The foundation of the client driven practice is feedback and guidance from your target clients. One of the primary ways we obtain that is through the creation of a client advisory board. Like in any relationship, trust and reward take time and care to build and can be easily destroyed. I will discuss two of these, both having to do with criticism.
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Critical comments are the source of almost all the value you can derive from a client advisory board. It's nice to have your best clients tell you all the ways they appreciate the things you do well. But warm fuzzies are not worth the kind of investment you will make in organizing and conducting your advisory board. Uncovering those things the clients want you to do differently, or to add, is solid gold. Incorporating those client wants and needs puts you on the direct path to having a client driven practice.
But like anything of value, they are hard to come by and easy to lose.
Clients are uncomfortable saying critical things. They like you. They value their relationship with you. Besides, you just bought them a nice dinner. They don't want to hurt your feelings. So getting those unspoken wants out on the table is your first challenge. The first secret is to "seed the audience." When I conduct client advisory boards, I always want a curmudgeon in the room. This can be tricky. You don't want this to become a bitch session. But you need to have someone who is not afraid to tell you what you need to hear, even if it risks hurting your feelings.
Finding that right person and framing the conversation to elicit constructive critical comments (and not complaints) is one good reason to use a professional facilitator. A better reason is that it takes you away from the front of the room and puts you in the group. It is much easier for a participant to communicate a concern to an independent party they have no relationship with than it is for the client to say it directly to you. And outside facilitator also enables you to be at the table with the other participants. You're not separated from them, you are part of the group – you are one of them.
Once a critical comment comes out, the group, including you, can discuss it. Once the participants observe your interest in discussing these kinds of comments, and your openness to consider changes that would resolve them, the ice is broken. The participants now understand that they have permission to bring out the concerns they are naturally reluctant to say. Jackpot.
The other way you can inadvertently shut down the process is and how you respond to those comments, once uncovered. The wrong response is perfectly natural, and our facilitators have observed it dozens of times. For example, if a client says "this other advisor provides these services way better than you" we have seen many advisors respond with a version of "let's review why we provide this service this way, and if you think we should change it we can discuss it." Although subtle, the message here is "you are wrong, we know how to do this" and stifles the conversation. However, an experienced facilitator knows to respond. The correct approach is to seek additional information. Something like "what do you like most about how that other advisor does it? Can you think of any ways that other advisor could do it even better?" Imagine the treasure trove of information you can uncover!
Running a successful advisory board is a little art and a little science. And, just like with investing, to do what is counterintuitive, to resist the natural human tendency, is what produces success.