Friday, August 12, 2011

Getting Feedback: Questionnaire or Dialogue?

On an online SMPS discussion board, someone recently posed the question: What's the best way to get feedback from clients? The question spurred many responses. Some advocated using a standard questionnaire. Others advised tossing out the questionnaire and talking to clients instead. Some, predictably consultants, argued that this was best done by an outside party. My answer fell somewhere in between those responses.

I've addressed this topic in a previous post, but I'd like to expand on it further. Plus I think the question is relevant to both external and internal audiences (i.e., employees). Getting feedback from all parties who contribute to your firm's success is important, and some ways of doing it are better than others.

External Surveys

The best way to answer the aforementioned question is to ask the client. Do it up front when "benchmarking service expectations." Clients have different preferences about how and when they'd like to give feedback. The best way, despite what some of our peers might say, is the client's way.

Nevertheless, my experience argues for both talking with clients and using a standard questionnaire. Of course, you can do both at the same time; that's what I usually do. Most clients seem to prefer conversation over filling out a form, but you can fill out the form yourself in the course of dialoguing with clients.

But some clients like questionnaires because they're more convenient than a meeting. Clients might also favor a questionnaire when they want to deliver criticism. It's less direct and confrontational, although negative feedback almost always provokes a face-to-face meeting. That may well be the client's motivation in giving low scores, to prod their detached A/E service provider to have a serious conversation about the client's concerns.

But most of the time, a questionnaire better serves as a supplement to having dialogue with clients. Face to face is typically preferred, but I've conducted many productive client surveys over the phone.

And, yes, it works much better when done by a third party. Not necessarily an outsider, however, just someone distanced enough from the project work to remain objective and not be the object of any criticism. Many clients are reticent to tell a project manager, for example, that they're unhappy, but will often open up to someone else.

So why do a questionnaire at all? Because it helps normalize the feedback you receive and identify trends. Client feedback collected by questionnaire enables you to define organizational responses to persistent or widespread service issues. Individual client conversations can miss this.

For example, one of my clients is overhauling their quality management system after survey responses revealed broad dissatisfaction among their clients. Sure, they were aware of quality problems. But when client perceptions of their quality, as captured in a periodic questionnaire, dropped significantly over several months, the depth of the problem became evident. I doubt they would be making such dramatic (and warranted) changes if not for the questionnaire.

Best advice? Do both. Explain the differences to the client and secure commitment to participate in the process. Appoint a third party--a principal, business developer, or consultant--to collect the feedback.

Internal Surveys

Much as firms like to boast of their superior service without much evidence, they also like to tout that they're a great place to work--without feedback from employees. Yes, retention rates serve as evidence in both cases, but these days low employee turnover is not a very reliable indication of employee satisfaction. It's best to regularly solicit feedback.

The same basic guidelines apply: Combine using a questionnaire with interviews, and use a third party who employees feel safe sharing their opinions with. But there are some key differences in getting feedback from internal and external audiences.

For one thing, unless your firm is really small, you're better off starting the process with an anonymous questionnaire. You'll first need to convince employees that it is truly anonymous (I'm amazed at the level of paranoia that sometimes exists in doing these surveys, as if someone will be poring over the responses trying to figure out who said what!). In this case, you probably are better off getting an outside consultant to at least compile survey responses.

When the survey inevitably reveals some significant employee concerns, you need to then talk to employees before going further. My clients often want to skip this step, presumably to save time and money. But that's a mistake, because questionnaires, in my experience, have an inherent shortcoming:
  • Questionnaires can be very helpful in identifying problems, but it normally requires dialogue to really understand those problems.
This is true in doing both internal and external surveys. If you're trying to address concerns based only on feedback from a questionnaire, you're not likely to be very effective. Besides the likelihood of misdiagnosing the problem, your solution will work better when the party raising the concern has a part in defining the solution. So dialogue should always accompany an employee questionnaire.

How you do dialogue can vary. In small firms or departments, everyone potentially can participate. Small groups usually work best. Sometimes it's preferred to talk to peer groups; other times cross-functional or cross-disciplinary groups are better. In large firms, you'll probably need to dialogue with representative groups, rather than the entire staff.

Bottom line: Commit to getting both external and internal feedback on a regular basis. This equips you to better serve both constituencies. Plus it builds trust and respect. There are better ways of getting feedback than others, but first you need to make it a priority. If I can offer some advice, let me know.

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