Since the mid-1980s, Makovsky & Co. has been monitoring client relationships by asking account managers for written feedback. That practice has helped the 16-year-old New York City public-relations agency identify problems before its clients do. But in 1992 founder Ken Makovsky started asking his customers for their input, too, using a detailed questionnaire.

"I realized that our evaluations were too one-sided," says Makovsky, who wanted to measure clients' perceptions about the agency's ability to generate media results, manage a budget, and perform as a team. The survey asks customers pointed questions, such as "Are we giving you your money's worth?" and also queries them about individual account team members.

Makovsky asks small clients for feedback once a year, while large, complex accounts are surveyed twice yearly. Everyone involved with the project receives a questionnaire and a letter of explanation. Makovsky & Co. team leaders typically follow up with a phone call to the roughly 50 clients to encourage them to complete the questionnaires. Ken Makovsky estimates that 65% do so.

The survey process, which Makovsky says is time-consuming and sometimes painful, has elicited candid feedback from customers. In the past some problems were never brought to light until it was too late. One client, for example, had worked with Makovsky & Co. for five years and then coldly invited the agency to rebid on the expired contract. It didn't get the bid, but Ken Makovsky did call the client -- only to discover that the president had never liked the account manager. "A lot of clients won't pick up the phone and tell you that," says Makovsky.

"With the survey we found out some things we wouldn't have found out otherwise," he adds. For instance, about the staff member Makovsky considered a star, who was panned by a client. Or about the assistant account executive whose contributions fell off the company's radar, but not the client's. "We didn't realize that she was so valuable," says Makovsky, who promoted her to account executive. It has also cleared up simple misunderstandings. In one case, an international client, which was habitually late paying its bills, needed the invoice rerouted through its U.S. division. Suddenly, 90 days turned into 30.

With an average of three client reviews coming in each month, Makovsky has set up a forum to handle the feedback. At a monthly meeting, teams meet with senior managers and a consultant to discuss the survey results. Three months later, the team reports back about how it is addressing problems. The results for the company have been an improved client-retention rate -- it's up 20% from the prereview years. And 22% of the company's $5.4 million in net revenues now come from client referrals.