The customer feedback deception and the surprising truth

Guy Letts
3 mokeys

The big deception.

There is a myth in some companies that although customer feedback is a good thing, you cannot deal with every response to satisfaction surveys. This is a harmful lie – bad for customers, and bad for business, which is why I’ve taken this post to explain why it’s so damagingly false, and how you can avoid it.

Maybe “deception” is too strong a criticism, but actually I did feel deceived after at first accepting this line of thinking, then challenging it, then finding out it actually leads to a poor customer experience, not a better one.

The reason I call it out is that on the one hand a company claims to be listening to its customers by asking for feedback, but on the other hand its leaders have no intention of acting on what the majority of those customers say.

The myth leads to bureaucracy and wasted effort.

This all makes me really sad, because time and again I see lots of time and money spent on an exercise that people assume is a good thing, yet the customers experience no benefit at all.

Perhaps you have received one of these surveys too?  “Please spare 10 minutes to complete our short [sic] survey”

The thinking goes that customer feedback is very important (all the most seductive deceptions are intertwined with the truth) and so you should ask customers for their views.  But the thinking continues that one cannot possibly act on every response because there would be far too much to do.  And everyone’s very busy trying to make the sales numbers.  So you have to gather customer feedback, do some analysis, assign priorities, drop the things that are too hard, or too costly, or politically unacceptable, or would take too long.

That means you ignore nearly all the feedback, intentionally.

The customers who responded have given up hope of anything being done about what they said.  If they raised an issue in their feedback, they feel like they have been ignored.

Spreadsheets are constructed. Powerpoint slides are produced. Time passes.

Most people in the company are completely unaware of the real feelings of customers, and the priceless comments will never see the light of day.

Very often, nobody will ever read them.  Next time you get one of these surveys, try asking the reader to call you because you’re concerned that nobody ever reads your comments.  I submit comments like this, very politely, but I’ve never yet had a reply.  They’re probably just focusing on some averages of some averages of some satisfaction scores, and not what customers actually say.

Out of many hundreds or thousands of responses, perhaps three themes will be chosen.  It might lead to some improvements (fed into next year’s business plan), but it won’t stop a customer leaving if they were crying out for help.  And it won’t deal with the niggle that was preventing them from recommending to colleagues and friends.  And they will not be more receptive to the next marketing campaign – in fact they will be less receptive because their issue has not been dealt with.

The outcome of all the effort is inconsequential for customers.

This is the reality of many Voice of the Customer (VoC) programs. I know this because I experience them as a customer – or rather I experience all my feedback being ignored.  Once, to my shame, I was even complicit in running a program like this.

I don’t doubt that the motivation is good and that people genuinely work hard at this type of exercise.

The problem is that the resulting actions are so delayed, and in the end so bland, that they end up making no difference to the experience of any of the people who took the trouble to contribute.

So the return on investment (RoI) of annual satisfaction surveys is often zero.  Or worse.

The radical alternative.

I once took up a new post and (literally) blew the dust off two years’ worth of annual satisfaction surveys.  In them I discovered hundreds of opportunities that had been missed to retain exasperated customers, so I decided to think the (previously) unthinkable.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” I thought, “to be a customer of a company that made sure I was completely happy every time I dealt with them? And if I wasn’t happy, for some reason, then it would be fixed straight away?  Not by asking me once a year and averaging my views with those of everyone else, but by taking the trouble to check that I’m happy with the service I’ve just received.”

This was going to be hard. (You can read the story here).  It would mean ongoing feedback and action, rather than annual survey and reflection.  It would mean a leap of faith: that the extra effort would not cause us to miss our numbers, and it would need some technology to help us check for satisfaction and respond rapidly.

I couldn’t change how the company as a whole went about it, but I could do it in the department for which I was responsible.  Besides, we had tried pretty much everything else we had read in the text books and the customer satisfaction dial had not even flickered.

The results were rapid and revolutionary. 

Year on year we averaged a 10% increase in customer satisfaction scores.  Customer retention improved as a direct consequence.  Which also helped ensure I never missed my annual revenue number.  After three years I had the confidence to leave and bring to market a product to encapsulate what we had learnt.  I know that the original results have continued to improve in the hands of the exceptional team I was fortunate to work with and the customer feedback system remains the key tool that enables the team to achieve such impressive results.

With my own company I have now had the pleasure of seeing many more companies adopt this approach, and I have experienced the incomparable (and quite humbling) joy when our customers blog and post and Tweet and tell us about the benefits of the product we have created.

People enjoy dealing with real time customer feedback.

I am indebted to James Lawther for a post in his Squawk Point blog which has given me a better understanding of why this model works so well.  I knew it through personal experience, but James has described the reason in his characteristically well researched and entertaining style.  It involves plants and zombies and it’s well worth a read.

James highlights three key elements of a pursuit that people find enjoyable:  goal, challenge and the instant feedback.  In our case this was:

Goal: Customer completely satisfied

Challenge: Every time

Feedback: Real time customer scores and comments.

When you set yourself a goal of ensuring every customer is happy, every time they deal with you it is compelling, enjoyable, on occasion slightly terrifying, but extremely rewarding for each customer and for your business.

Enjoyed this post? Get updates (it's free!)

Get easy-to-implement customer feedback advice in your inbox

  • Guy,

    I have a theory that as well as being good for business, doing the right thing for your customers is rewarding, makes you feel like you are doing something worth while and so actually makes you happy as well.

    This TED talk makes a similar point from a slightly different tangent.

    Thanks for the link



    • Thanks James, that’s a helpful perspective. I note Maz Iqbal has written along similar lines:

      While I completely agree one should do the right thing anyway, pragmatically I just find it’s helfpul to point out that at least customer service and profit are ‘not inconsistent’ with one another.

      I guess that sometimes will come across as mercenary, but sadly I encounter plenty of people who would dismiss the view on both counts!

  • Justin

    Your premise is wrong. Not dealing with EVERY complaint to someones satisfaction is not the same thing as not dealing with complaints. Trust me, not every complaint is valid, and even more important, some people will not be happy no matter what you do – there are a very large number of people that are happy to lodge complaints, either for no reason, or because they think they will get something (refund, lower prices, compensation etc).

    If you do a survey and a big percent of your customers complain about something, best do do something about it – if you do a survey of 1000 customers a 1 of them complains about something, are you really going to change the way you do business to satisfy one customer, when the other 999 are happy? I would hope not – you won’t be in business long.

    • Hi Justin

      I’m sorry if I didn’t make my points clearly, this is not really about complaints and they deserve a whole separate commentary.

      The experience I wanted to share was that:

      – satisfaction surveys can be extremely helpful in improving customer satisfaction and retention;

      – surveys deliver far better results when done transaction by transaction rather than in bulk.

      There are some people who complain unreasonably and I agree with you, any transaction of course has to be fair for both parties.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

About CustomerSure

Happy customers are good for business.

  • On our blog, you'll find tips and tricks to help improve customer service.
  • Our app helps you get more customer feedback and deal with service issues quickly.
  • Also, it can boost your reputation by effortlessly gaining and publishing online reviews.