This article first appeared on HBR.org.
I have studied a lot of customer feedback systems in the 25 years I've spent working with companies on customer strategy. Many of them leave me sad and befuddled. So many companies make the same mistakes over and over.
The leaders of these companies seem to want to hear from their customers—that’s why they spend so much money on elaborate "voice of the customer" and other feedback systems. But the approach many of these companies take to implementing such systems seems almost as if it were designed to ensure nobody in the organization will actually learn anything from what they hear. And if employees don’t learn anything, how can they take action to make things better?
If I were writing a “how-not-to” manual for customer feedback—a manual that would guarantee your feedback system taught your employees nothing about how to delight customers and earn their loyalty—here are the five rules it might include:
1. Aggregate the feedback into scores, percentages, and averages—and stop there. This common mistake completely obscures any individual customer’s voice and prevents employees from linking the feedback to a particular event, behavior, or action they can remember. Yet there’s something irresistibly seductive about numbers that seem so rigorously mathematical. "Congratulations! Customer satisfaction increased 0.431% this quarter! Great job!" Of course, most companies try to figure out what drove the improvements by breaking down each summary score into dozens of "drivers," but the typical result is that employees get lost in a sea of analysis and numbers. In fact, this becomes much worse when scores decline. That’s when the analysis really gets overwhelming.
2. Hold the feedback. Many companies distribute summaries of what they hear from customers six, eight, or even 12 weeks later. This is a byproduct of the first rule because turning customer feedback into statistics usually requires aggregating it for several weeks in order to collect enough observations. All that analysis and reporting takes time to assemble, too. How well do you remember each of the many conversations and interactions you had six weeks ago? Chances are your employees don’t either—which makes it awfully tough for them to remember what they did that might have contributed to variations in their customers’ feedback.
3. Eliminate the human voice. How often have you taken a company's survey because you wanted to register your annoyance (or delight) with the company’s actions, only to discover that none of the questions seemed like they really addressed the issue on your mind? Too many companies ask customers to rate their performance on a predetermined list of factors—typically offering many prompts covering every conceivable element of the company’s product or service. Multiple-choice questions are convenient for your company to process and analyze, but they impose a burden on your customers. More importantly, they don’t give customers a chance to share their feedback in their own words. Do you know better than your customers exactly what issues they face and how they should describe them?
4. Ensure that there’s a lot at stake. If you want your employees to focus maniacally on customers, what better way than to put money at stake, right? But tying people’s compensation and promotion prospects to changes in your customer-satisfaction metric doesn’t focus them on customers; it focuses them on a number. And, as I've discussed before, that can lead to a lot of behaviors that might be maniacal but are not customer-focused. More often than not it leads to begging customers for higher scores or discouraging angry customers from providing feedback. It’s also likely to prompt debate about the basis for the score every time employees or departments are off-track for meeting their goals.
5. Never close the loop with customers. Historically, the vast majority of customer feedback was anonymous. It was collected in a "market research mode," which meant no one could follow up with individual customers to address their issues directly. The flawed logic behind this was built on a belief that customers would not share honest feedback unless their identity was kept secret. That might be true in some circumstances, but in my experience, it's rare. Anonymity in customer feedback is, frankly, overrated. People want to be heard. They want their feedback to be acknowledged. They want to know that the time they invested sharing feedback meant something and was acted on. Closing the loop is essential to building lasting customer relationships, and it is an invaluable opportunity to dig more deeply into the details of what delighted or enraged them. It offers an opportunity to begin digging into the root causes of customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction to uncover policy problems, issues with product design, or other pesky issues that require cross-functional collaboration.
Of course, no company intentionally follows this "how-not-to" rulebook. And yet, like me, I bet you have seen at least one company that follows all five of these rules, and maybe more.
The truth is, creating an organization that really listens to its customers—what many call a customer-centric culture—is difficult. That’s why so many companies have moved from traditional customer satisfaction approaches rooted in a "market research mode" to customer feedback systems deeply integrated into daily operations. Real-time feedback from "voice of the customer," the Net Promoter SystemSM, or other feedback mechanisms can deliver customer responses directly to the employees who need to hear them, soon after they took the actions that generated them. This sort of closed-loop feedback makes it easier to learn from experience. I dare say that a good deal of what accounts for the popularity of these approaches is the frustration many leaders feel about how little their employees have been learning from customers.
If you want employees to learn from customers, don't follow the traditional approach to customer satisfaction measurement. Make feedback a part of your daily operations. Deliver the feedback directly to the employees who need to hear it. Focus your company’s customer listening efforts not on measuring more precisely, but on learning more effectively.
Rob Markey is co-author, with Fred Reichheld, of the book: The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer-Driven World (HBR Press). He is a partner in Bain & Company’s New York office and head of the firm’s global Customer Strategy and Marketing practice.