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Increasing the Effectiveness of Client Surveys

May 14, 2012

Accounting firms can learn some surprising things when they take the time to survey their client base, beyond just a broad indicator of how pleased they are with the service they receive.

Tom Cates, president of the Brookeside Group, has done client surveys for Deloitte in the past. He used to survey Arthur Andersen’s clients as well before Andersen’s demise a decade ago. His organization also conducts surveys for professional services firms such as consultancies and wealth managers, along with major corporations such as General Electric.

“What you’re finding with most of them is that they’ve been through the generic satisfaction research over the years and find it doesn’t really predict the business behavior they’re looking for anymore,” he said in an interview last Thursday. “When I started in this business 20 years ago, satisfaction was probably the best tool everybody had out there, and it was a pretty good predictor of whether somebody would buy from you again or give you more than your fair share. But the reality of it was not that they were so satisfied with your product, it was that they were so dissatisfied with everything else.”

Cates recalls various business management trends over the years such as quality circles, Six Sigma and ISO 9000, but he believes that most surveys that measure customer satisfaction only look at whether the business delivered the product or service it promised. “What’s happened over the last decade or so is that people have found increasingly that those tools don’t work so well,” he said. “Dissatisfaction is a great predictor of disloyalty. If you don’t deliver what you promise, I will leave, but simply because you’ve delivered what you’ve promised doesn’t mean I’m going to stay or give you more business.”

His firm instead conducts customer surveys based on the notion of professional services firms becoming trusted advisors. “Much of what we do now for our clients is help to measure that aspect,” said Cates. “And that’s tricky.”

He points out that accounting firms can’t compete as commodity businesses, and instead firms need to measure how they’re perceived as trusted advisors. When clients perceive professional services firms that way, the amount of business they give the firm goes up about  two and a half times, according to Cates, and the share of business they give the firm can go up to 50 percent.

Brookeside, based in Acton, Mass., will encourage firms to do a self-assessment in which they rate the relationship with the client and then ask the client to rate the relationship with the firm. Brookeside will send the self-assessment to the account manager at the firm and show him the blind spots where the clients do not think they are getting what they need. “A lot of the value we bring is we make the people aware of how they’re actually perceived,” said Cates.

Brookeside surveys six aspects of how a professional services firm is perceived by its clients: integrity (including ethics, reliability and dependability), competency, recognition of the client’s importance, proactivity, savvy and chemistry.

“Ninety-nine percent of the professional services firms really do pride themselves on being client focused,” said Cates. “To be a good consultant, accountant, or wealth manager, you have to have a certain chemistry or DNA that says, ‘I’m here to support someone else.’”

Comments (3)
Thanks for the comments David, some examples for you to consider: First thing, too often firms, whether Big 4 or sole proprietors, get caught up in simply measuring client satisfaction and get excited when they score a high percentage of "very satisfied clients". They then kid themselves into thinking their clients are loyal. The client is supposed to be satisfied...that's what they paid you for (of course its nice to know you are satisfactory but that's not a great long term position to be in). If you want true loyalty that grows your business you have to know if they are motivated to stay with you - that's a very different emotion, that's a Trusted Advisor.

We recommend to all firms (large and small) that they conduct an annual "Relationship Assessment" survey of all their clients. This survey is designed to measure those six dimensions at a higher, relationship level. Typical questions would be "My accountant value long-term relationships over short-term gain" (a measure of Integrity), "Anticipates and addresses potential issues before they come up" (Proactivity), or "Helps me navigate the internal dynamics of my institution" (Savvy).

Of course how you ask the questions matters, as does how you interpret the results. I'd be happy to offer more examples if they'd be helpful - feel free to shoot me an email at or call at 978-266-9876.

All the best, Tom
Posted by tcates | Monday, May 14 2012 at 5:26PM ET
One example that he provided during the interview was of asking where you fell short in helping the client. Also to survey about competency, and whether the client perceives the accountant as competent.
Posted by MikeCohn | Monday, May 14 2012 at 11:20AM ET
Interesting perspective. How about some examples to help us non-Deloittes fashion effective surveys?
Posted by Daid B | Monday, May 14 2012 at 8:59AM ET
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