Please don’t feel too bad – research shows that the majority of professional firms have not implemented formal systems for client research! However, like all things you need to know what you are trying to achieve before you start a research programme.

Reasons for research

There are many reasons why you decide to embark on client research. For example:


You may wish to know the extent to which clients are satisfied with different aspects of your service. This research will help you identify your particular strengths and weaknesses, identify areas where improvement is required and set a benchmark against which future progress can be monitored. Often the results will provide input to client care, service improvement or major client management programmes.


For your marketing programmes, you may wish to discover how clients perceive your firm and then check the results of your internal perception. This type of research is valuable for brand and positioning studies.

Share of work

You may wish to learn more about how your clients use other advisers so you can assess the share of work you have and to identify ways in which you can generate more work from that client. This might be input for a cross-selling initiative or a major client/account management programme.

Tender debrief

If you have attempted to win new or additional work from a client and been unsuccessful, you may wish to research the reasons for your failure and to learn how to improve your success at tendering in the future

Potential clients and referrers

Of course, you may be very familiar with the way your clients think but need an insight in how you are perceived by potential or target clients or by key referrers and intermediaries

So the first thing to do is be clear of your research objectives, the particular issues you wish to explore and how you will use the research results

Research methods

A first step might be to encourage fee-earners to undertake some informal research. For example, simply asking fee-earners to ask clients regularly what the firm could do better and capturing the responses is a good start.

Research is a vast area in its own right (you could try contacting the Market Research Society for more information). However, for a brief overview:

Method Advantages Disadvantages
Postal questionnaire
  • Cheap
  • Reach wide audience
  • Quantitative results good for benchmarks
  • Impersonal
  • Low response rate
  • Unlikely to obtain a representative sample returned
  • Unlikely to obtain subjective comments
Electronic poll
  • Cheap and quick to set up
  • Good for a specific issue or topic
  • Low response rate
  • Limited range and number of questions
Telephone interviews
  • Cheaper than face to face meetings
  • Relatively fast to set up and operate
  • Can use agencies (with scripts)
  • Limited to around 15 minutes in length
  • Lack of eye contact and NVC
  • More difficult to create rapport
One-to-one face-to-face interviews
  • Relationship enhanced
  • Easy to detect issues and explore them
  • Generates large amount of subjective information and opinions
  • May disclose information not willing to write down
  • Expensive (time and travel)
  • Takes time to set up and conduct
  • Clients may not be prepared to give up their time
Focus groups/client panels
  • Several clients at once
  • Networking and discussion benefits amongst attendees
  • Cross selling benefits
  • Wide range of areas covered
  • Difficult to co-ordinate
  • Needs an experienced facilitator
  • Confidentiality and openness compromised
  • Control issues

There are many other methods that can be employed. Sometimes it is a good idea to combine methods. For example, a postal questionnaire to gain a broad feel of perception or satisfaction and the issues explored further in telephone or face-to-face interviews. Alternatively, identify the key issues with group discussions and use postal or electronic means to gauge the reaction over a wider audience.


You should consider what systems you should implement to ensure that research is undertaken in a regular manner. For example, some firms always issue a postal questionnaire at the end of a transaction or when a bill is issued. Some firms have a programme where a selected number of clients are interviewed each year. Others have client management programmes or service agreements where a client interview takes place each year.

How to conduct the research

Of course, the research can be undertaken by your own people and this has the advantage of strengthening professional-client relationships. However, this means that you might have to invest in training for your fee-earners and provide support in helping them undertake the research. Furthermore, it may be difficult for your clients to talk openly and honestly with fee-earners they have worked with for many years.

Using an external and objective researcher is an option. However, you must ensure that you have prepare a detailed brief and obtained an estimate of the costs and confirmation of the agreed outputs. You should also ensure that the researcher is familiar with your market, your type of work and your firm. The researcher should be experienced at conducting the type of research you require with the types of clients you have nominated.

A major issue with using an external researcher is that often partners will be protective of their clients and may decline to nominate them (or provide access to them) for the research programme. This makes it vitally important that the proposed researcher and the research programme is carefully communicated within the firm and people have the opportunity to air their views and concerns.


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As always, if there are particular topics you would like me to address in the future, please let me know. You will also find a source of more and up to date information on a broad range of management and marketing issues in the professions by checking out the blog where I also post regular reviews of books that might be helpful.