The Customer Service Survey

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Explosion of Really Bad Surveys

Local newspaper columnist James Lileks takes some well-deserved (and hilarious) potshots today at bad surveys.

He also reveals that, back in college, he did a turn as a telephone interviewer. So he at least has some sympathy for what it's like to be in the survey biz.

It does seem like there's been an explosion of really bad surveys over the past several years. Personally I blame the confluence of several factors:

  1. Online surveys have gotten really cheap and easy. This means organizations do more surveys but at the same time put less care and effort into designing the survey. Gone are the days when doing anything but the smallest survey meant hiring a market research company (for a minimum of $50K). It's distressingly common to see surveys riddled with typos, nonsensical questions, and other problems which make it clear nobody could be bothered to do a good job.
  2. Yet the long-form survey style somehow persists. When surveys were rare and expensive it made sense to ask every imaginable question because you needed to squeeze every possible insight from each participant. Today this mindset continues, even though surveys are cheap and common, and it's not unusual for a consumer to be asked to respond to literally hundreds of questions about a single three-day trip.
  3. And consumers are refusing to respond to bad surveys. Across the industry you hear people complaining that response rates are down on email surveys. But instead of asking the sensible question ("Why don't people want to take our survey?"), many companies respond by simply sending more survey invitations. To the same badly-designed, overly-long survey that 98% (or more!) of their customers won't fill out.

These problems won't be easy to solve, mostly because the root cause is that most organizations don't care as much about the customer experience as they say they do. This has always been the case--when it comes to customer service most companies talk the talk much better than they walk the walk--but the difference is that today it's easy to just do a survey instead of doing something.

When Does Bad Customer Service Become Evil?

There's a story making the rounds the past few days of a customer who had tried for over a year to get Comcast to correct a series of billing mistakes. Eventually he got fed up with ongoing mistakes and incompetence, and called the office of Comcast's controller to lodge a complaint.

That didn't work either, and that's when things got weird and evil. This customer happens to be an accountant, and mentioned in one of his complaints that he thought Comcast's billing problems should be investigated by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.

Which, to me, seems like a reasonable thing to say if you're an angry customer subjected to over a year's worth of overcharges and billing mistakes. I'm not an accountant, but persistent billing mistakes sure sound like an accounting problem to me.

But apparently Comcast thought otherwise: Comcast contacted the customer's employer and apparently said something that got the customer fired. Did I mention that the customer's employer happens to do a lot of business with Comcast?

Needless to say there's a lawsuit now, and a lot of he-said-she-said. The Consumerist has a good summary in a pair of articles: one about the customer getting fired, and another about Comcast apologizing for bad service but not getting the customer fired.

So it's easy to take the angle of tsk-tsking Comcast for another horrific example of bad customer service. No, make that evil customer service, since this has gone beyond the realm of incompetent into malicious.

But what I want to know is what the heck is going on at Comcast? Someone, somewhere inside Comcast at some point thought it was OK to call a customer's employer and say something that got the customer fired because of a billing complaint.

(A complaint which, by the way, Comcast has acknowledged was legitimate.)

Someone in the company had to have known how this would play in the media, to say nothing of the courts. Yet it happened anyway. I can think of a few explanations:

  1. Comcast thinks it's above the law and public opinion and can act with impunity. This is probably not strictly true, but the company has been persistently successful despite its poor reputation, so maybe people think they can get away with stuff.
  2. Someone panicked. Part of me thinks that it's really plausible that someone in Comcast might panic over the prospect of an accounting review of its billing systems. Just by the company's reputation for mistakes, it seems fair to assume that Comcast's systems aren't really ready for their close-up.
  3. Internally, Comcast is just out of control. Media reports over the past few months have painted a picture of a company divided into fiefdoms and disorganized, so it's possible that there just isn't enough adult supervision going on.

I don't know which of these theories, if any, is right. But it's clear that something weird is going on at Comcast.

Too bad the ATM at my bank doesn't do this

This video is old, but it's new to me. Take 45 seconds to watch it and see a customer experience that practically defines "delight."

Apparently in Japan, if you press the "help" button on a train ticket kiosk, a guy actually pops out from the wall behind the kiosk to lend assistance--to the delight and befuddlement of foreign tourists.

Doing a little research, I discovered that the guy isn't just sitting behind the kiosk all day waiting for Americans to push the help button. His main job is keeping the machines stocked with blank tickets, which is done from behind the kiosk so it doesn't disrupt normal operations. But as long as he's there, he can lend a hand as needed.

Of course, to the Japanese this is just normal and not the least bit delightful. That's the problem with the treadmill of customer delight.

I'm also reminded of the New York subway (and many other large American cities), where attendants are also available at many stations. But in America, we tend to put the attendants inside glass booths instead of having them magically step out of the wall when needed.

The Japanese way somehow seems so much more...delightful.

You Had Good Runs

Given the circumstances, 1-800-Flowers can't be happy to see their name in the New York Times over an epic miscommunication.

The flower arrangement for Grandma's funeral was supposed to read, "Farewell Grammy, you had a good run."

What it actually said, as transcribed by the phone agent who, according to the customer, "spoke English as a second language," was "FAR WELL GRANDMY YOU HAD A GOOD RUNS".

When the customer sent an e-mail complaint he heard no response--probably because he sent it to a "do not reply" address, which is where his order confirmation came from.

Someday I'll write an article about why using "do not reply to this email" email addresses are a dumb idea from a customer experience perspective. But this is not that article.

Instead, I'd like to pose the question of why 1-800-Flowers--a company whose entire existence is based on people's desire to be sensitive, communicate, and do what's culturally expected--can't hire employees with the sensitivity, communication skills, and cultural background to understand that while "you had a good run" is an appropriate (if cheeky) message for a funeral while, "you had good runs" is not.

Of course we all know the reason: it costs more money to hire good employees than bad ones.

But, as the Times columnist notes, 1-800-Flowers has attracted hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of complaints about botched orders.

Apparently the company has decided (for now at least) the negative publicity and bad word-of-mouth is a reasonable price to pay. I'll be curious to see how long that lasts.

Newsletter #82 is Published

The 82nd edition of our newsletter, Quality Times, has been published. If you are an e-mail subscriber you should be seeing it in your inbox shortly.

This month, the theme is cross-channel customer experiences. There are some very real challenges in providing a good customer experience when customers cross organizational silos, but some of the results I've seen make me think that this is one of the best opportunities for improving overall customer satisfaction. I think this is going to be an important area in the coming years.

As always I hope you find this interesting and informative.

Brittle Experiences

Think about what happens to a piece of glass when you hit it too hard: it shatters into a million pieces. We say that glass is brittle because it breaks before it bends.

Not all materials do this. Steel, for example, is likely to bend (maybe a lot) before it actually breaks. This is why we build bridges out of steel and not glass.

It's useful to apply the concept of brittleness to the world of business. Customer experiences, like bridges, are designed to handle a certain amount of strain before they start to fail.

When things start to go wrong, a brittle experience is likely to go catastrophically wrong for the customer or the company (or both). On the other hand, if the process is flexible enough to bend a bit and handle the unusual situation, it may not be that big of a deal.

For example, air travel today is very often a brittle experience. When everything goes well (as it usually does), you get to your destination on-time and with at least some dignity intact.

But if your travel plans go even slightly awry, the airline experience quickly goes from smooth to a stressful mess which could extend longer than the original trip. A brief thunderstorm at your departure airport means there's a long line of planes waiting to take off, and you sit on the ground for an hour or two. That departure delay means you miss your connecting flight. The next flight to your destination is overbooked, so you wind up spending the night at your connecting city waiting for a flight with an open seat to take you to your destination.

What started out as a minor hiccup (the brief thunderstorm) quickly turned into a stressful multi-day experience because the airports and airlines are too overloaded and too inflexible to handle even minor disruptions without it spiraling out of control. That's brittle: small problems become big problems and the whole thing goes very wrong for some passengers.

It's worth examining all elements of the customer experience under the lens of brittleness. Of course we expect that most of the time things will go smoothly for most customers, so the "normal" experience needs the most attention. But even the best-designed system won't be able to handle every situation.

So what happens when a customer has a problem? Are you flexible enough to deal with it gracefully? Or does the customer experience shatter into a million pieces like a piece of glass?

People Hate us on Yelp!

Lots of small businesses don't care much for Yelp, the online review site which can have an outsize influence on driving traffic to or from a small restaurant or shop. It doesn't help that Yelp's business model revolves around selling advertising and promotional services to those same businesses--a practice which can feel a little corrupt at times. It doesn't help that some Yelp reviewers these days seem to feel entitled to special treatment because of all the reviews they post.

One California restaurant, Botto Bistro, has come up with a creatively subversive way to market itself using Yelp: they are campaigning to be the restaurant with the lowest score on Yelp, rewarding customers who post one-star reviews with coupons and freebies. Amusingly, Yelp has responded by taking down hundreds of one-star reviews of the restaurant, thus boosting its Yelp score.

I love this idea for a lot of different reasons. First, it plays well into the restaurant's image of "Italian cooking with an attitude," as other parts of their website mock clueless customer questions and aggressively demonstrate that they don't think the customer is always right.

I also like they way they turn the whole concept of Yelp on its head, rendering powerless a big company which can sometimes seem like a bully to the small business dependent on Yelp for new customers.

The data nerd in me also really loves the way they demonstrate that you can't take metrics and customer feedback at face value--you always need to ask what's behind the numbers. Here's a case where people who love the restaurant are giving terrible reviews because that's part of their brand image and shtick.

And finally, I like the way they've found to increase customer engagement by asking customers to do something silly and subversive and unique. Customers who are "in the know" can read the Yelp reviews with a completely different understanding than everyone else.

Botto Bistro has demonstrated once again that customer experience isn't about providing the "best" customer experience, but providing the experience which best matches what your particular customers will appreciate.

Speech vs. DTMF

Most big companies have moved to speech recognition for their phone systems, but that doesn't mean old-fashioned button pushing is dead. Here are some rules of thumb I've developed about when it's a good idea to use DTMF (aka Touch-Tone) in a speech system:

  1. If you're asking the customer to input a bunch of numbers (i.e. credit card number, order number, account number, etc.) you should ALWAYS allow DTMF input. A substantial percentage of callers will try to dial the number even if you tell them to speak it. Plus it works better.
  2. "Press or say one" style application design should be avoided--it has the expense of speech with none of the advantages.
  3. Whenever possible, speech prompts should allow a DTMF fallback. There will always be situations where speech doesn't work, but you don't need to tell the caller about the DTMF option unless there's an error. For example, start with "Do you want sales, customer service, or technical support?" to prompt a spoken response, but if that fails, offer "What department do you want? You can say the name of the department or press one for sales, two for customer service, or three for technical support."
  4. For the love of all that is beautiful and innocent in this world, please don't disable the "zero" option to reach a live person! It doesn't work, and is the most effective way to really make your customers mad. 

Cross-Channel Service Continuity

I'm going to predict that one of the most exciting areas in customer experience over the next decade will be cross-channel service continuity.

A few forward-thinking companies are starting to pay attention to this, but it's mostly off the radar right now. It's so far off the radar that it doesn't even have a snappy name or acronym yet (CCSC, anyone?). But it's exciting because the early evidence is that this is one of the most powerful ways to improve the overall customer experience in many big organizations.

So what the heck am I talking about? In concept, the idea is simple: when a customer contacts a company more than once about some issue, the company treats those contacts as part of the same experience. Even if the contacts are through different channels.

This makes perfect sense, since to the customer those multiple contacts are all part of the same experience. But nearly every large company has them siloed off into different parts of the organization which don't talk to each other. Often, they can't talk to each other even if they want to.

And that's what makes CCSC (I really need a better name!) hard: there's a lot of infrastructure which needs to be in place to make it work. The call center needs to know that you just visited the website, and vice-versa. Building this technology will keep companies like IBM, Accenture, and a host of new startups very happy for a long time.

But at SpeechTEK last month, USAA and Nuance presented the results of exactly this sort of initiative. Here's the session description:

Consider Becky, a USAA member who is looking at homeowner’s insurance options online, but has a question and decides to call. After she authenticates, the IVR notes that Becky was logged into the website and asks if she is calling for a homeowner’s insurance quote. Becky happily confirms that is indeed her intention. Many businesses see such proactive, cross-channel scenarios as a pipe dream, but this presentation reviews the quantitative and qualitative methods used to understand customer cross-channel behavior and create user interface designs that support them.

In the SpeechTEK session, USAA shared that this simple piece of cross-channel service continuity--routing the customer straight to the right department based on a recent online experience--had a powerful effect on customer satisfaction and other key metrics. Imagine what we could do with true service continuity, where the customer would not only be routed to the right department but could also resume the same transaction.

This is consistent with research that we published a couple years ago where we found that service continuity across multiple calls to a call center completely eliminated the dissatisfaction normally associated with having to call more than once. In other words, customers didn't mind having to make more than one call, as long as they didn't have to start over (see page 4 of this report).

In my view, the almost complete isolation of most customer service channels from each other is one of the most badly broken pieces of the customer experience at many large companies. But that means it's also one of the biggest opportunities to generally improve customer experiences.

And that's why CCSC (ugh, that name!) is likely to be one of the hottest ideas in customer experience in years to come.

Another Reason to Write Relevant Surveys

I'm constantly making the point that customer surveys need to be well-written, meaningful, and relevant to the customer.

This is just a matter of respect: someone is doing you a favor by taking your survey, so don't waste their time.

But if that's not enough, here's another one. If you ask dumb questions, someone may mock you on TV, like Keith Olberman mocked a Minnesota Twins marketing survey yesterday.

Somehow I don't think this survey succeeded in promoting the Twins' brand image.

Insights Aren't Enough

Anyone who has done any sort of data collection or analysis in the business world has almost certainly been asked to produce insights. "We're looking for insightful data," is a typical statement I hear from clients on a regular basis.

But for some reason, people don't talk much about getting useful data. There's an implicit assumption that "insightful data" and "useful data" are the same thing.

They aren't, and it's important to understand why.

  • "Insightful" data yields new knowledge or understanding about something. It tells you something you didn't already know.
  • "Useful" data can be applied towards achieving some goal. It moves you closer to your business objective.

Data can be either "insightful" or "useful," or both, or neither. Insightfulness and usefulness are completely different things.

For example, if you discover as part of your customer research that a surprisingly high percentage of your customers are left-handed, that may be insightful but it's probably not useful (unless you're planning to market specifically to southpaws).

Or if your survey data shows that some of your customer service reps have consistently higher customer satisfaction than others, that's very useful information, but it's probably not insightful (you probably expected some reps to score higher than others).

The best data is both insightful and useful, but that's rare. Most companies have enough of an understanding of how their business works that true insights are unusual, and true insights which can be immediately applied towards a business goal are even less common.

And of course data which is neither useful nor insightful serves no purpose. Nevertheless, this sort of research is distressingly common.

When it comes down to useful data vs. insightful data, I tend to prefer usefulness over insightfulness. Data which is useful, even if it doesn't reveal any new insights, still helps advance the goals of the company. That's not to imply that insights have no value: even a useless insight can be filed away in case it becomes important in the future.

But whether you're looking for insights or usefulness, remember that they are not the same thing.

Cross-channel customer feedback

If you check your bank balance online and then call customer service because you discovered a mistake, chances are that you think of that as two parts of a single customer experience.

But in almost every case, your bank sees that as two (or more) completely unrelated interactions. So what the company thinks are several routine customer touchpoints could easily be a frustrating mess to you, the customer.

This is why getting customer feedback about cross-channel experiences is so very important. Collecting this data will identify the service gaps and inconsistencies that are often completely invisible to companies.

There are two strategies for collecting cross-channel feedback:

  1. Target customers who have multiple interactions: If a customer contacts a company more than once within a short period of time, it's a good bet that those contacts are related. So we can target customers for a survey based on this specific behavior. For example, any customer who logs in to the website and then calls on the phone within two hours would be called shortly afterwards by an interviewer to find out why. The advantage of this approach is that it's efficient, and you are specifically targeting your survey towards customers who are likely to have valuable feedback. It can be challenging, though, to match the records from different silos of the organization quickly enough to make this happen.
  2. Ask about cross-channel experiences as part of the normal feedback process: If it's not possible to specifically target customers who crossed service channels, a reasonable strategy is to add questions about cross-channel experiences to an existing survey. When we've done this for our clients, it's common for us to find that a high percentage (20% or more) of the customers we survey after a customer service call had tried the website before calling. This high incidence lets us collect some hard data about what's driving customers to pick up the phone instead of sticking to the online channel

Cross-channel behavior is one of the biggest and most universal blind spots in most companies' customer feedback programs. Most companies simply have no idea how often customers are crossing organizational silos, what's driving that behavior, and what effect it has on the overall customer experience.

We've also found that when customers have to start over each time they contact a company about the same problem, it's a major driver of dissatisfaction. But service continuity is often overlooked because the company isn't equipped to deal with multiple touchpoints as a single experience.

Collecting some feedback about cross-channel experiences is a good place to start in fixing what is likely a major service problem.

Issue #81 of Quality Times

We published Issue #81 of our newsletter, Quality Times.

In this issue I write about business dashboards: the good, the bad, but usually the ugly. As always, I hope you find this useful and informative, and welcome any comments and suggestions. 

Naughty, Naughty Radisson

I came across something new while doing a customer survey about a recent stay at the Radisson Blu in Chicago.

Near the end of the survey, they inserted a page which wasn't part of the actual customer survey, but rather a TripAdvisor feedback form.

Now, I understand that getting a lot of reviews on TripAdvisor is really important to hotels these days. But this practice strikes me as nothing short of abusive. That's because before the Radisson asked me to rate them on TripAdvisor, they already knew my answers to the customer survey.

Is the Radisson being honest and asking everyone to fill out the TripAdvisor form? Or are they being sneaky and only asking customers who had a good experience for a review. I don't know, and there's no way for me to know.

But what I do know is that this makes all the feedback on this hotel on TripAdvisor immediately suspect. Even if the Radisson is being honest today, I don't trust that they (and all other hotels which may do this) will continue to be honest. The stakes are simply too high, and the temptation too great.

So caveat emptor as always.

Happiness is Driven By Expectations

In the news today is some research on what drives people's happiness moment to moment. Using data from 18,000 participants, researchers found that people's reported happiness is driven not simply by what's going on in their lives, but by what's going on relative to their expectations.

For example, how happy (or upset) you are about getting a $250 car repair bill depends on whether you expected the bill to be $50 or $1,000.

On one level this is obvious.

On another level it's very important to understand that creating a positive customer experience is equal parts delivering a good experience and making sure the customer's expectations are properly managed.

In other words, under-promise and over-deliver.

Sometimes this is straightforward: Disney is famous for telling park visitors that the line to get into a ride will take longer than it actually will.

Other times the expectations may be outside your control. If you are an online retailer and Amazon.com starts offering free overnight shipping, then it's likely some of your customers will be disappointed if you don't offer the same.

In these cases it's important to understand not just what customers' expectations are but where they are coming from. That way you can be on top of shifting expectations and respond appropriately.

Case in point: For years in the mobile phone industry, customers on traditional plans expected to be locked into a two-year contract. Customers don't want this, but there were no other options and so a mobile phone company could keep customers happy despite locking them into a contract. But when T-Mobile unilaterally decided to eliminate the two-year contract, that put T-Mobile in the position of setting customers' expectations for the whole industry. It also made T-Mobile the only player actually meeting those expectations, and as a result T-Mobile is capturing a lot of subscribers.

In customer experience, its important to pay as much attention to expectations as delivery.

Weekend Read: The Philosophy of Great Customer Service

Here's a great article from the founder of CD Baby, Derek Sivers, on The Philosophy of Great Customer Service.

Derek attributes his success with CD Baby to great customer service. And he attributes CD Baby's great customer service to a philosophy which can be summed up as genuine engagement with customers.

Uncorrelated Data

A few months ago I wrote about the Spurious Correlation Generator, a fun web page where you could discover pointless facts like the divorce rate in Maine is correlated to per-capita margarine consumption (who knew!).

The other side of the correlation coin is when there's a complete lack of any correlation whatsoever. Today, for example, I learned that in a sample of 200 large corporations, there is zero correlation between the relative CEO pay and the relative stock market return. None, nada, zippo.

(The statistician in me insists that I restate that as, "any correlation in the data is much smaller than the margin of error and is statistically indistinguishable from zero." But that's why I don't let my inner statistician go to any of the fun parties.)

Presumably, though, the boards of directors of these companies must believe there's some relationship between stock performance and CEO pay. Otherwise why on Earth would they pay, for example, Larry Ellison of Oracle $78 million? Or $12 million to Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck? What's more, since CEOs are often paid mostly in stock, the lack of any correlation between stock price and pay is surprising.

It's easy to conclude that these big companies are being very foolish and paying huge amounts of money to get no more value than they would have gotten had they hired a competent chief executive who didn't happen to be a rock star. And this explanation could well be right.

On the other hand, the data doesn't prove it. Just as a strong correlation doesn't prove that two things are related to each other, the lack of a correlation doesn't prove they aren't related.

It's also possible that the analysis was flawed. Or that they are related but in some more complicated way than a simple correlation.

In this case, here are a few things I'd examine about the data and the analysis before concluding that CEO pay isn't related to stock performance:

  1. Sample Bias: The data for this analysis consists of 200 large public companies in the U.S. Since there are thousands of public companies, and easily 500 which could be considered "large," it's important to ask how these 200 companies were chosen and what happens if you include a larger sample. It appears that the people who did the analysis chose the 200 companies with the highest CEO pay, which is a clearly biased sample. So the analysis needs to be re-done with a larger sample including companies with low CEO pay, or ideally, all public companies above some size (for example, all companies in the S&P 500).
  2. Analysis Choices: In addition to choosing a biased sample, the people who did the analysis also chose a weird way to try to correlate the variables. Rather than the obvious analysis correlating CEO pay in dollars against stock performance in percent, this analysis was done using the relative rank in CEO pay (i.e. 1 to 200) and relative rank in stock performance. That flattens any bell curve distribution and eliminates any clustering which, depending on the details of the source data, could either eliminate or enhance any linear correlation.
  3. Input Data: Finally there's the question of what input data is being used for the analysis. Big public companies usually pay their CEOs mostly in stock, so you would normally expect a very strong relationship between stock price and CEO pay. But there's a quirk in how CEO compensation is reported to shareholders: in any given year, the reported CEO pay includes only what the CEO got for actually selling shares in that year. A chief executive could hang on to his (or too rarely, her) stock for many years and then sell it all in one big block. So in reality the CEO is collecting many years' worth of pay all at once, but the stock performance data used in this analysis probably only includes the last year. The analysis really should include CEO pay and stock performance for multiple years, possibly the CEO's entire tenure.

So the lack of correlation in a data analysis doesn't mean there's no relationship in the data. It might just mean you need to look harder or in a different place.

My Dashboard Pet Peeve

I have a pet peeve about business dashboards.

Dashboards are great in theory. The idea is to present the most important information about the business in a single display so you can see at a glance how it's performing and whether action is required. Besides, jet planes and sports cars have dashboards, and those things are fast and cool. Everyone wants to be fast and cool!

In reality, though, most business dashboards are a mess. A quick Google search for business dashboard designs reveals very few which clearly communicate critical information at a glance.

Instead, you find example after example after example after example after example which is too cluttered, fails to communicate useful information, and doesn't differentiate between urgent, important, and irrelevant information. I didn't have to look far for those bad examples, either: I literally just took the top search results.

Based on what I've seen, the typical business dashboard looks like the company's Access database got drunk and vomited PowerPoint all over the screen.

As I see, there are two key problems with the way business dashboards are implemented in practice:

First, there's not enough attention given to what's most important. As a result, most dashboards have too much information displayed and it becomes difficult to figure out what to pay attention to.

This data-minimization problem is hard. Even a modest size company has dozens, perhaps hundreds, of pieces of information which are important to the day-to-day management of the business. While not everyone cares about everything, everything is important to someone. So the impulse to consolidate everything into a single view inevitably leads to a display which includes a dizzying array of numbers, charts, and graphical blobs.

Second, the concept of a "dashboard" isn't actually all that relevant to most parts of a business. The whole purpose of making critical information available at a glance is to enable immediate action, meaning within a few seconds. In the business world, "extremely urgent" usually means a decision is needed within a few hours, not seconds. You have time to pause and digest the information before taking action.

That said, there are few places where immediate action is required. For example, a contact center has to ensure enough people are on the phones at all times to keep the wait time down. In these situations, a dashboard is entirely appropriate.

But the idea of an executive watching every tick of a company dashboard and steering the company second-by-second is absurd. I get that driving a sports car or flying a jet is fun and work is, well, work. But you will never manage a company the way you drive a car. Not going to happen.

But for better or worse, the idea of a business dashboard has resonance and dashboards are likely to be around for a while.

To make a dashboard useful and effective, probably the most important thing is to severely restrict what's included. Think about your car. Your car's dashboard probably displays just a few pieces of information: speed, fuel, the time, miles traveled, and maybe temperature and oil pressure. Plus there's a bunch of lights which turn on if something goes wrong. A business dashboard should be limited to just a handful (3-4) pieces of information which are most important, and maybe some alerts for other things which need urgent attention. This might require having different dashboards for different functions within the company--on the other hand, it would be silly to give the pilot and the flight attendants the same flight instruments.

The other element in useful dashboards is timing. If the data doesn't require minute-by-minute action, then having real-time displays serves little purpose. In fact, it might become a distraction if people get too focused on every little blip and wobble. Instead, match the pace of data delivery to the actions required. For example, a daily dashboard pushed out via e-mail, with alerts and notifications if something needs attention during the day. 

Policy vs. Culture

Yesterday, Comcast had to endure an online PR nightmare when a customer posted a recording of what happened to him when he tried to cancel his Comcast service. This NPR article has the recording, along with the Comcast's stating-the-obvious response that "We are very embarrassed" by what happened.

Comcast went on to say that, "The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives." But reading through the hundreds of comments on the NPR article and other sites, it's clear that this one call was not an isolated incident.

At the moment I imagine Comcast's PR and marketing teams are in damage control mode, trying to limit the spread and fallout of this incident.

While they do that, I encourage Comcast's executives to spend some time meditating on the difference between policy and culture.

Policy is what a company says it will do, through training, written procedures, and executive's public statements.

Culture, on the other hand, is what a company actually encourages its employees to do, through formal and informal incentives, subtle messages about which policies are more important, decisions about hiring and promotion, and where executives focus their time and attention.

I have no doubt that Comcast trains its retention agents that they shouldn't annoy customers who call to cancel. There's probably even a statement somewhere in the training manual to the effect that customer satisfaction is very important.

But who gets the bonuses and promotions: the agent who quickly and efficiently processes customer requests, or the one who convinces the most customers to not cancel?

Comcast already has a reputation for very poor customer service (which, by our survey data, is deserved). But as long as the company treats incidents like this as PR problems rather than indicators of an underlying cultural problem, Comcast's service levels and reputation are unlikely to improve.

Newsletter #80 Published

We just published issue #80 of Quality Times, Vocalabs' newsletter about measuring and improving the customer experience.

In this issue I discuss the fact that it's impossible to delight customers all the time, since they will soon come to expect that exceptional experience. This creates a treadmill of customer delight where a great customer experience raises expectations, making it harder to exceed expectations in the future. I hope you find this useful and informative, and welcome any comments and suggestions.

The Kano Model and Customer Feedback

In the 1980's, Noriaki Kano developed a conceptual model of how customer preferences drive satisfaction. This is now known as the Kano Model, and the basic idea is that attributes of a product or service can be classified by the effect they have on customers' opinions:

  • Must Have attributes are things which customers expect. Customers will be much less satisfied if the Must Have attribute isn't present, but are indifferent when it is present. For example, a car must have a steering wheel.
  • Key Drivers are those things which make customers more satisfied when they are present, and less satisfied when they aren't. These are the attributes which account for the most difference in customer satisfaction, and as a result are often points of competitive differentiation. For example, extra legroom on an airliner is likely to make you more satsified, and reduced legroom is likely to make you less satisfied.
  • Delighters are things which customers don't expect and have a positive impression. Customers will often be more satisfied if given a Delighter, but not getting one does not make customers less satisfied. For example, free overnight shipping with an online order is likely to make customers very happy, but they won't be less satisfied without it.
  • Indifferent attributes don't drive satisfaction to a significant degree. For example, most customers probably don't care much if a vending machine accepts $1 coins, since few consumers in the U.S. actually use $1 coins.

Part of the purpose of a customer feedback program is usually to make sure a company is meeting customers' expectations. In the context of the Kano Model, you want to make sure you always deliver the Must Haves and the Key Drivers, and provide Delighters where possible.

This suggests that as part of the customer feedback process you should be asking customers about whether the experience they received delivered the various elements which could be drivers of customer satisfaction. Some of this is obvious and common. For example, in a call center, Call Resolution is almost always a key driver, and most customer surveys ask about this.

But other things may not be so obvious and common. Few companies include a question about whether the employee was polite and professional, even though this is usually a significant Must Have attribute of any customer service interaction. Most companies simply assume that their employees are normally polite and professional; whereas the Kano Model would suggest that this should be tracked because you can't afford an outbreak of rudeness.

In the Kano Model, customer expectations can also shift over time. Things which used to be Delighters can become Key Drivers if customers come to expect them. Similarly, if an industry provides poor experiences over an extended period of time, what had once been a Must Have could become a Key Driver or even a Delighter (for example, free meals in coach on an airplane). What's more, one customer's Must Have might be another customer's Delighter: not all customers have the same expectations.

Fortunately, the customer feedback program can also help track changes in customer expectations. If a customer survey asks about Kano attributes, that data can be used to correlate each attribute against a top-level metric like Customer Satisfaction. Attributes which correlately highly to the top-level metric are Key Drivers. Attributes which can drag the metric down but not push it up are Must Haves, and attributes which tend to push the metric up but not drag it down are Delighters.

Armed with this information, it's possible to track how customer expecations shift over time and adjust the product and service delivery accordingly.

The Treadmill of Customer Delight

There is no such thing as a company which provides a consistently exceptional customer experience.

The problem is that customers' expectations are set, in large part, by the experiences they have already had. And so the exceptional experience can quickly become ordinary, and the ordinary experience soon becomes expected. And if you don't deliver the expected experience, the customer is disappointed.

This treadmill of rising customer expectations can seem like futility if your goal is to always delight the customer. But it's impossible to delight the customer every time, because delight requires surprise, and you can't surprise people with the expected level of service.

But the other side of the coin is that customers are reluctant to give up a level of service they have come to expect, and it's better to be the company setting the expectations than to have your competitors decide where the bar is.

For example, before Apple introduced the iPhone no company offered a touchscreen phone without a keyboard. But once the iPhone hit the market, customers' expectations of what a smartphone looked like and could do changed very quickly. This left the other mobile phone makers scrambling to offer a competitive product, and put Apple in the enviable (and profitable) position of being able to stay ahead of the competition for several years just by raising the bar a little bit each year on the iPhone.

Another example is the shipping industry. FedEx and UPS have set customers' expectations that shipping a package delivers a lot more service than just moving a box from point A to point B. Today customers expect to be able to get quotes online, request a same-day pickup, get regular updates on the location of the package, and receive a notification when it's delivered. FedEx and UPS did not have to add these services to their portfolios, but when they did, customers quickly came to expect them. Even the stodgy U.S. Post Office now offers these services.

If you're setting out to deliver a great customer experience your goal should not be to delight your customers.

Instead, you should strive to make your customers come to expect an experience which used to delight them.

Know Your Customer

Zappos, the online shoe company owned by Amazon, rightly has a reputation for providing a great customer experience.

They also know their typical customer well, and provide the kind of fun, quirky experience she (and it is mostly "she") wants.

But this can sometimes go a little awry, as it did with a recent order I recently placed with Zappos. They sent me a cheeky e-mail confirmation telling me:

We've received your order and can't help but notice your impeccable taste! Your order details are listed below, and they look fabulous!

Which probably would have been just fine, had I been ordering anything other than a pair of steel-toed boots.

Compliance and Customer Opinions

Compliance and customer opinions often get lumped together when trying to measure the customer experience, since they are both generally related to the quality of the experience.

This is a mistake because even though compliance and customer opinions are related, they are looking at different elements of the customer experience, and require different tools to measure. Many programs go astray when they try to measure customer opinions using techniques for compliance, and vice-versa.

Compliance relates to what actually happened during a customer experience: were the necessary steps followed, did the employee's actions conform to the requirements of the job, and so forth. Compliance items are usually based on objective reality.

Customer opinions are more typically related to the desired outcomes: was the customer's problem solved, was the customer satisfied, did the customer feel like it took too much effort, etc. Customer opinions live inside the customer's head, and generally can't be measured without getting direct feedback from the customer.

For example, if you want to track whether a customer service representative uses the customer's name on a call (an objective compliance-related question), it's a mistake to use a customer survey for that purpose. Likewise, if you want to measure whether customers think the wait on hold is too long (a matter of opinion), you need to actually ask customers for their feedback rather than assuming a certain length of time is OK for everyone.

To help make the right decision about how to measure different parts of the customer experience, here's a quick-reference guide:

Customer Opinion Compliance
  • Related to customer's perception of the experience
  • Related to the specific events which took place during the customer experience
  • Drives business outcomes
  • Drives customer opinion
  • Measure using direct feedback from the customer:
    • Customer surveys
    • Complaints
    • Social media
  • Measure using objective records of what happened during the customer experience:
    • Call recordings
    • Video surveillance
    • CRM entries
    • Mystery shopping
    • Analytics
  • Example metrics:
    • Net promoter
    • Customer satisfaction
    • Problem resolution
    • Customer effort
  • Example metrics:
    • Customer was promptly greeted
    • Customer was given correct information
    • Salesperson provided all required disclosures
    • CSR used customer's name

It's tempting to ask whether customer opinions or compliance is more important. I believe it's important to track both, since otherwise you're only getting one side of the story.

But even more important is to recognize whether a given metric is related to compliance or opinion, and track it using the right tool for the job.

Vocalabs Newsletter Published: Survey Overload

We just published issue #79 of Quality Times, our newsletter about measuring and improving the customer experience. This issue talks about survey overload, and why I think correlation analysis is an over-used tool in the business world.

E-mail subscribers should be receiving their copies shortly. As always, I hope you find this newsletter interesting and informative.

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