Great Ideas: Don't survey customers - learn from them

Written by PROFIT-Xtra

Most customer surveys are a waste of time, according to customer service consultants Chip Bell and John Patterson. In Customer Loyalty Guaranteed: Create, Lead and Sustain Remarkable Customer Service, they contend that it proves nothing if most of your clients claim in a survey that they’re happy doing business with you. That’s because more than 75% of customers who’ve switched to a rival firm did so despite having rated themselves as “satisfied” or “completely satisfied” with the previous firm on customer surveys.

The problem is that most people say they’re satisfied even if they’re not. After all, it’s easier to tell a little lie than get into a potential confrontation with you by explaining why they’re unhappy with your product or service. Think of the diner who, when the waiter asks how the meal was, smiles and says “Fine” — even when she has just vowed never to return. It’s not the complaining clients you’re most at risk of losing; it’s the quietly disappointed ones who’ll abandon you as soon as a competitor promises a slightly better experience.

So what to do? Bell and Patterson advise you to focus on customer learning (asking them to help you solve problems), not customer feedback (asking them to evaluate you). Their advice includes:

  1. Give your clients a reason to teach you: Most customers have no particular interest in instructing you about what they think of your service. It’s incumbent on the student (that’s you) to give them some reason to provide you with a quick lesson. In return, you should commit to report to them on the improvements you’ve made as a result of what your clients have taught you. And you must keep that promise.
  2. Train your customer-contact people to ask open-ended questions: Learning begins with a spirit of openness. If customers feel free to move the conversation as they see fit, they’ll gravitate to areas that matter to them. You’re far more likely to learn something useful by asking questions such as “What are ways we can€¦?” or “How would you suggest we€¦?” than by asking clients to, say, rate your customer service on a 10-point scale.
  3. Be open to client intelligence from many sources: The security guard’s assessment of the demeanour of a departing key customer can be more instructive than focus groups or surveys. And talking with a customer you lost last year might be more helpful than with the one you acquired last week.
  4. Share customer learning throughout your company: Use whatever method works for you. A dairy company in Connecticut posts customer suggestions on a giant bulletin board for all to see, while an insurance company in Texas posts its clients’ ideas on a special section of its corporate intranet. The key is to let as many of your employees as possible — as quickly as possible — know what your customers think.
  5. Keep your eye on what clients do, not what they say: When Moen was designing a new line of showerheads, it opted against a traditional customer survey. Instead, it hired a market-research firm that got permission to film people taking showers in their own homes. This revealed widespread dissatisfaction with existing showerheads. People spent 50% of their time in the shower with their eyes closed and 30% avoiding the water altogether because they were unhappy with some aspect of the water flow, such as the pressure, drop size or shape. Moen applied this learning in its Revolution showerhead, giving consumers “infinite adjustability” so they could fine-tune the flow to their individual tastes. The new product was a hit.
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