Virtually all top-tier professional service firms make the same boasts. "We have the best lawyers/engineers/architects/physicians, who went to the best schools and deliver the best product, service or counsel.

"And, we care the most about our clients."

Talk is cheap. How do they demonstrate, not merely assert, that they place a premium on customer service, one that sets them apart from other practices?

There are, of course, hundreds of ways, big and small, to be tangible. Businesses send out holiday cards and gifts, conduct client-bonding events, and the like.

Some even dare to systematically ask their key clients "How is our service? Are you satisfied?" Even fewer then tell these clients, prospective clients, other providers, and the world how their clients responded.

These bravest ones have discovered the risks and rewards of the client satisfaction survey. Here's how the smart ones manage.

Remember the internal clients

Surveys get your clients' attention. The process will also be closely watched by your staff. The significant investment of time and resources and the exposure the company risks in conducting a survey is a concrete reminder that marketing matters, including the quality of client relationships.

So, take care to communicate the process to all of your internal audiences... from beginning to end. This is partly for purposes of buy-in. But it is also a powerful way to send and reinforce the message that your business is serious about marketing and about being transparent.

Avoid subjective mailings lists

No matter how well-managed the process, there will be at least some resistance to the idea of a survey. There will be opposition to sending the survey to specific clients for one reason or another (e.g., a bad result or a one-time engagement).

So, strive to make the mailing-list-making process as objective as possible. Start with revenue rankings or other impartial, statistical selection criteria when compiling the list of clients to which the survey questionnaire will be sent. Be intentional. Require that each practice group, industry sector, and client type be represented. Otherwise, you can't say much that's statistically reliable about the results.

Make the questionnaire process pay off

Long, hard work involved in drafting and re-drafting the questionnaire is another opportunity to get an internal bounce. It's a tangible reminder that this matters. The questionnaire also offers you a chance to make your internal audiences feel heard.

So, make sure your questionnaire-drafting committee is reasonably representative. If your practice has multiple offices, give each a bite of the apple. Do this efficiently, maybe through the partner in charge of the office. Consider giving other, non-rainmakers a voice, especially if this is in your strategic interests (e.g., promoting one-firm firmism.)

This is a teachable moment for clients

The questions on the survey offer another strategic opportunity. A skillfully worded questionnaire that broadens a client's appreciation for what a company offers is a potent cross-selling resource.

So, educate your clients. (Balance this against creating a too-long survey instrument.) Make sure that you have a section, for example, where they're asked to check the boxes indicating the services they have used from a full list of your service areas and sub-areas.

Add an open-ended follow-up, fishing for "For what other services would you consider using us?" You're quite liable to get back "I didn't know you handle such-and-such."

Make follow-up easy... because there will be plenty to do

The survey is a potentially powerful prospecting tool. In the hands of the right consultant, the process will easily unearth a lot of rich selling and cross-selling opportunities.

So, be scrupulous about setting up the responses in a searchable database. Use Excel (or something) to make it easy to catch any red flags (e.g., a less-than-excellent response to any service delivery query).

Encourage your consultant to conduct one-on-one phone interviews with respondents, as they're more likely to rant to a sympathetic third-party listener.

Pick up the phone

The real work begins when the survey is ready to mail. Your objectives:

  • Get a statistically reliable response.
  • Soften any surprise a client might feel when they open the mail.
  • Milk this for all it's worth.

So, require the people in charge of relationships to call their clients in advance of the mailing. Have them say, "It's been a while since we've done this. So, we're asking our best clients to rate the quality of our service delivery. You'll get a questionnaire in a few days, and it would be helpful if you'd take 20-30 minutes to fill it out and send it back." Who knows? The conversation might even cover an existing or prospective need or business condition that needs attention.

Effective follow-up takes commitment

You can probably see a pattern. The responses are virtually worthless if they just sit in an Excel chart.

So, assign specific follow-up steps and hold people accountable. Designate a nag, backed up by your top manager. Make sure relationship partners know that they'll be expected to thoroughly address complaints and leverage new business development intelligence. Praise any progress... publicly.

Make it tangible, tangible, tangible

The results are in, and you now know reliably how many of your clients would refer you to their peers along with other measures of satisfaction. Wouldn't it be in your interest to make these data widely public? After all, you're striving to make claims about your company's client satisfaction values less abstract.

So, "tangibilize" the results. Produce a brochure. Send a thank-you letter to respondents and another to non-respondents. If the results are good, brag. If they're not so good, take the heat.

Make reporting the results an object lesson in how you value feedback and are dedicated to recovery from service errors.

A word about consultants

Get one. A good one. Don't try to do this all yourself. It's an investment that will pay for itself, provided your practice is committed to follow-up.

So, look for someone who's done these before. In fact, look for someone who's done a lot of these. Why? Because in addition to getting competence, you'll be hiring a trusted adviser and listener who has been in a similar position with a lot of other companies, many like yours. Firms looking to acquire, firms looking to be acquired, and the like. Get it?


Well, you now have my definition of "smart" when it comes to conducting client satisfaction surveys. Does any of this look familiar? Did you manage your most recent survey in this or a similar manner?

So, how smart is your practice? Do you have the principal ingredient for success—a willingness to commit the time it takes to get the most out of this opportunity? If not, what does it take to get that?

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Doug Stern ( is a freelance business writer and marketing strategist based in Louisville, KY. Contact him at 502-599-6624 or