The struggle for feedback

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I came across the following article I wrote in an earlier part of my consulting career (I was much thinner then).  Without knowing it at the time, I foreshadowed a lot of reflection that I use now as an executive CX consultant and Fractional CCO.  At the time my practice was mainly focused on training clients and facilitating workshops in Lean Six Sigma and Agile Project Management among other topics…mostly more transactional than the larger and more strategic work I do with clients these days.  Nonetheless, I think it is a microcosm of the concept of seeking and acting on feedback wherever you can.  I use it still as a consultant and encourage my clients to do the same in their own VoC programs.  I’ve lightly edited and updated some parts.  Enjoy.

When I was a full-time employee, I received sporadic feedback.  Annually my supervisors were obligated to give me year-end feedback, usually tied to my bonus and raise.  In the Air Force (even in the part-time Reserves, where I currently serve), yearly Officer Performance Reports (OPRs) are obligated by regulation.  (There’s usually a perfunctory-at-best, although just as obligatory by the books, midpoint feedback required, which is usually done at about the point that a supervisor realizes someone’s OPR is coming due.)  Point being, if you are an employee, periodic progress-checks and supervisory counsel come simply as part of the landscape, even if only once or twice a year, and even if it’s going through the motions.  Even the least helpful boss is required at some point to tell you how you’re doing or at least how you did.

This is not the case at all in the world of consulting.  When I was delivering workshops as an employee, I’d always say, “If you have criticism, please let me know.  If you have praise, please let my boss know.”  Well, since I am my boss now, I need both.

Often one’s only insight into his client’s satisfaction is repeat business.  But that’s not always a reliable gauge either:  If your skillset is so rare or esoteric, your client may have no other choice but you even if you stink.  You go back over and over and fill up your calendar.  On the other hand, not hearing back or not being invited back may be a reflection on bandwidth or even their budget, and may not necessarily be a sign that they’re dissatisfied…sometimes they’re not giving you the brush-off; they’re legitimately busy.  Other times, that niche need you filled is now taken care of and you’ve somewhat literally worked your way out of that job.  Oddly, that’s a good thing.

And while immediate feedback (“That was a good presentation.” “Thanks!  We’d love to have you back again.” “Great insights, we’ll use this!”) is usually generally positive, it often comes with a tinge of inflation, and rarely is it actionable.  People are on a high from just having learned something new (hopefully!), or spending an interesting (again, hopefully!) day away from their usual grind.  Besides, who’s going to be comfortable coming right up to you after a day- or even two-day-workshop and say how awful it was?

I’ve taken to building a standardized survey in SurveyMonkey that I send to my sponsor after every engagement.  I like it because the results come directly to me and I can see all the information unfiltered after an event.  I usually just send it to the one point of contact at my client’s site and allow him or her to disseminate it as seems appropriate.  This keeps me from having to solicit contact information from each attendee.  I’ll just copy a link, title it with the name and date of the engagement, and send it along.  Make sure to allow free-text boxes for each question to allow your clients the opportunity to offer broader insight than simply a ranking from one-to-five how useful the engagement was.

That’s good as far as it goes, but what’s much trickier, however, is soliciting feedback from people who don’t hire you in the first place.  And that can be much more important (and surely sometimes more valuable).  Not long ago I didn’t get a gig that I felt completely qualified for, and for which the stars seemed to be perfectly aligned.  It called for exactly my skillset, was very short-notice, and I just happened to have availability that close in, when I wouldn’t have imagined many people with these qualifications would have.  But then I got the worst feedback you can get:  Silence.

It tore me up not to even hear back, so I asked a mentor what he thought.  His advice was simple and sage (as usual):  Why don’t you just ping your contact and ask?  So I did.  With the most gentle and respectful of short emails, I thanked my would-be (would-have-been?) sponsor for the opportunity and asked what it was that kept us from moving forward.  Within a day of having sent my message, I received a pleasant and similarly short email back with a straightforward explanation, and even better, it was something I had the power and skills to address.  I didn’t get that job, but not only did I fill the gap that was missing for it, but also maintained a positive relationship with the organization.  Ideally, this will potentially lead to another opportunity with them, but my certainty is that receiving (and of course acting on) that feedback will definitely result in more work with other potential partners.  And all because I asked for that feedback.

So whether you’re a multinational conglomerate or a solopreneur (or naturally anywhere in between), always be eager to receive feedback, and always be prepared to act on what you learn from it.

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