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How (NOT) to Gather Customer Feedback that Instigates Positive Change

Sometimes, if you really want to know what your customers are thinking, you just have to ask. I launched an experiment earlier this Spring meant to help three retail businesses garner these kind of insights. We set up physical comment boxes in all of their stores, and posted signs inviting them to “text the manager” (I was simultaneously testing a customer feedback service for a software buyers’ guide I write).

My overall goal was to see if the stores could receive enough feedback to instigate the following changes:

  • Workers would improve their behavior because customer feedback was more transparent and immediate.
  • Managers could use the feedback to create incentives (e.g. the store with the best, or most positive feedback would be rewarded).
  • The feedback would provide insights that could be used to make changes that would improve the customer experience.

I left the signs and comment boxes out for a total of four weeks. Between four bicycle shops, one ice cream store, and three burger joints we only received five comments. This wasn’t enough to affect anything. This bad news was worse when I started to read the comments.

“We love your store!” Nice to hear, but not really useful for any of the goals I wanted to achieve. After the experiment was over, I took a step back to try and find out what went wrong. I called customer feedback experts and asked for their ideas on how I could have garnered more actionable feedback. Here’s what they had to say.

Enforce a Customer-Feedback Centric Culture
One of the biggest reasons the experts thought my experiment failed was that I didn’t properly prepare staff. I interviewed several employees and managers for each store after the month was over. A few reported customers asking about the signs, but it was clear they did not have a process in place influencing these interactions. They were not invested in getting or using the data.

If the culture isn’t built in such a way that people know they are the first line of defense for customer feedback, just making the service available isn’t going to change anything. Management needs to enforce rules and expectations. This could be something as simple as verbally explaining the service to customers as they check out, or are walking around the store. And of course, responding to feedback when it is received.

Creating the appropriate procedures and culture for leveraging customer feedback isn’t exclusive to the in-store experience. Companies should make sure it is obvious for customers where on their website they can submit customer feedback, be that from a form, surveys or another request. Creating context is the most important factor. The customer needs to feel like there’s benefit to them in providing the feedback, as in you will take their feedback and implement real changes.

Correct Bad Experiences in Real Time to Increase Customer Loyalty
Customer feedback shouldn’t just be used as a data set. It can also uncover bad experiences in the moment, and provide an opportunity to correct them.

Think, for example, when you’re eating at a restaurant. A good waiter will ask a few minutes after receiving your meal whether everything arrived okay, and if there’s anything else they can do to improve the experience. If your order was wrong or cold, you could let them know at that moment and the waiter could correct the issue. This would not be the experience if the restaurant asked as you while walking out the door, or emailed you a week later. Sure, you could still let them know about the cold food, but they can’t actually do anything about it.

This same concept extends beyond the dining experience. In my experiment, for example, one comment we did receive in a text message said, “no one talked to me the whole time I was in the store.” The manager could have responded at that moment apologizing and emphasizing that that’s not how they want their customers to be treated. Then, he could have provided a coupon, or other incentive to come back and allow them to correct that experience.

Look for Opportunities Beyond Just Measuring Customer Satisfaction
When I started the experiment, I assumed that companies used customer feedback primarily to measure and benchmark satisfaction. While many companies do use survey and feedback technologies exclusively for this purpose, I learned that this kind of goal really limits the value of generating the customer feedback in the first place. After all, what do you actually gain from learning whether satisfaction is improving or declining if you don’t know what you can do about it?

To gain insights other than overall customer satisfaction, you have to ask more specific questions. In my experiment, the ice cream store could have asked “What kind of flavors would you like to see this summer?” Or the bike store could say, “What clothing brands would you like to see in our stores?”

Answers to these questions can provide more specific points of feedback the business owners could have used to change what they are doing. But you would also need to know if these suggestions actually improve the customer experience. Would more flavors or brands actually influence more customers to buy from you?

Instead, companies should work to determine the causal relationships and key drivers that lead customers to buy from you. Once those are determined, you can ask for feedback around those specific drivers in the right context, and to the right customers.

How does your company generate actionable customer feedback? Join the conversation with a comment here.