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We’re regularly asked, “What’s the best way to interview clients to gain their feedback”. By exploring the merits of each method of feedback, and the value client feedback can provide to firms, we aim to answer that question in this blog.

Firstly you have to consider the reason for conducting client feedback – is it to get an overview of client opinion, to focus upon a specific group of clients (e.g. VIP, or potential growth clients, regular clients), to assess service delivery, to look for business opportunities, to mitigate risk, to communicate to clients hat we’re listening, to gather benchmarking data (e.g. how many clients will recommend us). Is it a mixture of these? When you have determined the rationale for seeking client feedback you can consider the types of questions that you need to ask and evaluate the best interview methods to use. The diagram below highlights the generally accepted pros and cons of the four main feedback interview methods.

One of the particular challenges when interviewing clients to gain their feedback is a respondent’s potential attention span and what can be achieved during this period. It is typical for an in-person interview meeting to last about an hour, and when introductions and formalities are out of the way, this leaves about 40 minutes to interview. An in-person interview allows you to observe your respondent’s body language and other non-verbal clues, assisting you in tailoring your questioning accordingly to make sure the most important points are covered and you get great quality insight. By contrast – it’s fairly difficult to maintain somebody’s interest and attention span when completing a web survey lasting more than 5 – 10 minutes (even if they have a vested interest in completing it). So the difference in quality and depth of content of an in-person interview and web-based survey is obvious.

So where does a telephone interview fit in? There are two main types of telephone interviews – high-speed interviews and executive interviews, and it’s worth explaining the differences with examples. The high-speed telephone interview is typically used in polling where a pollster needs to establish, for example, who will be the next UK Prime Minister or US President. In this case, circa 1,028 interviews with many closed questions (e.g. yes/no), are normally needed to establish results with a margin of error of ±3%, and because the pollster needs the results within a few days, the interviews are fast, typically 5-7 minutes. Interviewers quickly follow a script, typing the respondents’ answers into their software as you speak, then it’s onto the next interview, aiming to achieve as many completed interviews per hour as possible. This type of interview is clearly not suitable for high-quality client feedback in professional markets or the B2B world.

Conversely, an executive interview is quite the opposite of a high-speed interview. Lasting typically 20-30 minutes (or more), it is semi-structured and will cover a wide range of topics with many open questions facilitating discussion. In this type of interview, it is very important to establish trust and empathy with a respondent before there can be a meaningful discussion. Hence the type of interviewer who undertakes this style of interview is different to a high-speed interviewer. The interviewers’ focuses are on deep probing to steer the conversation and elicit actionable insight. They will often record the calls and use the recording to transcribe the interview after the discussion. It’s this latter type of telephone interview that is used in client feedback interviews by phone, and when done well is comparable to the depth of an in-person interview without the cost and travel involved, and avoids the simplicity of a web survey.

So what really is the best interview method?

The answer to the question is invariably a combination of methods. Most professional services firms and B2B businesses have a client base similar to that represented in the diagram below, with VIP clients at the top of the triangle, clients with growth potential being geared up to become VIP clients in the middle, and then the rest of the clients forming the base of the triangle. It’s this triangle that helps determine the best interview method, and whilst from our experience, executive telephone interviews provide the best quality/content/cost ratio for client feedback, the use of in-person interviews for VIP clients to show deference, and use of web surveys to allow lots of clients to be contacted in a low-cost manner should also be considered.

With over 25 years of experience of client feedback solutions, we can help you run a successful international client feedback programme. Please contact us to see how we can help your firm.