The Value of Customer Feedback

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By John Lonsdorf, President, R&J Public Relations

I recently had three separate instances where a company with which I had just completed a sales or service interaction asked me to answer a survey to let them know how they were doing.  Great!  Companies can gain quite a few insights on customer needs, satisfaction and which aspects of their experience they valued the most, simply by asking.  Customers are usually flattered to be asked for their insights, and more than happy to provide their thoughts.  And as anyone who knows me would attest, I tend to have opinions about…well, about everything.

But wait.  ALL of the three requests carried an explicit request – one might even call it an instruction – to “give us all fives, because anything less is considered a failure on our part.”

What?  You’re telling me that on a scale of 1 to 5, where a “4” would count as “very good,” anything but a “5” is considered a failure?  Really?  In what universe?

Moreover, I was asked directly by the person who provided me the service to participate in this outrageous grade inflation farce.  Anyone who took Psych 101 would tell you that this created a de facto, if unspoken, social compact between the two of us, whereby I would be betraying the trust of a fellow human being simply by reporting that my customer experience was anything but exceptional.

This led me to think of the role of customer feedback.  By asking explicitly for “all fives,” these companies gain nothing of any value from this forced and artificial “customer feedback.” Is it that these three companies don’t really care?  They don’t honestly want to know?  Or have they conspired to hoodwink the public into participating in a marketing scam – “Look at our tremendous customer satisfaction scores!” – under false pretenses?  Regardless, these companies (and I suspect many others) are cheating themselves out of potentially valuable feedback and wasting company resources on what amounts to a sham of a survey.  And yes, I AM going to name names here:  the three companies I am writing about are Wells Fargo Bank, Ford Motor Company, and Houlihan’s restaurant chain.

Let’s start with a simple premise:  Honest feedback can provide a business with tremendous insights about what their customers need, want, care about, and value the most.  Collecting, processing and acting on customer feedback can help a business create additional value for their customers.  Smart companies will use this feedback to help them better understand what’s working and do more of that, and (perhaps even more importantly) figure out what’s not working so they can fix or discontinue it.  Used appropriately, honest customer feedback can be a foundational tool for business improvement.

A company’s goal in soliciting feedback should be clear: Every time you get feedback, whether it is negative or positive, companies should use this data, chart areas of particular success or deficiency, and gain valuable insights into what is working and what is not.

The typical argument against soliciting good, HONEST customer feedback is the hackneyed phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  I would argue that it’s impossible to really, truly know if something isn’t working as well as it should for consumers without looking as objectively as possible at the interaction through the lens of the customer’s eye.

So here is the challenge to companies that solicit customer feedback at the time of, or shortly after a transaction:  Use this as an opportunity to honestly assess how you’re doing.  Encourage customers to be honest and candid in their responses.  Be reflective and introspective when assessing your customers’ feedback.  And then, if something, some process or some phase of the customer experience, is not achieving what you want it to, use that feedback to propel change.

And stop asking me to automatically give you all ‘5’s.  It’s annoying and a waste of your time and mine.

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