads above water. The good news is that all the volume tested our capabilities like they've never been tested before. Looking back on this busy period allows us to review what we did well and what we need to improve upon. Now that we have the time and hindsight to make business adjustments, listening to our clients can be a tremendous help in determining precisely what changes to make and which frameworks to follow.
To hear what your clients are truly saying, you'll need to take notice of information from a variety of levels in an organization. From upper management, listen for information on strategic direction--then you can consider whether it makes sense to work on products to meet those upcoming needs. Members of the customer support group talk to clients daily. From them, you'll learn whether you've been meeting their client's standards and whether they have issues that should be addressed. They are your sounding board as to whether your processes are good, and they'll give you a good indication of your best and worst practices.
Don't make the mistake of taking all of your information from people on any one level. If you just go to the strategic-thinking individuals, you won't learn about the day-to-day issues, but if you just go to the customer support people, you'll never get past the day-to-day concerns. Listen to both and create a system that allows you to tie all that information together.
How do we listen?
So, how do we go about gathering all of the information and really hear what our clients want to say? Here are some suggestions:
Client surveys are something many institutions know they should do, but avoid. That's because they look at them as some kind of "report card" on how well they are doing. Instead, I suggest you think about client surveys as a way to treat your customers as partners. When client surveys are done right, both the institution and its clients develop a vested interest in making the relationship better.
To get the true benefit of a client survey, you must ask the questions that will help you become more effective. Avoid the urge to structure the survey in such a way as to get the most positive answers. Effective client surveys allow participants to give their viewpoints, regardless of whether they're positive or negative. If you're doing a survey to prove to people that you're doing a good job, don't do it.
If you compose an effective client survey, expect to receive complaints, and furthermore, be prepared to treat these complaints as gifts. A client's negative feedback on a survey actually demonstrates that they consider the relationship important, since it reflects their desire to see a change for the better in the relationship. It also means they expect you to pay attention to what they say.
Last September, we surveyed our most active clients, hiring a third party to do the survey and analyze its results (an idea I'd strongly recommend). We asked many open-ended questions, encouraging clients to honestly share their opinions. The results were so useful, that we're already including some of the suggestions in our own process improvement.
We undertook the survey in conjunction with an internal review of our process. The results of the survey, plus the input from our customer support staff and our internal process review, have already allowed us to make important strategic and process changes.
Listen to your staff
Work with your staff to take a good look at the day-to-day questions that are coming in from clients. The customer service people can help you understand what these routine questions really mean. For example, suppose you're receiving questions everyday about the status of delays in mortgage recording. Now, anyone in mortgage processing knows that basic flaws in the recording system nationwide cause these delays. We also recognize that there isn't much any of us can do to change them. However, once you see that there's a pattern of calls about this, it would be in your best interest to proactively put out information about why these things are happening. It may not be what they want to hear, but it shows clients that you're listening to them.
Develop a relationship management program for your most
No matter how much technology we throw at our clients, businesses will always be about relationships. The advent of the relationship manager position came about because institutions recognized the need for a formal process to build partnerships with clients. A relationship manager is in charge of tying together all the information about key clients, including day-to-day interactions and strategic pieces of information. Relationship management means understanding your business partnerships and having them work effectively for both the client and the vendor. When it's done right, clients and their vendors develop a better partnership because they understand each other and each other's direction. This is quite different than customer support that is focused on fixing a specific problem. Relationship managers get to the root of potential problems before they develop. These managers also make sure clients know about upcoming changes that will affect them, giving them enough time to react.
Don't equate crisis management with
Listening to clients consistently is better for business than paying attention to their concerns only when a problem or crisis arises. In an emergency, you're only able to address complaints, and your listening is limited to a specific issue. This is only an illusion of true listening. If you listen to your clients effectively and regularly, you'll see many crises coming early enough to avoid them.
When business relationships are new and the client is implementing the vendor's service, it's common for someone to show up and act as if they are listening to the client, but once the products are in place, this is not so common. A good company continues that relationship and fine-tunes it whenever necessary.
Effectively listening to clients is not only good for current relationships, it helps an institution build products to fill client needs, often before the need is evident. This keeps your institution ahead of the competition and ahead of the curve. The key is listening to information from all levels of your client's organization, combining that information in order to determine what your clients needs are and adjusting to those needs in order to benefit you both.
Jeanne Rinaldo is vice president of relationship management for Integrated Loan Services. She may be reached by phone at (800) 842-8423 or e-mail [email protected].