Vocalabs Newsletter: Quality Times

Issue
98

Do You Want Positive Feedback or Honest Feedback?

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Do You Want Positive Feedback or Honest Feedback?

Which would you rather have: Positive customer feedback, or honest customer feedback?

Most people would probably say "both," but it's not always possible to have both. If the honest customer feedback isn't positive, then you can only get one or the other.

So when forced to choose, I would generally prefer honest feedback over positive feedback. As long as the person giving me feedback isn't being cruel or demeaning, I would rather hear about ways I can improve than get my ego stroked. At least that's what I say, and what the rational part of my mind thinks. In reality, hearing negative feedback can be hard, even though it's also much more valuable.

I think most business leaders would probably agree with me: it's better to get honest feedback from customers than positive feedback.

But the real-world incentives at most companies don't support this. Incentives based on customer feedback are always designed to encourage positive feedback, not honest feedback. That's because it's easy to measure how positive the customer feedback is, but almost impossible to measure how honest it is.

Where companies base bonuses and compensation on customer surveys, this leads to a perverse incentive to get customers to give higher scores no matter the customer's actual opinion. Is it any wonder that survey manipulation is so common?

The problem is that when customers don't give you the straight story, the feedback has no value. You might as well not do the survey at all if you can't get honest feedback.

So what's the solution?

The first step has to be to stop undermining yourself. If you give employees incentives to only deliver positive feedback, stop that.

That probably means you shouldn't be using survey scores for employee bonuses at all, since it's difficult-to-impossible to create an incentive system that encourages honest feedback.

The next steps are much harder. The goal is to create a culture where customer feedback is seen as constructive criticism and an opportunity to improve. That will require significant effort coaching employees in how to listen to customers without becoming defensive or negative.

But if your customer surveys are biased towards giving you positive, rather than honest, feedback, then you're not getting any value anyway.


What Are Your Goals?

Before you get into the nuts and bolts of designing a survey program, spend some time sharpening up what you hope to accomplish. A good understanding of the business goals of the survey will really help figure out the right sampling, questions, channel, and reporting. A lot of the time when I hear companies say they want to do a survey for the purpose of collecting customer feedback, it really means that they haven't thought a lot about what they plan to do with the feedback once it's collected. It's like saying you want to do a survey for the purpose of conducting a survey.

The basic ingredients are straightforward. Most surveys have as their goals some combination of:

  • Tracking metrics: Requires using a very consistent set of survey questions with a random sample selected to give an acceptable margin of error for calculating metrics. 
  • Improving the performance of individual employees: Requires targeting the survey sample to collect adequate feedback on each individual employee, asking open-ended questions about the experience, and delivering the feedback to front-line supervisors in real time. Recorded customer interviews are particularly valuable.
  • Identifying customer pain points: Requires a lot of open-ended questions and potentially additional follow-ups. Customers should be invited to tell their stories.
  • Testing or validating changes to the customer experience: Requires careful attention to test and control group samples, and a consistent set of metrics for the different test cases (see A/B Testing for Customer Experience).
  • Persuading the organization/leadership to make a change to the customer experience: Requires collecting a valid statistical sample that supports the proposed change, as well as persuasive customer stories which will carry emotional weight with others in the organization. Recorded customer interviews are particularly valuable.
  • Providing individual customers a chance to be heard: Requires offering the survey very broadly, even if that means a low response rate or far more completed surveys than would otherwise be needed. A robust closed-loop process is not optional

So for example, if you've never done any transactional feedback before, your goal is probably going to be mostly about identifying customer pain points (i.e. trying to find out what you don't know) with a dash of tracking metrics thrown in. That probably means asking a couple of tracking questions and a lot of open-ended questions, and a random sample in the range of 400 completed surveys per reporting segment (enough to get a 5-point margin of error).

But if your goal is more directed to improving employee performance, things will be different. You will want to bias the survey sample to ensure each employee gets enough feedback to be useful (which also means un-biasing the sample to calculate metrics). You will probably also want to use customer interviews rather than automated surveys, since a recorded interview with the customer is much more effective at changing behavior than written comments and statistics.

Whatever your goals are, the most important thing is to have them. Surveys done for the sake of doing surveys tend to not be very useful.

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