Vocalabs Newsletter: Quality Times


Rethinking Surveys

I hear a lot of negative things about customer surveys. I hear that customers don't like them, that response rates are down. I hear that customer surveys rarely yield actionable insights. I hear that the data doesn't help the front lines of a company improve, and that there's little apparent connection between what employees do and the survey scores they get. I hear that the survey questions aren't relevant to the business, and that customers don't feel like the company is paying attention to their feedback.

The dirty secret of the survey business is that, for a lot of survey programs, all these things are true.

For this 100th issue of Vocalabs' newsletter, it's time to take a few steps back and rethink customer surveys.

Why Bother with Customer Feedback?

So many feedback programs don't seem to deliver that it's fair to wonder whether surveys are worth doing. I've advocated for companies to simply pull the plug on bad survey programs, especially ones that are subtracting rather than adding value.

And yet most businesspeople would agree that customer feedback is important. And it's not customer feedback if it's not coming from a customer: we don't yet have the magic technology that lets us figure out what customers are thinking without actually asking customers.

At Vocalabs we have a number of success stories of how our clients used customer feedback effectively, leading to customer experience improvements, better decision-making, and reduced cost. Every single client of ours which has applied the basic principles of Agile Customer Feedback has seen substantial long-term improvements in customer experience metrics. We know customer surveys can work, and we know how to build an effective feedback program.

So why do so many surveys fail to move the needle?

Rethinking Customer Feedback

The traditional model of a customer survey is simply the wrong approach if your goal is to improve the customer experience:

  • Where most surveys focus on measurement, an effective feedback program is about communicating with customers.
  • Where the goal of most surveys is generating statistics and metrics, the purpose of an effective feedback program is development and improvement.
  • Where most surveys rely on analysis for insights, an effective feedback program recognizes that people learn through rapid, relevant feedback.

Understand Your Goals

If the goal of your customer feedback program is to drive change and improvement in your organization (and in most cases, it should be!), it needs to be designed around that goal. But most surveys are designed first and foremost as measurement tools, not change/improvement tools.

Measurement is a perfectly fine goal, but it's a relatively low-value activity. And if measurement is what your survey is designed to do, you have an uphill struggle to make it fully effective at driving improvement. In the same way that you don't expect your accounting system to drive product innovation, it's important to use the right tool for the job.

A customer feedback program designed to help your organization change and improve will look very different from one designed primarily to generate scores and metrics:

  • The survey will ask different questions. A survey designed to drive improvement will focus on more open-ended feedback and asking customers to tell their stories, rather than asking them to rate the experience. This qualitative feedback is far more effective for coaching employees and persuading the team to take action.
  • The survey will deliver real-time targeted feedback. In order to make the customers' feedback most effective the survey process will deliver individual survey responses directly to the front-line managers so they can provide that feedback to employees in the moment, rather than days (or even months) after the fact. This immediate feedback will change behavior in a way that stale statistics can't.
  • The survey will seek out feedback where it's most needed. There's limited value in knowing that a customer was completely satisfied. It's much more useful to know what you can do to improve. In every organization there's places where customer feedback is more helpful, such as training a new employee, understanding why some customers are struggling to get their problems resolved, or getting insights into why a customer left. It's more useful to get more in-depth and detailed feedback from these customers than to get your entire customer base to rate you on a scale from zero to ten.

Having a customer feedback process designed for change and improvement doesn't mean you have to give up metrics. Instead, the metrics become a side-effect of the survey, rather than the main focus. But that's as it should be: taking a metric-centric approach to customer feedback is exactly what causes a lot of problems with surveys in the first place.

We Know This Works

We know this approach to customer feedback works. We've seen it in action with several of our clients. We know that when you make a sincere effort to listen to customers and engage with them, they will be happy (sometimes eager) to provide you with detailed feedback. We know that when you use direct feedback from customers to appeal to employees' desire to do a good job, they will respond far more than if you offer a monetary bonus for hitting an arbitrary numerical score. And we know that when you change your company's focus from metrics to customers, good things almost always happen as a result.

If you're interested in exploring this in more depth, we have a couple of whitepapers for some additional reading:

We at Vocalabs are always ready to discuss what this might mean for you in your organization. Please contact us if you want to begin that conversation.

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