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OPINION25 April 2016

The danger of client satisfaction

Opinion UK

April isn't just the month to assess financial results – it also presents the opportunity to assess client relationships says Paul Tredwell.

Whether a commercial enterprise runs to a calendar or a fiscal year, April is an important month. The business is either reviewing the critical first quarter or about to launch the next annual cycle. Budgets are intact, energy levels are high and the weather is perking up.

It’s a busy time for me too as both client side organisations and their agencies seek, jointly or independently, to ensure that their key relationships are in the best shape they can be to help deliver the success demanded by their plans.

This, of course, is exciting and gratifying. I am struck by how many enlightened businesses now recognise that the parties to important commercial relationships find it easier to be more candid, expansive and specific when, in a conversation with a credible third party, they are temporarily relieved of the personal bonds and practical demands of those relationships.

In some cases, strikingly, it is the sheer closeness of the liaison which can prevent important details from surfacing at the appropriate time for fear of awkwardness, embarrassment or distraction.

But there can still be a tricky moment when, for example, in the initial stages of my engagement (hopefully), I hear the immortal words ‘we would like you to help us with our client satisfaction measurement’.

If I take you to lunch and, on emerging from the restaurant, ask how it was for you and you reply ‘satisfactory’ then, putting irony aside, I would be inclined to shoot myself.

The point here is that the generic term for vital relationship feedback, ‘client satisfaction studies’, immediately sets a low bar, especially in a highly competitive commercial environment.

For me this shows a dangerous habit of confusing client satisfaction with meaningful client commitment.

In truth, client satisfaction can simply be a measure of short-term performance or the absence of major negatives; it generally runs the risk of not providing a robust view of where things really stand.

Genuine commitment, on the other hand, defines a state of being where a client will actively seek out extra business to give you, will be less price sensitive, will be more trusting and enjoyable to work with and, significantly, will recommend you to others.

The resulting style of relationship is much more associated with real bankable value as prospects become customers and then blossom into advocates to form a key driver of success.

As businesses confront the early indicators of how they will fare in 2016, therefore, relationships too must be placed under the microscope. All organisations have them and employ people specifically to manage them. The dialogue is often frequent and mostly fruitful.

But we must be sure to challenge ourselves robustly – could we do better? Is there a gap between where a relationship is now (nothing is going wrong) and where it could be (a fully-functioning partnership)? Even the closest liaisons, like the finest musical instruments, can slip imperceptibly out of tune.

The famous and much quoted success of Team GB cycling in the London 2012 Games was founded, in part, upon Sir Dave Brailsford’s obsession with optimisation, via a process which delivered the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’.

Pursuing this thinking, with regard to the impact upon a relationship, we might only be talking about a 10% improvement but it could be the 10% which makes the difference, permits all parties to get the best from each other, and provides the all-important competitive advantage.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with client satisfaction. It is certainly better than client dissatisfaction. But as a descriptor of a key relationship metric it is no longer fit for purpose. The goal must be client commitment, and the equivalent from agencies, to create fully functioning relationships which help bring business plans to life and deliver consistent success.

Paul Tredwell is director of Bigfoot Consulting

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