Customer surveys may be all the rage when it comes to collecting customer experience feedback data in the B2C world. But in B2B, where human-to-human, long-term relationships, and RFPs rule the day, collecting feedback usually needs to take on a more human touch to have a meaningful impact.
Enter the client interview program: a low-volume, high-impact feedback collection approach that can fuel insights in B2B in ways electronic surveys simply cannot.
What is a client interview program?
Client interviews are just that: Face-to-face or telephone conversations where you’re asking questions and cultivating insights from clients, decision makers, and others who influence buying decisions. You go one-on-one with a sample of your biggest clients, highest potential clients, your at-risk clients, or a combination.
Client interviews aren’t simply a regurgitation of questions you might ask in an e-mail survey. Instead, an interviewer asks well-chosen interviewees a series of planned yet flexible evocative questions about their experiences with your company’s policies, processes, services, people, and products.
The point is to understand your clients’ perspectives on the nature of your business partnership and how that relationship intersects with their business challenges.
Setting up an interview program: Things to know
Setting up a client interview program sounds simple enough, right? But the reality is great client interview programs don’t just happen. They’re deliberately designed and systematically deployed.
Here are some things to think about when you’re setting up a program:
- An impartial, skilled interviewer should conduct the client interview—not a sales executive. This is always my top recommendation for companies that want to start a client interview program, and it is usually a point of hesitation on the part of clients I advise. But the client feedback session is not, nor should it ever be, a sales call. The idea is to gather feedback that can help your company reduce friction for the client and get ahead of issues that can cause clients to leave. Unfortunately, sales and service team members can sometimes feel they have too much to lose if negative feedback surfaces in the interview. There can be a tendency to disregard, dismiss, or bury certain clients’ ratings and comments.
- Take a programmatic, structured approach. Work with the boss and stakeholders throughout the company to create a target client list, an interview policy, a client interview and debrief process, template communications for clients you’re targeting, a standard survey or dialogue guide with well-thought-out questions, and at least one punctuating metric derived from a question answered by all interviewees. Develop template reports for each interview or series of interviews. Plan a cadence for presenting trends across client segments or verticals.
- Make the interview mutually beneficial. Don’t waste the client’s time with superficial questions. For me, I’ve never been able to glean much from answers to questions like: “How knowledgeable was our staff,” and “Please rate the quality of our product.” Sure, the answers to those questions will tell you about your company, but that’s not enough. Use the interview to understand more about the outcomes the client is after. A favorite interview question of mine has always been: “What are your business challenges coming up in the next 1-2 years and where do you see my firm fitting in?” Clients’ answers almost always shed light on problems and opportunities you’ll never get from a survey or a press release. I’ve been asked to help clients with everything from finding their next job to connecting to resources at my firm that would help them avoid the time-consuming work of writing and issuing a competitive RFP.
- Create artifacts. In my past lives, well-documented client feedback was the first source for understanding what went wrong when clients issued an RFP for new service providers. Take good interview notes and store those notes in an organized fashion in a location where the right people can review them at the right time, like any other source of client intelligence. It’s common for some executives to want to skimp on documentation; this is another reason you want a skilled interviewer conducting the interview—they also know how to take good notes. In the instances when you’re navigating potential client loss, you’ll be glad you wrote down the feedback somewhere other than the back of a bar napkin.
- Don’t get mad. The only things more dangerous than not asking clients for feedback is asking and getting angry at the client for what you hear, or simply not following up at all. Make sure a multidisciplinary team goes to work on follow-up conversations and activities immediately and close the loop with clients. I used to speak once a year with certain clients. For every repeat interview, the first question was always: “The last time we talked, you mentioned a, b, and c (be specific). To what extent do you feel our team followed up on those things?” If the client doesn’t think you’ve followed up, that’s a red flag. It’s time to apologize to the client and get your teams moving.
In the B2B world, feedback from one-on-one client interviews can help your company stay ahead of issues and opportunities in ways surveys and published documents on websites, for example, simply cannot.
Ask the right questions to the right interviewees, listen carefully, document your findings, share insights across the organization, and take action.