Building Client Relationships: The Fine Art of Listening and Providing Effective Feedback

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Robert L. Finder Jr.

Clients need a good listener, one who says:  “Please tell me more.” Those four simple words will do more to reveal important and relevant information about your clients than anything else you can do or say.

Is that all there is to becoming a great listener? “Please, tell me more,” is a good start, but you have to master another challenge: restraint.

Don’t interrupt. No matter how much you want to, don’t. Never, not even to establish common ground with your client. “Oh, I know how you feel. That happened to me and let me tell you,” or, “I have a lot of clients who have gone through the same thing.” See how easy it is to stumble at the expense of your client? Establishing common ground and common experiences are, of course, useful in building strong client relationships, but they can be more effective later. If you don’t exercise restraint, there may not be a later.

Don’t lose your focus. Don’t start rehearsing what you’re going to say when your client finishes. I know you can walk, chew gum, and do an entire juggling routine at the same time, but listening and thinking about what you’re going to say next doesn’t work. You’re going to miss something, perhaps a lot of important somethings. And turn off those distractions—your cell phone and CNBC—hold your calls and stop thinking ahead to your next meeting or plans for later in the day. Stay focused on the present. Stay focused on your client.

Don’t start checking your mental Rolodex of questions. Again, it requires you to work too hard and you have too much to lose in terms of information that your clients want you to understand. There will be time to ask questions. Now isn’t that time. Try, instead, “Please tell me more.”

Don’t interject your opinions and don’t disagree orchallenge your clients’ thinking. You may be vehemently opposed to their position or reasoning. You may have proof positive that their information is mistaken or erroneous. You may have strong convictions that you feel obligated to express. Now is not the time. This time is about the client.

Don’t filter what you hear. Professionals often have the mindset of Sergeant Joe Friday, from Dragnet, focused on “just the facts ma’am.” You have to take it all in like a factual and emotional sponge. You’ll have the opportunity later to wring out the relevant information, but until then, soak it all up—facts, feelings, emotions, ideas. Because good cops and good professionals take nothing for granted.

Don’t go into “solution mode” as soon as yourclient has revealed an issue that you’re more than ableto address. You don’t have to pick the lowest hanging fruit. You’ve either not done your job, nor served your client well if you’re satisfied with a token victory. Exercise patience and in time you’ll cultivate and harvest a bushel of opportunities.

You’re halfway home to becoming a great listener if you can exercise the requisite restraint, but you have to master another challenge: feedback.

Positive, genuine attuned feedback—at the right time after your clients have fully expressed themselves—fosters discovery and builds trust, while negative or half-hearted feedback impairs the quality of client relationships, or worse, keeps relationships from developing. How is your feedback?  Is it unresponsive, superficial, workmanlike, or attuned? How can you tell?

Unresponsive feedback is devoid of any material recall and acknowledgment of anything your client says. It consists of content-free, meaningless, and frequently repeated utterances such as “I see,” “Sure,” “Really,” “Terrific,” and “That’s great.”

Superficial feedback attempts to acknowledge what the client says, without specific reference to what was said, and is delivered in a manner that lacks sincerity and empathy: “That’s interesting.” Or consider the effect of “I know what you mean.” It’s not about knowing what your clients mean; it’s about letting them know that you remember what they said.

Workmanlike feedback is a sign of competent listening with specific references to stated facts, feelings, and opinions that your clients have shared with you. But workmanlike feedback lacks the creativity associated with accurately paraphrasing what you heard. When you paraphrase, you explain what you heard, not in your client’s  words, but in your words, words that capture the essence of what the client said, only in a more organized and logical manner.

Attuned feedback is complete, deep, and responsive to what your clients say and how they feel. It is selfless feedback, completely client-centric, with no place for personal interjections and comments. It’s empathetic listening of the highest order. It’s not judging or evaluating or trying to interpret what is or isn’t important—it’s about unconditional attunement. It captures the client’s feelings, not only their words but emotions as well.

What else can you do to improve your feedback even more?

Take your time. Your clients won’t be upset with your few seconds of thought and reflection before receiving your feedback. They’ll find it refreshing. Pausing to think is perfectly fine when you’re actively listening or speaking. What’s the rush? There isn’t any, but when you’re ready to offer your attuned feedback, leave no doubt that you listened with your mind, your eyes, and your heart.

Eliminate awkward, repetitive,and annoying words. These include prefaces to your feedback such as: “So if I heard you correctly,” “Let me see if I got this right,” “What I think you’re saying.”

Use a simple requestto expand onyour attuned feedback: “Please tell me more about your parents.Their beliefs and values clearly left an indelible imprint on your life.”

Feed it allback to them. By repeating what they have said, you let your clients know beyond a doubt how much of what they have to say matters to you.

By providing attuned feedback, your clients will realize that you’re different from all the other professionals they’ve encountered. They’ll realize that you walk the walk, not merely talk the talk about caring about them. They’ll realize you made the interaction about them—as it should be, as every client wants it to be.

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