Avoiding the Customer Truth

“Nothing ruins a good war story like an eye witness!”  The clever line brought loud laughter from the audience enjoying the Veterans Day program.  The retired general had just asked the room full of veterans and their families if anyone present had served with him in Iraq.  But, there was much more to his witty line than war-related content.

According to Convergys research, 45 percent of customers think companies do not have a good understanding of what their customers really experience when dealing with them.  Yet, 80 percent of employees and executives think they understand.  And, 39 percent of customers think that companies do not listen to or act on customer feedback.  Yet­­, 87 percent of employees and executives believe “we listen.”

Why such a disconnect between the “tall tale” we tell ourselves and each other compared to the truth from the “eye witness”—the customer?  If Convergys research is even half accurate, how could we be that far off on the real truth of the customer’s assessment?  There are at least four factors.

1. We determine how the question is framed, not the customer.  Customer research professionals wage philosophical battle over which is better–a five or ten point scale; or, whether the pinnacle of customer ecstasy is captured in the phrase, “Completely satisfied.”  Meanwhile, customers are asked to shoe horn their sentiment into a sterile survey with little room to provide truth.  You might end up in the dog-house if you evaluated your honeymoon experience as “completely satisfied.” Yet, we box in customers in a similar fashion by using our words and not theirs for evaluation language.

2. We fail to truly listen to the customer’s answers.  We were conducting a slide presentation for a senior leader group on our findings after completing a customer loyalty driver study.  After two dozen summary slides, we gave each of the twenty leaders a different page of customer comments with instructions to silently read the assigned page and summarize their impressions to the group.  The thirty minute briefing turned into a three-hour truth-telling, problem solving session.  Slides can never tell the same story as the customer’s voice!

3. We don’t completely trust the customer’s truth.  How many times have you heard you only hear feedback from the really happy or really upset customers?  That is another way of saying, customer feedback is relatively useless.  How often do we emotionally discard the venomous feedback as a crackpot with an agenda.  But, consider this:  What if the target for your feedback device were your extended family?  Sure, Uncle Ned has a strange sense of humor and Cousin Lily complains about everything. But, would you discard their feedback just because they were different?

4. We don’t let the customer know what was done with their truth.  One major research found that, while 95% of all companies conduct some form of customer feedback, only 5% let their customers know the changes the feedback caused.  As such, we turn the customer query into a ritual or game, without a real goal to learn and improve.  Customers soon learn that, without sincere interest in betterment, their energy is better spent other ways than on truth-telling.  They ignore invitations to provide assessment or they give the effort superficial involvement.

Running a business without customer feedback is like driving blindfolded.  You might get lucky and stay between the ditches, but you are more apt to have a head-on collision with failure.  Acquiring and mining customer truth is as important to a business as examinations and tests are to a physician attempting to help a patient get well.  What can you do to get more truth from the eye witness to the service experience that matters most—your customer?

About Chip&John

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of several best-selling books. Their newest book is "Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to do About it."
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