It's trite to say listen to your customers. Yet I’m surprised at how many companies say, “We know what customers want.” No surveys, no market research, nata. If that is what you really believe, all I can say is “Good Luck.”
For those who do try to listen, many use a customer survey. The net promoter score* (NPS® a registered trademark of Fred Reichheld, Bain & Company, and Satmetrix) approach is widely used and accepted despite some criticisms. But that doesn't mean it and similar surveys are well used in many applications. For example, in a recent experience the net promoter scores were high but there was clearly some dissatisfaction reflected in the comments.
Some of the comments were critical of individuals by name: not in a vindictive way but in what should have been viewed as constructive criticism. But that made it very hard to provide feedback that everyone would listen to, especially those whose names were mentioned. As a result, the feedback got watered down. In another example, one executive insisted that many customers would never provide positive feedback and certainly not a “promoter” rating (9 or 10). This despite substantial evidence to the contrary. In my experience, a customer who doesn’t provide a strong rating always has a reason…and we should try hard to find out what it is.
This type of behavior is particularly concerning for smaller companies and those with a relatively small number of customers. In these cases, every interaction with a customer is critical and feedback that identifies even one issue is valuable. Furthermore, it's very important to act on this feedback, otherwise customers will stop answering surveys and wonder why they're being asked.
One common mistake I've seen in net promoter score surveys is to ask the NPS question but not ask the appropriate follow-up. My favorite follow-up question (which I can't take credit for) is, “If you can’t rate us a 10 what would it take for you to rate us a 10?” This open-ended approach can yield surprising insights. Other open-ended questions such as “do you have any other suggestions or comments?” can also be useful: sometimes a person who answered with a 10 will still have a suggestion or comment. Of course, this means going through the answers one by one but it's worth the effort.
There is another major pitfall to watch out for. I've seen this more with larger companies but there are smaller companies that have fallen into the same trap. They ask the net promoter score question but in the context of customer service: for example, a telephone call or website chat. In this case, if the answer is based just on the service experience, the company is missing what may be real sources of dissatisfaction. Here is an example from the other day. I had to call Verizon with trouble on my phone line. I had to go through a long phone tree in order to reach a person. And this was after I had tried to reach a person or at least find the right contact number on their website. Once I did reach a person, she was very nice, professional and helpful. And while she had to go through her protocol of steps, she did fix my problem. So when I got the survey to rate her service, I gave her high marks. But to their credit, Verizon had an “other comments” box after that rating where I indicated that their troubleshooting process could be improved substantially by avoiding the long phone tree where it isn’t applicable. Whether they act on my suggestion or not isn't the point. The point is that customers evaluate a company based on their entire experience not just the customer service interaction.
In a time when customers’ expectations continue to be ratcheted up by Amazon and other firms, small and medium-sized businesses need to do everything they can to raise their game. Doing surveys and acting on the results is the single best way I know for any company to improve its customer retention…and pave the way for new customers.
* Per SatMetrix: Net Promoter Score®, or NPS®, measures customer experience and predicts business growth. This proven metric transformed the business world and now provides the core measurement for customer experience management programs the world round.