Why Customer Input Doesn’t Always Matter

Over the years I have worked for several small companies that were firm believers in customer surveys.  In the eyes of these particular businesses, there was nothing a company could not ask a customer.  Whether it was an idea for a new product, an improvement to an existing product, a search for marketing advice or a simple customer satisfaction exercise, these firms would not hesitate to commission a survey to dozens—or in some cases thousands—of people.

Although I happily complied with each and every request, I was always conflicted as to whether or not the process truly provided any value.  Obviously any feedback you can get from someone qualified to give it is valuable.  But does this feedback come with a price?  And are there caveats to look out for—caveats that could call into question the validity and value of the data you receive?  The answer in this situation is ‘Yes’ in both cases.  The fact is, customer satisfaction surveys often result in few major changes to the way a company does business, for the three critical reasons:

1)    Writing Good Survey Questions is Not as Easy As it Looks – Because there are entire books and semester-long MBA courses dedicated to the topic, I will mention only at a high level that it takes a trained and experienced marketing professional to write a valuable, properly structured and non-leading customer survey.  Most small companies grossly under-estimate the effect a few poorly written questions can have on the outcome of a survey, and pass off question-writing duties to marketing people who do not have the training or the experience to handle it.  The result? Wasting both time and money reacting to problems that don’t really exist.

2)    These Days, Nobody Goes Out of their Way to Tell You They’re Happy – Excluding any pre-arranged incentive for participation (i.e. free or discounted products, special coupons, and so on) the primary motivator for people who actually complete customer satisfaction surveys is, ironically, dis-satisfaction.  No matter how much work a researcher puts in trying to make surveys fun, shorter and easier to complete, the fact remains that a customer who is satisfied will rarely tell you as much, for one simple reason: customers do not feel obligated to offer feedback when your product, service or company does exactly what they expected it to do.

Let’s take a simple example from Sales.  When a sales person is delivering his or her sales pitch, there are three emotional states a prospect can be in: 1) impressed and receptive, 2) unimpressed and confrontational, or 3) indifferent.  The emotional state most conducive to closing the deal is impressed and receptive, but every great sales person knows the worst-case scenario is actually . . . indifferent.  Why? Because a sale cannot be made to someone who genuinely does not care.  In many ways, the same principle applies to return rates for customer satisfaction surveys: people who have no emotional response one way or the other (those who are truly ‘satisfied’) will simply not participate.

3)    People are Smart Enough to Know You Will Use Their Feedback to Make More Money – Although you might tell customers that completing your survey is in their best interest through things like ‘increased quality’ and ‘improved service,’ today’s customer is savvy enough to know your only objective is to increase the profitability of your company.  No matter how you spin it, most customers understand that what you are asking them to do is donate their time so you can earn a bigger paycheck.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few paragraphs explaining all of the reasons why customer satisfaction surveys do not work or are not completed.  But despite the title of this post, I do believe there are some things you can do as a marketer to improve your results:

  • Get Professional Help – To avoid collecting bad information or the wrong information, give serious consideration to either hiring a consultant to assist, or contracting out the customer satisfaction surveys to a professional market research firm.  Most small companies can’t afford to have a full-time Marketing Researcher on staff, and hiring outside help is an acceptable alternative.
  • Offer Tangible Incentives for Completion – To increase your completion rate, offer participants something they actually want—free services or merchandise, discounts on their next purchase, access to a special package, or something similar.  No one is going to get excited about being entered into a drawing with thousands of other people for yet another iPod Nano or a $50 gift card to your company store (see the definition of ‘Expected Value’ for more information), but a double-digit discount percentage off of their next order?  Much more tangible . . . and easier to calculate.
  • Know Who Your Respondents will Be . . . and Embrace Them – As mentioned above, it is likely with any Customer Satisfaction Survey that most of your responses will come from people who are on either side of the emotional pendulum—either extremely happy or extremely angry.  Why not use this emotion to your advantage?  Actively seek feedback from these groups by writing questions that spur them to respond.  Cater to dissatisfied customers by admitting your company or product’s faults, and opening the door for them to help you address specific issues.  For happy customers, encourage them to explain exactly why their experience with your company has been so positive, and ask for advice on how to communicate their story to others.  Admitting to yourself who your real respondents will be is the first step in getting data that you can actually use.

Being an amateur Economist, I have always been a firm believer that the largest measure of customer satisfaction—and the only one that really matters—is bottom-line Revenue.  If the market is pleased with what you are doing and how you are doing it, they will purchase more of what you offer.  Conversely, if the market is unhappy with your product, your service or your approach, they will purchase less of what you offer.  The point is, when you’re running a for-profit business there is no vote or opinion that matters more than that of the economy.

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