For most of corporate history, most companies haven’t really wanted to hear from their customers.
Not that the opinions of buyers didn’t matter; of course, private enterprises have always thrived (or not) based on satisfying consumer desires. Companies for decades ran focus groups and test markets, and of course monitored sales success.
But—as long as things were going reasonably well, they didn’t go out of their way to solicit feedback. Actually, they made it quite difficult. Prior to widespread Internet adoption, it often took the investigative skills of Sherlock Holmes combined with the determination of Oprah Winfrey to even find an address or phone number for a corporate “customer opinion” department.
Actually reaching a human being was even more challenging. Some consumer products companies would send out generous free product vouchers to anyone whose letter (positive or negative) reached them, just because it was so unusual.
The Internet didn’t change things much, at least initially. Companies now included generic email addresses (i.e., email@example.com) on their websites, but input didn’t seem to have much of an effect and responses (if a response was provided) were generally canned and non-committal.
But the situation did begin to change about 10 years ago. Yelp, founded in 2004, began to get traction. The first research studies were released showing that online reviews could affect sales. Web searches for “online reviews” took off, doubling between July 2008 and January 2011. Bloggers started writing about how online reviews help with SEO.
Within a decade, eons of business practice were reversed. Suddenly, companies went from not caring about anything you had to say to caring about everything related to your experience. At first, people found this newfound interest flattering. They really CARE about my experience? Sure, I’ll fill out a survey!
But as the “we need your feedback!” communications (emails, automated phone surveys, text messages…) have proliferated, they’ve become annoying. Spend a weekend shopping, running errands, and maybe getting the car serviced, and you may well end up five, six, even 10 desperate emails in your inbox on Monday morning. How did we do? We want your opinion! We need your feedback!
Now, the opportunity to provide (relatively brief) feedback on significant purchases is still appreciated by most consumers and B2B buyers. But companies have gone over the line, in many cases, in two ways: asking for feedback too often (really, Best Buy, you need to know about my “shopping experience” because I stopped in to pick up a $30 Ethernet switch?) and for feedback that is too detailed.
I don’t often go off on rants, but as Shep Hyken recently wrote in Forbes:
Today, 89% of companies compete primarily on the basis of customer experience – up from just 36% in 2010. But while 80% of companies believe they deliver ‘super experiences,’ only 8% of customers agree. In other words, companies have a long way to go…Everything a brand does (plays) a role in shaping the customer’s experience.”
Customer experience is really important. Screwing that up in the process of asking customers about their experience is colossally stupid.
How to Ask for Feedback: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Here’s a bad example. I recently called Geek Squad for support. They were very helpful and resolved my issue. The support experience was actually excellent. But the experience of providing feedback about my support was awful. They sent an email pleading for my opinion ,so I clicked on the link. Here is the fourth screen of their online survey (first off, no survey should have four screens of questions):
The fifth screen was pretty much the same. I don’t know how many screens there were in total; I shut if down after the sixth screen of questions.
Excel Energy managed to outdo that one. Even shrinking down the display size in my browser to 67%, I could not get the entire survey onto one screen. They sent out a technician to replace a noisy fan in my furnace. He did a fine job. It would take longer to complete this survey than it took him to replace the part.
And seriously, they couldn’t have pre-filled a few fields (name, address, appliance serviced date, etc.) with data they should already have?
One more over-the-top bad example: Guitar Center. I like the store, but their satisfaction survey is out of control. Check out this image. This is the third screen of their survey form, and the customer is at this point 6% done with it.
Who does it right? Sam’s Club. Their feedback form is three questions—plus the option to provide more information if you’ve really got something, good or bad, to tell them. THIS is how to structure a customer experience survey:
And they actually read the feedback. I recently responded with a suggestion about how they could cut the nine required clicks every time one fills up at their gas pumps to one click (which makes a big difference when you’re pumping gas in Minnesota and it’s 30 below zero with a howling wind).
The local store manager responded the next day, saying it was a great idea and she would pass it along to the home office. Now, I’m not holding my breath for Bentonville to actually implement my idea, but the local manager’s responsiveness was impressive nonetheless.
How to Ask About the Customer Experience Without Wrecking the Customer Experience
Basically, show respect for the customer’s time. Let them know you value their feedback, but understand they’ve got lots of other things to do. Specifically:
Make it matter: Don’t send surveys too often or for trivial purchases. If you’re Best Buy and someone buys a new laptop or a big flatscreen TV from your store—sure, send a survey. But for a $20 wireless mouse or some earbuds? Skip it. Keep in mind you aren’t the only vendor sending surveys to this individual.
Keep it short.
(See what I did there?)
Make it actionable: For each question, ask yourself first: what specific action will I take or what practice will I change based on answers to this question? If the answers don’t prompt change, they are just superfluous data. Drop those questions.
Prefill known information: Don’t ask for data you should already have, like date or service or product purchased. (See Excel example above.) It annoys the recipient and makes you look incompetent.
Offer options: Walmart does a great job with this—ask a few quick questions, but give the customer the option to answer additional questions or provide more information if there’s an issue. If you really need to use a longer survey form, offer an incentive, such as a gift card, for completing the whole thing.
Don’t misuse the data. Most customer service reps (CSRs) are smart, diligent, helpful people. But all are human, and therefore none are perfect.
When consumers hear stories of managers berating, denying bonuses to, or even firing CSRs for not getting 5-star ratings across the board, they generally respond in one of two ways: they either stop completing that company’s surveys, or they just give up and answer with 5 stars for every question so as not to get the CSR into trouble.
Either destroys the usefulness of the feedback. If I have a minor problem with a company’s service, I should be able to report that without worrying that I’m wrecking a CSR’s day, or worse, livelihood.
Also understand the reasons for the rating. A CSR may get rated less than five stars for reasons that have nothing to do with his or her competence or performance. Most Comcast CSRs, for example, are smart, helpful, and friendly. But the company’s phone tree is an exercise in frustration seemingly co-designed by Franz Kafka and the Marquis de Sade.
Customer experience matters. Understanding what works and what can be improved is critical to optimizing that experience. Just be careful not to let bad measurement practices ruin a good experience.