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A few years ago, my Silicon Valley advisory firm was stuck in the annual cycle of time-consuming, backward-looking and mostly ineffective process of performance reviews.

Employees were split over whether the feedback was useful, and the information we got out of the reviews didn’t come close to offsetting the amount of work that went into gathering and distributing them. We wanted a better sense of how our people were doing on the job. That way, we can provide them with the kind of helpful input that will motivate them to keep up the good work or provide training if they need to improve a particular skillset.

A fortuitous Harvard Business Review article, some tinkering of its premise, and an incredibly easy-to-use survey platform changed one of the main ways we evaluated our employees — and our workforce, the firm, and our clients are better for it.

Feedback that’s timely, credible

The 2015 HBR article by Big Four firm Deloitte outlined how the firm did away with traditional performance reviews after realizing they weren’t demonstrably keeping employees engaged or performing their best. The new approach involved the adoption of only four statements to evaluate their employees by. Inspired by this simple rating system, we started researching what would work for our firm of finance and accounting professionals, as well as our clients’ receptiveness to helping us gauge how our people are doing.

By 2016, we had developed an easy way for our clients to provide feedback on the individuals and teams we send to their offices. Typically at the end of an engagement, our online survey tool emails clients asking them to rate the professional’s performance on a scale of one to five stars. Depending on the rating, they will be served up a follow-up question, asking what in their view would bring up an employee from, say, a three-star rating to four-star rating. Or, for those receiving a five-star rating, they could be asked why they rated an employee so highly. That’s valuable information about the clients’ preferences and feeds our understanding of what makes for a great accounting pro, including core job expectations and soft skills.

At that point in the survey, the clients can choose from a list of skills for making those improvements and provide comments. For example, a client could click on a box that says the staff person could have a better “professional client presence,” or work on “remaining poised and professional when facing resistance or challenges.”

Unlike a manager-employee meeting, this feedback’s credibility is unassailable, as it’s based on a concrete, specific experience from an objective third party. It’s also timely — the assessment is made right after the completion of the assignment, when people’s minds are fresh.

Even better, the individual gets more feedback more often, since the ratings are received periodically, not annually. (For long engagements, we may send the survey to clients before everything’s wrapped up.) It’s clear what the person’s strengths and weaknesses are as well as their overall job performance. And in the rare event that someone receives a negative rating, we can respond quickly as the tool enables us to follow up immediately with both the client and staff.

What we’ve learned

Because of its ease of use and flexibility, a similar approach can be used by other firms. Here’s what I recommend:

  • Shop around. There are many survey platforms on the market, and although we love the particular tool we selected, the survey vehicle isn’t as critical as finding what works for you. We chose one that would give us a way to track progress over time. By looking back over someone’s history, we spot consistency in performance or question why there’s a dip.
  • Test it with a few clients. Explore your clients’ willingness to participate. I tested the new online surveying tool with a handful of clients to see how they liked it before we rolled it out.
  • Keep it simple. By making the tool easy to respond to and easy to interpret, our response rate is high (60 percent), and the evaluations can be used in various ways. Our clients can use it to rate a team or an individual, and we can use it internally to evaluate each other. We’ve also used the client review data to calculate our overall client satisfaction rating.

One piece of the performance puzzle

We all need a push now and then. We may need confirmation that we’re doing what our clients hired us for — and going above and beyond whenever possible — or we may need a dose of constructive honesty to improve. Our firm has found while using this feedback tool that those who are good at their jobs tend to know it, but appreciate getting feedback, while others are spurred by the feedback to do better.

The tool is one of many ways we check in with our staff. They also fill out a self-assessment form and participate in a follow-up meetup with their manager at least once a year. These meetups are designed to be discussions, rather than formal meetings, with the intent of exploring the consultant’s overall journey at RoseRyan. How are they doing, and what can the firm do to help them succeed? We also have positive shout-outs that recognize outstanding work and performance metrics that guide our professionals on how they contribute to our firm’s growth.

All of the information we gather, whether it’s what clients tell us or what the consultants do, aims to keep our workforce engaged and inspired to bring their best self to every job. And with high client satisfaction ratings, we know it’s working.

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Employee retention Practice management Employee engagement Employee productivity