What does it take to get value out of customer feedback / VoC efforts?

Before you embark on VoC program you might want to ponder this question

If you are embarking upon or in the midst of a VoC program then you might be wondering what it takes to get value out of this investment, this effort.  If your are not wondering this then I advise you to wonder – deeply and seriously.  Why?  Because soliciting and collecting customer feedback is the easy bit.  Turning that into a coherent course of action that creates value for the customer and for the enterprise is a signficant challenge especially for large organisations.  Don’t believe me?  Here is what Bruce Temkin is quoted as saying:

“Customer feedback is cheap, actionable insight may be valuable, but taking action on insight is precious. VoC programs are useless unless you act on what you find.”

Read that last sentence again.  Do you notice a particular word?  The word is USELESS.  Unless there is the will and the associated mechanisms in place to turn feedback into a coherent action plan, embraced by the people within your organisation who are going to have to change what they do and how they do it, you will find your VoC program a fool’s errand.

What does it take to get value out of VoC programs?

Here is what I have noticed based on my experience of all kinds of organisational change programs.  It is not a recipe.  Yes, I know that you are looking for / addicted to recipes and solutions.  I don’t provide recipes and solutions.  Why?  Because the real world does not work that way.  What I can do is provide pointers, pillars, foundations that you can use to make your VoC ‘pay’ – create value. These pointers are:

1. VoC feedback has to matter

Something matters if and only if its presence contributes to / enhances the ‘workability’ and ‘performance’ of a system or if its absence degrades the ‘workability’ and ‘performance’ of the system at hand. Think about the wheels on a car.  If one of the tyres gets a puncture then what happens to the ‘workability’ and ‘performance’ of the system?  And when you replace that tyre?  You get the idea.

For VoC to matter it has to provide information that contributes to design and execution of the organisations purpose, mission and strategy.  Sounds right, sound like what you would read in a textbook?  Well its wrong!  For VoC to matter it has to provide actionable insights that meet the needs of the Tops (CEO, VPs, Directors) and Middles (middle managers).  Specifically, these VoC  insights must enable the Tops and Middles to better / more easily achieve their desired outcomes.  If the Tops and Middles can attain their desired outcomes without VoC then that it exactly what they will do.  If the effort involved in making sense of and using VoC is too much then the Tops and Middles will not use it: organisational life is hard enough no need to adding extra weight and stress!

Put succinctly, VoC feedback will be used if and only if “It is the difference that makes the difference (to the Tops) and it is easy to use this difference!”

2. Reward the people who use / act on VoC insights

As human beings we excel at actions that result in immediate rewards.  If we take an action or a series of actions (like say eating better/healthier) and the expected results don’t show up pretty quickly we quit taking the action.  Put differently, results have to be visible and noticeable for us to persist in the actions that generated these results.  Therefore, the design of every VoC program has to grapple with how to feedback meaningful results to the people who are expected to take action based on the VoC insights.   And that includes altering the relationship people in your organisation have with time – particularly timescales.  One of the easiest ways to provide this kind of rewarding feedback (my actions are making an impact) is look for, feedback and celebrate small wins as well as big wins.

3. Create a safe space – a learning and execution laboratory

How likely are you to walk the tightrope if it is 100 feet high and there is no net underneath to support / cushion your fall and assure your safety? How likely are you to attempt that feat if the net is there and you know that if you struggle and/or fail you will be laughed at, criticised, condemned, sent to live with the lepers or simply lose your job?  Not that likely right?

Please get the VoC is the stimulus/trigger for personal and organisational change.  Change that is imposed is NEVER welcomed – it is scary, it is frightening, it threatens our safety even our existence.  So if you want people and groups to behave differently then you have to create a safe environment.  An environment where people and groups are acknowledged and rewarded for taking the right course of action irrespective of the actual results.  If someone / some group takes the right action, plays in the spirit of the game, then they must not be blamed, criticised, condemned.

One other factor that you should bear in mind.  We overestimate what we can do in the short term say 0 -6  months and underestimate what we can do in the longer term say 12 – 36 months. Therefore one aspect of creating this safe space is to ask a lot of people in the organisation over the long term (stretch goals) and be much less demanding so as to build in success and allow for learning over the shorter term.  Yes, I am asking you to do the opposite of what is the default setting in most organisations.

The closest management concepts to what I am talking about here are “drive out fear” as espoused by Deming or “The Learning Organisation” espoused by Senge.

4. Turn data and information into engaging/actionable stories and tell these vividly and dramatically

I once took over the responsibility of a failing planning & budgeting team.  The first action I took was to ask the team to stop sending their standard reports out to the many managers in the organisation.  Guess what happened? Only 10% of the managers rang up to ask where their reports were!  Please get present to this: we, human beings, suck at relating to and making sense of data.  Our naturally way of being is such that data and reports require effort – conscious effort – to understand, to interpret, to make sense of.  Most of us are simply not willing to make the effort.  Yes, pretty graphs help but not that much.

If you want you VoC customer feedback to be acted upon then tell actionable stories.  Stories work because they work they way we work.  There are heroes, there are villains, there is plot, there is cause and effect and they provide lessons / pointers towards how to live, what do do, how to do it differently….  That means that having a team of business savvy people who can turn data into actionable stories is a must.  When I ran a Customer Analytics practice I played this role – to complement the work done by the staticians and data miners; they were great at data mining (I sucked) and I was great at using their data to tell stories (they sucked at telling stories).

5. The CEO must own the play, be committed to the play and be in the play with both feet

Did your read my last post?  Kristin Zhivago has been involved in this game for 20+ years and this is what she says:

“If the CEO isn’t speaking up for your customers, there’s nothing that anyone else can do – regardless of their position – that will turn the company into a customer-centric organisation.”

As you know I totally agree with her.  If your CEO does not see the VoC as critical ingredient in the game then I guarantee that your VoC program will not deliver any fruit no matter how much, time, money and effort you put into VoC.  The people who need to commit resources will not commit resources.  The people who need to act will not act.  Even if people agree to do stuff you will find that they drag their heels.  If they take action then many people will act half-heartedly.

Want to learn more?  Then consider attending one of these seminars hosted by Mindshare, in the UK, on the 17th and 18th April

If you have any interest in VoC – particularly how to get value out of it – and you live near London or Manchester then you might want to attend.  Here are the details:

“Mindshare Technologies to Host Seminars in UK to Help Companies Realise and Implement Customer Experience Best Practices

  •  Two Free Seminars to Take Place in London and Manchester
  • Seminars Will Provide Attendees with Customer Experience Thought Leadership Using the Latest Techniques to Drive Action from Insights

The seminar series begins in London on April 17, followed by a second offering in Manchester on April 18. Registration for these two free events is now open, and information can be found at http://www.mshare.net/uktour/.”

 The customer service best practices seminars will be held at Liberty House, 222 Regent Street, in London and Pall Mall court, 61–67 King Street, in Manchester and will be headed up by three members of Mindshare’s leadership team, each lending their expertise in VoC and enterprise feedback management (EFM) solutions: Lonnie Mayne, chief experience officer; Shane Evans, vice president of business solutions-retail; and Rachel Lane, director of Europe, Middle East and Africa development.

Topics to be covered at the seminars include:

  • Planning the Perfect Customer Experience Strategy
  • The Right Modes for Invitation and Feedback
  • Obtaining Non-Purchaser Feedback
  • Tactical Use of Feedback
  • Correlation to Financial Improvement
  • Making Feedback Actionable at All Layers of Management”

Disclosure and request

Disclosure:  whilst i have been tracking Mindshare and have spoken to several people there (who I like) I have NO financial relationship with Mindshare.  Put differently, I am not getting paid to advertise this nor do I get a fee or any other reward if you attend.  Incidentally, the seminars are FREE.

Request:  if you are reader of this blog and you are going to go along then please let me know as I’d love to meet you, learn more about you and buy you a coffee.

Easy ways for smaller businesses to improve the customer experience

Over at Focus Courtney Sato asked the following question:  “What are easy ways for small businesses to (almost) instantly improve the customer experience?”  To answer that question it is worth getting clear on what constitutes ‘customer experience’.

One way of looking at Customer Experience Management: effectiveness of interactions

Here is how Richard Snow (VP & Research Director at Ventana Research) defines ‘customer experience management‘:  Customer experience management is the practice of managing the effectiveness of customer interactions so the outcome meets the customer’s and the company’s expectations.

How do you improve the effectiveness of these interactions?

If we accept this definition (and largely I do – there is a piece missing) then the question is what do we need to do to improve the effectiveness of the customer’s interactions with our business?  In his article Richard sets out the four steps:

  • Measure the outcome of all customer interactions (across all media, all touchpoints, all aspects of the customer journey);
  • Identify the reason for the interaction (from the customer’s perspective);
  • Figure out why the outcome was the way it was (root cause analysis); and
  • Make necessary changes to generate more of what works and eliminate/minimise what does not work.

What we can learn from Guy Letts, the founder of CustomerSure and formerly Head of Services at Sage UK

Before he founded CustomerSure, Guy Letts was the Head of Services at Sage UK; Sage describes itself “Sage is a leading supplier of business management software and services to more than 6 million customers worldwide. From small start-ups to larger organisations, we make it easier for companies to manage their business processes.”

As the Head of Services Guy was responsible for improving the customer experience, driving up satisfaction and increasing revenues through repeat and additional business.  This is a goal that Guy achieved and in the process he learned valuable lessons which were the seeds of the business he has founded: CustomerSure.   What are these lessons?

The critical point to make is that the rational approach – the one that is commonly practiced – did not work well.  The response to customer surveys was less than ideal.  The quality of the information that was provided was variable.  Providing statistics – customer satisfaction scores – to his services staff did not leave them inspired to do things differently. And pushing the employees to do more / better / different was exhausting and did not deliver the results.  So how did Guy ultimately improve the customer experience and hit his customer satisfaction and revenue goals?

Guy had an Aha moment when he visited a Richer Sounds store (hi-fi / electronics retailer which won the Which? retail customer experience award in 2011).  What was this Aha?  He noticed that the Richer Sounds customer survey was simple (5 questions) and these questions were focussed on the customer and what mattered to a customer.  Questions like: “Was the item in stock?”; “Did our staff know what they were talking about?”; “Where you served quickly?” etc.

So Guy had cracked the first part of the puzzle: how to assess the effectiveness of the interaction from the customer’s perspective. The answer was cut down the surveys sent to Sage customers down to the essential five or so questions and ask the questions that matter to Sage customer – the key stuff that determined the Sage customer’s experience of the Sage services team.  And to survey these customers immediately after a services engagement or interaction rather than wait for the next annual survey to come around. 

The next challenge was inspiring change within his team.  Here Guy learned that sharing the verbatim (unstructured) customer feedback with his services team made an emotional impact that quoting customer satisfaction scores simply did not do.  Yes, you have to share the customer’s word and emotions with the people who directly or indirectly impact the customer experience.  Why?  Because it is more effective at altering their perceptions, attitudes and ultimately behaviour; numbers simply do not have this effect – they do not touch the Elephant, they they might speak to the Rider.

Sound good so far yet Guy found out that asking the right questions and sharing the verbatim feedback with his services team was not enough.  If any of you have been on any motivational training courses or seminars then you will know how long the emotional high hangs around.  For most people when an emotional high meets resistance (from the powerful) and hard work (of changing ingrained behaviours) that high tends to dive pretty quickly and you arrive back at the status-quo.  So Guy introduced the practice of assigning actions (with specific deadlines) and monitoring to ensure that members of his services organisation did what they had agreed to do / assigned to do. 

Next Guy instigated the practice of sharing and closing the loop.  The first part was sharing with customers: sharing what his team was doing with the feedback provided by customers with a particular focus on actions to address the key issues as highlighted by these customers.  The second part was sharing with his services team: sharing the next round of feedback from customers – thus showing that the actions of the services team were paying off in happier customers and higher revenues through additional business and repeat business.

If you are a small business / medium size business (less than 1000 employees) then check-out CustomerSure

Guy’s customers at Sage UK were small and medium sized businesses and as Head of Services for 4 years he got to know a lot about these businesses – their situation and their needs.  He learned that there was and is plenty of scope for these businesses to improve the customer experience and keep more of their customers.  He learned that these businesses want to keep things simple and were looking for a guiding hand – a simple process and easy to use software tool. And they are only willing to spend so much money on surveying customers to get their feedback.

Guy put together this insight with what he learned leading/managing his service team (described above) and then put his 10+ years of software development experience to work and created CustomerSure – a platform designed to enable small / medium size business to replicate his success.  The CustomerSure platform enables the small business owner or a departmental head to easily survey customers, share that feedback with staff, set up / assign and monitor actions and then share feedback on what is being done and the results of actions taken. Furthermore, CustomerSure has put in place a platform where customer feedback and the actions that the company is taking to address customer issues is displayed and available for the world to see.

If you are are a small / medium sized business and you are looking to improve the customer experience then I wholeheartedly recommend that you give CustomerSure a test.  You cannot lose out as you get a 30 day trail period – at least that is what I got when I tried it out.

A final point: answering the question I started with

I am not sure that there is quick – instant – way of improving the customer experience.  In my world excellence is more like marathon than a sprint.  Excellence in customer experience involved playing the long term game.  It involves the kind of approach the Guy Letts used at Sage UK: open to insight, trial and error, selecting what works and revisiting what did not work, it involves passion and commitment to the longer term – engendering customer loyalty by doing the right things by your customers.  If you want to play the longer term then you can learn a lot from Guy Letts and if you are a small business then the CustomerSure platform will help you to play that game.

Disclosure:  I have absolutely no financial or commercial interest in CustomerSure.  I have no financial or commercial interest in Guy.  Guy and I are not friends – we have never met.  Guy is a reader of the CustomerBlog – actually he was one of the first readers.  Yet we are connected because we are customer evangelists.

The Coppid Beech Hotel: are you asking the wrong questions?

I wanted and needed a good nights sleep

On Saturday night at around 1:30am my wife and I ended up checking into The Coppid Beech Hotel  – a local hotel a few minutes drive from our home.  By this time we had been to a party, come home and spent some 45 minutes trying to get into our home and failing to do so because our children had accidentally locked us out.  We were both tired, had a big day the next day as friends were coming over for the day, and just wanted to get to our room and sleep soundly.

The hotel failed to deliver the core service: I did not sleep well

As soon as we got into our room I knew that I would not sleep well.  I looked at the bed and could clearly see that the mattress was sagging in the middle and so both my wife and I would end up being crunched together in the middle.  Now that is just fine for my wife as she is a heavy sleeper.  It is not fine by me; I am a light and some would say a fussy sleeper.

Being so tired I did eventually get to sleep only to find myself being woken up at least three times between the hours of 2am and 8am.  I could clearly hear the loud voices in the hallway and once I heard talking in the room next door.  The net result was that the hotel had failed to deliver the core service: a good nights sleep.  So it was with interest that I looked at the “Guest Comment Form” that was prominently displayed on the table in the room.

The hotel is asking for feedback and going about it the wrong way

The form asks about the all kinds of things: “Prior to arrival”; “Front of house”; “Bedroom”; “Breakfast in Rowans”; “Dining within the hotel”; “Lounge bar”; “Room service”; “Waves health & fitness”; and “Brasserie at the Keller”.  In total there are 9 sections and 55 questions: for most of the questions the guest is asked to rate the hotel as either “Excellent”, “Good”, “Average” or “Poor”; and for each of the 9 sections there are only two lines for comments and suggestions.

As I look at this guest feedback form I notice several things.  First and foremost, not one of the questions asks about the core service from the customer perspective.  What is the core service?  I’d argue for a hotel it is providing a good nights sleep.  There is no question about the quality of the bed or the pillows.  And there is no question about noise or the lack of it.

Second, given that there are 55 questions, how many guests are actually going to fill in the form?  I suspect only a small minority.  And if that is indeed the case then how representative is the feedback?

Third, how will this type of questionnaire (ticking the boxes) actually help the hotel to figure out what matters to customers?  And where things rank in terms of importance?  And what areas of the hotel to focus upon?  It is possible that an area is rated as “Average” and that is all that a customer expects in that area because that is an area that simply is not important to the customer.  It is also possible that another area is scored “Good” and yet that is insufficient because it is so essential to the customer that it needs to be “Excellent”.

Lessons for Customer Insight teams

I am sure that those that want to find lessons will be able to find several.  For my part I want to draw attention to how the hotel can get more useful feedback if they simply ask the following questions:

  1. Why did you choose to stay at our hotel?
  2. What were you looking for /expecting to get out of your stay in our hotel?
  3. How well did we deliver on that?
  4. In what areas can we improve?
  5. What do you suggest that we do differently?
  6. Are you willing to write a positive review and recommend us on TripAdvisor and/or our hotel website?

Finally, there is really big difference between designing Voice of the Customer feedback programs to look good (or simply go through the motions) and designing them to get a real insight into what matters to customers and how your organisation is doing in terms of delivering what matters.  I suspect the Coppid Beech Hotel is simply going through the motions of soliciting customer feedback like so many other organisations.  What do you think?