Does client feedback hold the secret to employee retention?

By Carrie Steffen

Rates of burnout — a feeling of overwhelm and constant stress that if left unchecked may cause employees to seek another job — have risen in the past year. A 2021 survey by Indeed found that 52% of employees suffered from burnout — up from 43% a year earlier. Firms are taking steps to mitigate burnout and reduce turnover, but there's one surprising tool many may not have considered: a client feedback system.

A client feedback system is an intentional, ongoing program designed to solicit feedback from a firm's top clients about how they feel about their relationship with the firm. It goes beyond regular satisfaction surveys, which are often tied to certain projects or deliverables, or net promoter scores, which are useful for benchmarking past performance but often don't go deep enough to drive the changes that can lead to an improved environment for employees. With a client feedback system, firms gather feedback, ideally annually, through phone interviews using a questionnaire focused on exploring what clients value most about their relationship with the firm, what is most important to them in hiring a firm, how satisfied they are with the firm, and what changes, if any, they would like to see in their relationship with the firm.

In some client feedback systems, clients are asked which service attributes matter most to them. Service attributes are the words that clients would use to describe the service they receive from the firm, such as "responsive," "communicative," "easy to work with," or "proactive."

Firms then document the responses and evaluate:

  • Which attributes of the relationship between the client and the firm clients are most and least satisfied with;
  • Which attributes are most and least important to clients; and
  • Which gaps exist between satisfaction and importance (for instance, are clients are highly dissatisfied with attributes that are important to them or highly satisfied with attributes they don't find important?)

In looking at this analysis, firms can evaluate which areas of service are material and which aren't, where changes should be made, and what the impact will be on their staff. Leaders can decide how to implement changes to best balance clients' wants with their staff's needs.

There are several ways in which using a client feedback system can help firms reduce strain on staff:

It helps them know which client feedback to prioritize. Responding to client feedback, whether in the form of complaints, suggestions, or requests for exceptions, can be a source of stress for CPAs. Without a formalized way to evaluate such feedback, firms may fail to prioritize among client requests, treating them all as equally important. Practitioners can then be put in the unenviable position of trying to address every item individually, contributing to redundancies, inefficiencies, burnout, and turnover.

When firms conduct regular, formal surveys of clients, however, they're more likely to know which client requests to prioritize. They can gauge the extent of client service issues by seeing which complaints or comments keep coming up. If firms determine whether the issues are material enough, they can make procedural changes to address them. This, in turn, can reduce the number of complaints staff deal with. Firms can also create systematic ways of responding to certain comments or complaints so staff have a set procedure to follow.

It can help firms know what not to prioritize. Leaders can also deemphasize certain efficiency metrics that may be counter to specific behaviors they want to encourage. For instance, if one of those behaviors is getting to know clients by asking questions, firms might need to be willing to see a small decrease in efficiency to make space for that.

It can serve as a guide for standardizing client service procedures. When firm leaders uncover the service attributes that are most relevant to their clients, they can use this information to standardize client service procedures and requirements in a way that delivers the key attributes and also supports their people. For instance, they may update or improve timelines, communication channels, and engagement scheduling.

Firms also can develop training that helps their people understand the three or four most important attributes of service and gives them specific examples of behaviors that exemplify each attribute. This can give staff greater clarity around how they should interact with clients.

It can help increase client loyalty and reduce complaints. Client feedback programs can foster loyalty among the firm's best clients. Surveys allow firms to close the feedback loop with clients by communicating changes the firm is making based on what they learned during the feedback process and how clients will benefit. This can have the dual benefit of reducing client complaints and increasing loyalty among a firm's best clients.

However, a client feedback system by itself can only do so much. The way a firm implements the feedback it receives can make all the difference as to whether strain on staff is reduced. With that in mind, here are some guidelines for using a client feedback system in a way that puts staff first:

Use what you learn to help staff set reasonable boundaries with clients. Sometimes, firms aren't clear about what clients can expect from them. At other times clients have unreasonable expectations that practitioners struggle to meet. Staff may feel pressured to concede to clients' requests, even when the requests are not reasonable, because they don't have a framework that supports them in saying no or because they are afraid of upsetting the client.

Having a feedback system gives firms a reason to examine all of their service processes and recalibrate expectations for both staff and clients. This can ease the strain on staff — as long as they think leaders will support them when they hold boundaries with clients.

Empower staff. Putting new client service procedures in place will only reduce stress if firm leaders are willing to advocate for their teams when needed. Teach staff to reset client expectations when needed, and support them when they do so. Empower staff to have control over their work by fostering an ownership mentality. Describe what that looks like in terms of the service attributes established by the client feedback program. Allow staff to explore and innovate other ways to deliver on those attributes.

Share positive feedback with staff. A lack of recognition can be a factor that contributes to burnout. Firms can help staff feel recognized by sharing the positive feedback that client feedback systems generate.

By using information from a client feedback system in a people-first manner, firms can help create a culture in which staff are less vulnerable to burnout.

Carrie Steffen is co-founder and president of The Whetstone Group Inc., a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based consulting firm dedicated to using the right tools to help CPA firms grow their people and their topline in a smart, focused way. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com

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