During the 1980s, the mayor of New York City was the famous and outspoken Ed Koch. One of the interesting facets of his tenure was his affinity for asking his constituency, “How are we doing?”
To his success, this three-term mayor asked the citizens throughout the five boroughs to solicit feedback about the local government’s performance. Just as there would not be in today’s hyperexplosive political environment, no shortage of opinions was offered to Koch. However, it was not his asking of the question that mattered, so much as his responsive action, and the same is true for business owners.
Think about how often our opinions are asked of us as voters, consumers, residents, etc., versus how often that feedback is truly heard and acted upon. The voice of the customer is one that often creates panic and fear in the hearts of many business owners. Businesses exist to serve the customer; without them, there is no business.
In competitive niche markets, customers have options and often vote with their money, creating turmoil in pricing models and delivery options. Primarily due to fear of the answer they will receive, many companies steer clear of asking customers the question, “How are we doing?” To those companies, no news is good news, and ignorance is bliss.
However, if you are not actively utilizing feedback, you must realize that there are businesses out there willing to ask the uncomfortable question, and any great competitor will use this as a leverage to demonstrate their capabilities. Great organizations realize that feedback is an essential gift to drive superior, long-term performance.
No one likes surveys. They can be tedious, intrusive, time-consuming and, most importantly, they can leave the customer wondering what’s in it for them. Most people see little to no return on their time investment, especially when no improvements result from their feedback. Why should they take a survey that serves only you?
Sure, customers might win a gift card, but in reality, there is little upside when the business will most likely take no action as a result of this questionnaire. Still, surveys are important, and they are effective for business growth when created, carried out and acted upon with purpose.
First, it is important to create a simple, user-friendly survey. No one wants to hear, “This survey should take approximately 20 minutes to complete.” Limit your questions to several key drivers:
- How well did we communicate with you during this project?
- Did we meet your expectations on schedule?
- Did we drive value throughout our processes?
- Would you use our company again?
Whether it is a yes/no or Likert scale, the questions should be direct and tied to the values of the firm. A question about scheduling is perfect, especially for a company engaging in many fast-track projects. Even if a business only engages in hard-bid projects, there is great value in receiving this feedback. For instance, questions might provide insight on safety or operational issues facing the business. Productivity could be enhanced through feedback on crew sizes and the efficacy of crews and equipment.
Additionally, there is an overreliance on electronic surveys. If a business is failing to receive feedback, it is important to ask specific questions about the surveying strategy, such as:
- Is the survey too complicated?
- Do we follow up with the customers?
- Do we send too many surveys to the same customers?
- Should we use interviews instead?
- Should we use a self-addressed, stamped postcard or other more personal means?
Regardless of the survey vehicle, it is critical that a company communicates with the customer. Whether the feedback is positive or negative, companies have an obligation to respond to the customer—not only thanking them for taking the time to provide this gift, but also demonstrating a willingness to make changes.
There should be a process to adequately handle critical feedback. One example might be creating a mandatory visit by the chief executive officer (CEO) or president with the customer in situations where feedback scores are below a certain level. It is not meant to be retaliatory, and a contractor should never become defensive when they see critical feedback, even if they believe it is false. Rather, it should demonstrate a sincere willingness to listen and, most importantly, serve as a call to action internally. When a customer sees the fruits of their labor manifested in the form of a strategic change, they are more likely to respond the next time. Sending your client base 10 emails each quarter while implementing zero improvement strategies is the quickest way to drive a wedge in customer relations.
While feedback helps companies manage strategic improvements, it is also important that this data is used to provide a scoreboard internally. Imagine the impact of a company being able to say, “According to our customer research, we have a 98-percent approval rating amongst our peers, which is 16 points higher than the industry average.” In a world that routinely talks about data and numbers, how many organizations actually transform the data into marketing leverage? Once again, while they do sell and create believers, it is important to realize that the benefit of gathering customer data is not some stodgy set of metrics, but the nuggets of business knowledge that customers share about what they like and dislike about your company, showing you how to retain those believing customers.
Lastly, it is important to have an internal feedback loop that is constructive. While it is easy to fixate on the negative feedback and how to improve in the necessary areas, it is important to also create chatter around the positive responses. Companies that only discuss the negative will quickly create a fearful culture of customer comment cards. Celebrate the wins and use those testimonials as internal evangelism. Customer feedback is a gift, and, done correctly, serves as a sounding board for your business’s overarching strategy.