Face up to client feedback: pin back your ears, bite your tongue, and learn

Seeking feedback can seem like exposing your soul: you’d really rather not. (© Matt Thompson, 2018)


The biggest obstacle to asking for client feedback is fear.

It forces you to confront your insecurities and guilty secrets, and that is terrifying. No doubt about it, inviting criticism is hard.

Your brain reels in alarm. What if your clients realize that you’re winging it?  What if their other architects are able to do things faster, cheaper, better? What if, despite your best efforts to hide them, your weaknesses have roused suspicion or, indeed, are an open book? What if your loose grasp of the budget and seat-of-the-pants project management have been spotted?

Then the psychological fight-back kicks in. Your clients aren’t exactly faultless. They have no idea what they want. They’re hard to get hold of. They expect two months’ work in two weeks. They wonder why the drawings used to secure planning consent can’t be used to tender for contractors. They’ve screwed you on fees so don’t deserve anything better anyway. They make it harder at every turn. Idiots.

While pretty natural, this kind of polarisation is at the root of the so-called blame game. If you criticize me then I’m going to criticize you worse (but still take your coin).

It is deeply unnecessary, unhelpful and, in the context of client feedback, misses the point.

For what it’s worth, just as everyone has their strengths, they also have their weaknesses. Everyone.

Good news is, by the time you become an adult, your strengths outweigh your weaknesses – or you’ve plugged the gap in some other effective way, like hiring in (or marrying!) people with compensating skills.

Bottom line, if you’re in business and people are giving you profitable work and occasionally coming back for more, you’re doing OK. You’re bound to be less good at some things than others – professional practice is, after all, extraordinarily demanding – but on balance, it’s not stopping you get work.

In fact, the whole point of client feedback is to winkle out these weaknesses so that you can fix them to be even more successful.

Nonetheless, you say, the one-sidedness of client feedback grates. It leaves no room for you to ventilate your side of the story.

Time to get zen, I say. Unless you’re talking to your insurers or at a tribunal or in court, the only person who needs to be reminded that it takes two to tango is you. Put it aside, and instead learn from the intelligence.

Mathew Syed analysed the anatomy of the blame game very readably in his book ‘Black box thinking’. Leveraging the good example of the aviation industry with its black box recorders (a metaphor of feedback), he spells out how important it could be for medical practice – and of course the lessons hold true for other professions.

It doesn’t matter who was responsible so long as we learn from it. What matters is not killing passengers or patients. Same sort of thing in architecture, but less dramatic, obviously.

Where negative feedback really is unfair, don’t discount it. Work out whether some upstream action could have prevented it. Did you miss the chance to forewarn the client about common setbacks? Did you misrepresent the uncertainty in the project? Did you miss the early warning signs that, had you acted on them, might have nipped the unfairness in the bud?

Where the negative feedback is fair, was it a one-off or is it, if you’re honest, part of a pattern? How can you fix it? Does it require training, or a tweak to your workflow?

Where the feedback is positive, what made it so positive? Was it case-specific or can it be applied to your practice’s working culture for the benefit of all staff? Can you make some marketing or PR capital out of it? Can it be used to incentivize existing staff and to attract new talent?

The potential benefits are extensive.

The important thing is to have lots of comparable data from many clients. That way, instead of one-off incidences, you can see trends. This information gives you unparalleled insights into how you are perceived by your market of clients, brand information that can be leveraged for growing your business.

The Listenback system aims to do just that. By measuring the factors that really matter to clients, its simple feedback tool allows you to collect longitudinal data to direct your business development plans.

The marginal gains that ensue just might just tip the balance next time you go for a contract.

Time to kick down those psychological defences, pin back your ears and find out, not what you’re doing wrong, but how you can get better.


If this sounds worth a shout, join Listenback today. It is a web-based client feedback benchmarking tool and consultancy for UK architects. We are currently looking for practices willing to partner with us to test the tool’s use and functionality.

If you are interested in participating, please get in touch with Matt Thompson at matt@listenback.co.uk

#savvyarchitect #clientfeedback #clientexperience #racetothetop #clientsatisfaction #keyperformanceindicator #buildtrust #valueofdesign


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