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Obtaining Useful Customer Feedback

Do you know what your customers really think about your services? Many of the surveys I've reviewed for clients are flawed in such a way as to prevent the collection of useful feedback.

The following articles will help you assess and improve your feedback processes.

Feedback Gathering: A Process, Not an Event

In many organizations, feedback gathering is viewed as an isolated, ever-so-occasional activity, such as a survey or focus group. The activity is often treated as an end in itself rather than as a means to understand and respond to customer needs. Not only is it an end, but it's often an incomplete end; a great many organizations which gather customer feedback do nothing with the information they've obtained.

For example, in one company I visited, the division had conducted a customer satisfaction survey which revealed that customers were dissatisfied with certain aspects of the group's performance. In particular, many customers felt the service group didn't understand their business needs. Not a trivial issue, right?

When I asked the manager what his customers actually meant by this grievance, he said he didn't know and confessed that no follow-up had been done with customers to learn more about their complaints. Worse, no steps had been taken to address the concerns customers had raised. When was this survey conducted? More than a year earlier!

I wish I could say this type of situation is unusual, but it's not. In fact, in many organizations where I've asked those who have conducted surveys what they have done with their findings, the answer is a point blank "Nothing!"

The implications of doing nothing

This failure to take action is much worse than just a lost opportunity; it can be a major step backwards in building client confidence and respect because, having been asked for their feedback, customers then watch for changes to take place as a consequence of their feedback. And when they watch ... and watch ... and watch, and see no attention being given to their feedback, they question whether those who requested their feedback are really listening to them or just going through the motions.

Make no mistake about it; gathering feedback and taking no action based on the findings can be more deleterious to your reputation than not gathering feedback to begin with.

The process for developing a process

To be successful, feedback gathering must be viewed not as an event or activity, but as part of an ongoing process of building and maintaining strong, effective relationships with customers. The starting point in developing a feedback gathering process is to address the following questions:
  • What are your objectives? Is it to assess client satisfaction? That's the most common objective, but it is not the only possibility. You may also want to keep track of what clients describe as important to them. You may want to know what's changing in their environment that could affect your ability to serve them. You may find it helpful to identify the pressures they are experiencing. You may also want to periodically reassess whether they really understand the nature and scope of your services. If you are positive they understand your services, you could be in for a surprise.

  • When should you gather feedback? Possibilities include: at the start of a new customer relationship, periodically throughout your working relationship, at selected checkpoints during a lengthy project, during times of significant stress or service related changes, when redesigning client services, and at the first sign of client dissatisfaction.

  • How do you want to gather feedback? Do you want to use surveys, interviews, focus groups, periodic meetings, gripe sessions, dropping by for casual chats? No one method alone is sufficient. A well-thought-out feedback process includes a combination of methods, each used where it will be most effective.

  • Who should participate in the feedback-gathering process? Members of your own organization? Outside service providers? What about members of the client groups from whom the feedback is being gathered? One of the best examples I've seen involved participation by clients in gathering feedback from clients.

  • What will you do with what you learn from your feedback-gathering activities? Will you assess the need for service changes? Will you seek additional feedback to clarify ambiguous responses? Will you communicate your findings to your customers? Will you do ... nothing???

There is much more to keep in mind in developing an effective feedback-gathering process, but these questions provide a good starting point. I'll be addressing the elements of a feedback process in more detail in future issues. In the meantime, let me know what other questions or concerns you have. I value your feedback.

Copyright © 2003 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Five Frequent Feedback Flaws

If organizations really want customer feedback, why do they make it so difficult for customers to provide that feedback? Here are some examples of common flaws and how to avoid them:

1. Requesting feedback irrelevant to the customer

At a hotel I stayed at recently, I was satisfied with all the items listed on the feedback form: quick check-in, clean room, and so on. However, unlike in most hotels, the peephole in the door was over my head. Way over my head. When you're my height, such things are important. How am I to follow the hotel's advice to look out the peephole before opening the door to visitors if I can't reach the peephole? Customers can give top ratings to the attributes you consider important and still be dissatisfied because you've fallen short on the attributes they consider important. If you want satisfied customers, find out what they consider important, and invite them to rate your services on those attributes.

2. No space for feedback

In addition to asking customers to rate the items listed, many feedback forms invite customers to add their comments. Some of these forms provide plenty of space for comments – provided customers write in a one-point type size! A request for customer comments is a key element of a well-designed feedback form. Given lots of blank space, customers often fill in extensive amounts of high-quality commentary. However, it's counterproductive to request comments and then not provide adequate space for them.

3. No time to think about feedback

I got a call from an office supply store I often shop at. The caller said he was conducting a survey, and asked what I liked and didn't like about his store. I told him I could give him better feedback if I had some time to think about it, and asked him to call back the next day. He said he would, but he didn't. I guess he wanted feedback only from those who'd provide it on the spot. Some people can instantaneously retrieve information from their mental databases. Many other people need time. Whatever method you use to solicit feedback, try to give respondents ample time to reflect on your questions. The quality of feedback you get is likely to be worth the extra time.

4. Inconveniencing customers

One of my favorite feedback forms is from a restaurant whose form is a postcard that requests responses to several questions. The instructions on the postcard state how important the feedback is – followed by the reminder: "Don't forget to affix a stamp before mailing." Instead of returning the postcard, I saved it and now use it in the feedback segment of my courses as an example of how not to solicit feedback.

Few enough people fill out feedback forms to begin with; most won't bother if they have to pay for the privilege of doing so. To maximize the amount and quality of feedback you receive, make it as easy as possible for customers to respond. If you ask dissatisfied customers to inconvenience themselves to inform you of their complaints, you've just given them one more thing to complain about!

5. Not responding to feedback as promised

I received a mail survey from a hotel shortly after staying there. One item on the survey asked if I had any complaints. I did, and used the space provided to elaborate. Another item asked if I'd like someone to contact me about my complaints. I checked the "yes" box. It's been about three years now, but I'm waiting patiently.

It's a measure of sophisticated service to offer to contact customers about their grievances. Doing so tells customers that you value their feedback and want to set things right, and this evidence of concern can keep customers who might otherwise take their business elsewhere. But by not calling me as promised, this hotel fell lower in my estimation than if no such promise had been made. Don't offer to contact disgruntled customers unless you really mean to do so.

As for me, I'm still waiting.

Copyright © 2003 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Six Suggestions for Successful Surveys

Customer surveys can be extremely useful – or a colossal waste of time. If you'd prefer the former to the latter, here are some suggestions for planning and administering your next survey.

1. Set survey objectives.

Is your intent to learn about customer preferences? Their perceptions of your responsiveness? How they are using your products? Multiple objectives are fine, but define those objectives before you start, or you'll end up with a list of questions that are unanswered because they were unasked.

2. Keep survey length under control.

A survey should be only as long as it must be to collect essential information. Avoid nice-to-know-but-so-what questions. A well-designed survey can be completed in less than ten minutes. More than that, and customers will either dump it or fill it out haphazardly, either of which can lead you to draw unwarranted conclusions from the responses you do manage to collect.

3. Make the survey action-oriented.

Surveys are often full of thermometer questions. For example, "Did you enjoy our restaurant?" is a thermometer question. Responses may suggest the existence of a problem, but provide too little information for you to understand the problem or recommend changes. If, instead, you ask about the accuracy of the order, the quality of the food, and the courteousness of the staff, you can use the responses you receive to plan a course of action.

4. Use both open-ended and closed questions.

Closed questions ask respondents to select from a set of fixed responses. Respondents can answer these questions quickly, and responses can be tabulated, summarized, graphed, charted, analyzed and reported. Open-ended questions, by contrast, ask respondents to answer in their own words. Responses take time to review and are subject to interpretation. However, open-ended questions frequently provide a level of insight into the customer perspective that is impossible to obtain from closed questions. When organizations ask me to evaluate their surveys, I often recommend the use of more open-ended questions.

5. Ensure an adequate survey response.

Let's face it; eagerness is not a word most people associate with completing a survey. To generate interest, set the stage by publicizing the importance of the survey in helping you improve your service effectiveness. Explain your objectives and how quickly the survey can be completed. Marketing, publicizing and promoting the survey can dramatically influence the level and quality of the responses you'll receive.

6. Tell customers about your survey findings.

Customers sometimes wonder if you do anything at all with their surveys. If you want them to believe you're really listening to them, inform them of your findings and changes you'll make as a result of their feedback. When you implement customer-suggested changes, announce that you're doing so because of their feedback. Don't overlook this essential element of providing feedback to customers about their feedback to you.


Karten Associates
Randolph, Mass., USA

Copyright © 2003 Karten Associates. All rights reserved.