Criticism — even the constructive kind — can be hard to take. But used properly, client feedback offers you an invaluable opportunity to improve your service levels.

“Think of it as a business-building exercise,” says Richard Heft, executive director of Toronto-based Ext. Marketing. “Client feedback can tell you what parts of your practice are working and identify those that need improvement.”

The feedback process can also reveal unmet client needs, says Sara Gilbert, founder and business consultant, Strategist Business Development, Montreal.

“When you survey your clients, ask what more you can do for them,” Gilbert suggests. “What are their insurance and estate-planning needs, for instance? That information can move your business ahead.”

Feedback also provides an opportunity to solidify your client relationships, Gilbert adds: “It shows that you care what they think and are willing to consider making changes based on their input. On the other hand, if people don’t discuss their concerns with you, they may simply leave.”

Here are some tips for getting useful feedback from your clients:

> Decide between in-person and anonymous questions
For the best results, assess your clients individually to determine whether they’re likely to respond better to an anonymous or in-person questionnaire.

Some people believe it’s better to get feedback directly from a client so you can ask follow-up questions, if necessary. Says Rosemary Smyth, a Victoria-based business coach for financial advisors: “If someone says their statements were difficult to read, you can ask if the print was too small. Or was it because the holdings weren’t divided into asset classes?”

Gilbert suggests you avoid telephone feedback. “People often multitask while they’re on the phone so it’s harder for them to focus. In person, they tend to be more present, which facilitates a deeper conversation and better feedback. You can also see their body language, which yields additional cues.”

Some clients may be uncomfortable critiquing you to your face, however, says Heft. “You will get more honest answers and a better response rate if you keep it anonymous.”

> Go Where Your Clients Are
Adapt your approach to surveying clients and prospects based on demographics, Heft says.

“For younger clients who spend lots of time online, use a Facebook page or SurveyMonkey type of tool,” he says. “You can create a microsite with a new question each month. Older clients who are more comfortable with paper would probably prefer to get a questionnaire in the mail.”

> Keep It Simple
Don’t ask too many questions: five to seven is sufficient, says Heft. And make them easy to answer so it takes no more than five minutes of the client’s time.

> Follow up
After you get client feedback, use it to create an action plan, Gilbert says.

“Decide which areas of your practice you’ll work on and put a plan in place to implement changes,” she says. “Then, communicate it to those who provided the feedback. That shows you were paying attention and care about what they said. It builds trust and improves the likelihood that they will offer feedback in the future.”

> Say thank you
“People are doing you a favour by taking time to answer your questions,” Smyth says. “So, be sure to thank them.”

Heft suggests you offer a small gift, such as a coffee card, for completing a survey. “It will improve your response rate and provide another touch point when you send it. You can include a note saying, “Let’s get in touch and talk soon.”