Client surveys can feel like a routine exercise: you release a short questionnaire, tally the results and decide how you will respond to the findings. But as useful as written surveys are in revealing trends, they are limited in their ability to provide deep insights.

"Surveys are sent out to test the waters, to get feedback on where the relationship sits," says Evan Thompson, founder and business coach at Evan Thompson and Associates in Toronto.

So, instead of treating your written surveys as the full extent of your client-feedback program, you should use them as a starting point to further engage clients in a more informal, unscripted way.

Here are some ways you can make your client-feedback program more effective:

> Organize a focus group 
Tap into the opinion of a cross-section of your client pool by hosting a small forum. You can develop a questionnaire to guide the discussion, which explores how clients feel about the level of service, says Adam Schacter, financial planner at Mandeville Private Client in Ottawa.

For example, Schacter's firm periodically hosts a "client counsel," which involves inviting a select group of clients to discuss their experiences.  

"Some people feel they're not getting enough ‘touches,' " Schacter says. "Some people think they're getting too much. It's good to get a general gauge."

Feedback from sessions such as these can then be used to streamline your processes to reflect your clients' preferences.  

> Hold a town hall meeting
After you have reviewed the results of a written survey, Thompson says, consider opening up the floor for a follow-up discussion. You can invite clients to ask questions and take the opportunity to inform them about how you plan to account for issues raised in the survey.  

A town hall-style event allows for a more in-depth discussion and demonstrates that you're listening to your clients' concerns, Thompson says. It also might help you build on ideas for improving your client relationships. For example, Thompson says, clients might reveal in more detail how they feel about the issues that keep them up at night.

Thompson admits that it can be unnerving to face a roomful of clients, who may raise sensitive issues. "It takes a knowledgeable advisor to pull that off," he says. "It's not for everybody. You have to have faith in your team and your competence."

> Address thorny issues
With fees and advisor compensation a top concern for clients, you should make an effort to assess their understanding of the new regulations. Use the survey as a tool to clear up any misinformation or address ambiguities, Thompson says.  

For example, he suggests, you might ask if you've done a good job at explaining their performance and if they understand their statements.

"Fee compensation has always been the ‘elephant in the room.' They really have to completely understand how the advisor is paid," Thompson says. "It takes courage to ask these questions."

This is the first part in a two-part series on client feedback. Next: Common mistakes  in conducting client surveys.

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