The Customer Service Survey

Vocalabs' Blog


Your bad service gave me a heart attack

I'm very skeptical of this claim, but just can't resist.

A Virginia woman is claiming that the customer service she received from Verizon Wireless was so bad that it caused a heart attack and sent her to the hospital. She had called Verizon to clear up a billing mistake, but says the CSR was so rude to her that the stress of the incident caused a heart attack and led to $60,000 in medical bills. She's suing Verizon for $2.35 million for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Whatever the legal and medical merits of this case (and I suspect they are few), it did make me stop and think. We all know that dealing with bad customer service can be very stressful, and too much stress is unhealthy. Stress can even, in rare instances, trigger hidden medical conditions.

So add to the list of reasons to provide good customer service: "Look out for the health and well-being of our customers."

Comcast's Ten Point Plan

In the wake of Comcast's acquisition of Time Warner being sunk by bad customer experience, Comcast has apparently come out with a ten-point plan for improving customer service.

The more cynical among us will recognize that when a politician says, "I have a ten-point plan," that's really code for "I will pretend to do something about this issue."

Should we be so skeptical of Comcast's own efforts? Or is it possible that the company has finally decided to get serious about improving its customer experience?

Comcast's Action Plan, as leaked to The Consumerist website, is:

  1. Never being satisfied with good enough
  2. Investing in training, tools, and technology
  3. Hiring more people ... Thousands of people
  4. Being on time, every time
  5. Get it right the first time
  6. Keeping bills simple and transparent
  7. Service on demand
  8. Rethinking policies and fees
  9. Reimagining the retail experience
  10. Keeping score

So this isn't a bad list. It's not a great list either. For example, I would have included, "Empower all employees to solve customers' problems," and, "Fix broken processes." But that's just quibbling.

The real question is: Will Comcast actually commit resources and executive support to improving customer experience on an ongoing basis?

Because it's easy to write a ten-point plan. It's also easy to spend money to hire people or buy new software. But actually changing the culture of a company takes hard work, leadership, and years of time.

Personally, I'm skeptical. As a Comcast customer I would love to see this company change its stripes. But as a Customer Experience professional, I've seen too many of these sorts of initiatives fail.

Usually what happens is that after the initial hoopla and flurry of memos, nothing actually changes. Or if the leadership is serious there may be some significant improvements for a time, but then the company declares "mission accomplished" and things go right back to the way they were.

Actual, sustained change at a company like Comcast takes sustained commitment. That's a lot harder than writing a few memos.

Newsletter #87

I just published the 87th issue of our newsletter, Quality Times. This issue talks about how bad customer experience helped sink Comcast's merger with Time Warner, and I provide some things to look at when troubleshooting an underperforming survey process.

As always I hope you find this interesting and informative.

Abusive Customer Experience

When does customer service cross the line from bad to abusive?

Here's one example which I think is well across that line: British satellite TV provider Sky (not to be confused with Skynet) has a policy that customers can only cancel by phone. It's not possible to cancel through the company's website, by email, or even by registered letter or court summons.

Not that they made that phone cancelation easy. The whole point of forcing customers through this process is to make it hard--and ensure that customers have to talk to a "retention specialist" who can try to talk them out of it. Customer complaints and horror stories about the difficulty in canceling Sky service are easy to find.

That's abusive enough on it's own. But what really elevates Sky into its own special circle of consumer hell is that for some period of time (until coming under regulatory and media fire) until May 2014, Sky's own contract on its website explicitly said that its customers could cancel "by phone or by writing to us," even though written cancelation requests were ignored.

When this problem (a problem some would describe as "breach of contract" and "generally horrible abusive behavior") was publicized, the company solved the problem simply by updating its terms to clarify that customers could only cancel by phone.

And yet this codification of customer abuse was deemed a "victory" by The Telegraph, one of the newspapers which publicized the problems. 

I think we should all be wary of winning too many "victories" like this one.

Bad CX Sinks $45B Deal

"How do you measure the ROI on Customer Experience?"

That's a common discussion topic any time customer experience professionals gather. Everyone knows that there's a payoff to having a better customer experience, but much of the benefit comes in soft forms like increased customer loyalty, brand reputation, word-of-mouth marketing, and similar categories.

Those are inherently hard things to measure, and many in the CX world come from an operational background where costs and benefits are just columns in a spreadsheet. So figuring out the ROI of customer experience can be uncomfortably squishy at times.

But every now and then there's an example where the cost of bad customer experience is so overwhelming it just can't be ignored. I wrote about one case a couple years ago, where Time Warner Cable committed $50M in marketing to try to erase the damage done by years of terrible customer service (spoiler alert: it didn't work).

Today we have an even more eye-popping example with the cancellation of the proposed $45 Billion merger between Comcast and Time Warner.

Clearly, the infamously bad customer service at Comcast and Time Warner were not the only factors leading to the deal being killed. But the poor reputations both companies have earned over the past several years played a big role.

Right at the time when Comcast needed approval from federal regulators, it found itself in an extremely hostile media environment. "Customer abused by big monopoly company" stories are like catnip to the media, and Comcast provided mountains of raw material. The company's own statements about their customer service only fed the fire, making executives sound ignorant or delusional or both.

What's more, all those unhappy Comcast customers allowed the mobilization of political opposition. It's easy to get an upset customer to write a letter to the FCC, FTC, or their senator. It created the impression that the only people standing with Comcast were either paid by the company or afraid of it.

There was no way regulators were going to rubber-stamp this deal. There was too much grass-roots opposition. In the face of what would probably be a lengthy investigation and onerous conditions on approval, Comcast decided to call the whole thing off.

Would a company less loathed than Comcast have been able to pull off this deal? Quite possibly. There have been lots of corporate mergers larger than Comcast/Time Warner, including some which raised similar antitrust concerns. Any deal this size can get dragged into politics, and success in politics means getting more people on your side than your opponent's side. Comcast simply didn't have enough friends.

I'm sure there's going to be plenty of analysis and Monday-morning quarterbacking. But in the end, this $45 billion deal died because the company couldn't rally enough support, and it couldn't rally enough support in large part because of its reputation for mistreating customers.

Bad customer experience killed the Comcast merger.

Shots Fired in the Metrics War

A recent academic paper, The Predictive Ability of Different Customer Feedback Metrics for Retention, is likely to stir things up in the debate about which is the right metric to use for customer feedback.

The paper concludes that old-fashioned customer satisfaction and Net Promoter are statistically almost identical in their ability to predict customer retention, and Customer Effort performs somewhat worse.

Already, I've seen one NPS promoter claim that this "vindicates" NPS, which is not true. If anything, this research vindicates Customer Satisfaction, which NPS proponents often claim is less predictive than NPS.

But that aside, there are some important limitations to this research:

  • The study was conducted using only Dutch participants. Given the fact that survey questions in different languages are literally different questions, the research isn't applicable to English surveys.
  • The overall sample size was respectable (over 8,000 ratings), but the follow-up survey to determine retention got about a 15% response rate. That means that a little over 1,000 responses were available to use for determining the statistical relationships between the metrics and retention. That's sufficient (but not great), except that only about 20% of the respondents answered the Customer Effort question. So conclusions about the predictive value of Customer Effort are based on less than 300 responses total, a miniscule sample for this kind of study.
  • The study authors also tried to see if there were differences between how the metrics performed in different industries, so they segmented the results into 18 (!) different industries. At the industry level, the sample is incredibly thin and the differences between the metrics generally slight, and I don't see how the authors can justify trying to draw conclusions at this level.

Those critiques aside, this is an interesting paper and they did more right than wrong. I fear, though, that people who want to promote a particular survey metric are going to mis-use and mis-understand this research. 

My own view is that way too much time and effort is spent arguing about what's the "right" metric, when it's far more important to have a robust process. If you get the process right, even a mediocre metric will give better results than a great metric and a terrible process.

So by all means read the research and understand the value of different survey metrics. But when you go to build your own program, spend your time making sure you follow the principles of Agile Customer Feedback rather than trying to find the perfect survey question.

Too Small for Surveys?

When is the right time in a company's growth to put in place a customer feedback program?

Not every company needs or would benefit from surveys. Very small businesses may be very intimate with their customers and wouldn't learn anything new from a survey process. But as organizations grow in size and complexity, the need for a survey program becomes greater.

The role of a survey program is to provide the organization with visibility into how it is performing from the customer's perspective. So the right time to think about a survey program is when the company no longer gets that visibility in the ordinary course of business.

Here are two questions to ask when deciding if it's time to start surveying your customers:

  1. Is there any one person in the company who personally interacts with a significant fraction of the customers? In a smaller company, there are usually people who directly touch a lot of the customers. For example, a B2B consultancy where the CEO meets with all customers, or a pharmacy where the pharmacist personally talks to a large percentage of the people who walk through the door. This direct personal contact gives a lot of customer insight and intimacy, and probably means that you won't learn anything new from a survey. But if your business is big enough that no one person has the time or ability to touch more than a few percent of the customer base, then the only way you're going to get the big picture of how your customers feel about you is through a survey. This is a good application for a relationship survey, where you can take the temperature of your customers from time to time and make sure everything is on the right track.
  2. Is there any one person in the company who personally oversees all customer-facing employees? Just as a larger customer base makes it harder to see the big picture of your customer relationships, having a larger number of customer-facing employees makes it harder to see the big picture of how your employees are relating to your customers. If you're big enough to require at least a couple of supervisors, you should also have a transactional survey in place to collect data on specific customer interactions. This will provide more visibility and insight into how well the employees are dealing with customers, give better opportunities for coaching, and minimize the chances that a poor employee will slip through the cracks.

Smaller companies with fewer customers and simpler operations often don't need to perform customer surveys.

The time to think about a survey process is when you get big enough that you lose that customer and operational intimacy. When there's nobody who personally knows your customers or is personally responsible for supervising all the employees who deal with your customers, a formal feedback process gives you back some of that visibility you had as a smaller organization.

B2B Customer Feedback

Customer surveys are just as important a tool in business-to-business relationships as in business-to-consumer relationships, and we see a lot of interest from B2B companies in launching or improving their feedback programs. Most of the basic principles of survey design apply just as well in the B2B world as in the B2C world, but there are some important considerations to keep in mind.

Business-to-Business relationships are usually more complicated than consumer relationships, and have much higher lifetime value. There are often multiple decision-makers and decision-influencers, making it hard to get a definitive read on the overall strength of the relationship at any given time. However, we've found that it's often not hard to get customers in a business relationship to provide some feedback, since the relationship is often very important to the customer, too.

Here are some things to keep in mind when setting up a survey program for business customers:

  1. Consider the entire customer journey. Because B2B relationships usually have many different people involved in different aspects of the relationship, you want to try to capture feedback throughout the customer journey. Experiences like customer service calls and closing trouble tickets are obvious times to offer a survey, but you should also be asking for feedback after new orders, deliveries, invoices, training sessions, and any other point where the customer interacts directly with you.
  2. Respect the customer. "Respect the customer" is the first principle of Agile Customer Feedback, and it's even more important for B2B relationships because of the number of people involved and the value of the relationship. In practice, this means:
    1. Have strong exclusion rules in place. The same person should not get asked to take a survey over and over. I generally recommend that if a customer is asked to provide feedback, the same person won't get asked again for at least 30 days for any survey (even if it's about a different experience). And by all means, if a customer asks not to be surveyed, respect that.
    2. Be on the ball with closing the loop. If a customer had a bad experience or needs attention, get to it right away. Communicate back to your customers the importance of their feedback and anything you're doing differently because of it.
    3. Respect the customer's time. Keep transactional surveys short and relevant, and schedule time for longer relationship surveys. Don't call out of the blue and ask for more than five minutes.
    4. Make it personal. Having a real person call communicates that you take the relationship seriously; sending an email communicates that you don't want to spend money listening to your customers.
  3. Have a customer-centric view. Make sure you have the ability to pull together different surveys completed by different people at the same customer. Each person is going to have a different perspective on the relationship, and you want to be able to place all those pieces of feedback into context with each other. The goal is to see both the forest and the trees.

Building an effective feedback program in a business-to-business relationship isn't any harder than in a consumer relationship. Pay attention to the basics, respect your customers, and take into account the complexity of B2B, and your program will be off to a strong start.

Can you spot the survey mistakes?

Here's an amusing/horrifying story about a customer survey process gone horribly wrong:

Me: “Sir. Why are you giving us bad grades on the survey? You said everything was good.”

Customer: “Oh. Everything was good. I just didn’t like the movie. It was confusing.”

Me: “Sir, the surveys are not for the film itself. They’re for the theater and our staff.”

Customer: “Oh, but I want the studios to know I didn’t like the movie.”

Me: “That’s not how these surveys work. We don’t make the films; we just show them. The surveys are for customers to give feedback on how we performed. It’s a common mistake people make, but I’m going to strongly encourage you not to submit that survey.”

Customer: “Why not?”

Read the full story. Can you spot all the things this company is doing wrong in its survey process? Here's a partial list of mistakes I saw:

  1. The customer has to ask for a survey form, from the staff.
  2. The survey is designed in a way that it doesn't deal with the (apparently common) problem of customers reviewing the movie not the theater.
  3. At least some customers think the survey goes to the studio, not the theater chain.
  4. Customers can fill out the form with staff watching, and the staff can apparently try to talk the customer out of the survey.
  5. Despite the flaws in the process, the survey is apparently used to fire and promote people.
  6. Even a single bad survey is enough to cause serious problems for the theater staff.

For extra credit: how would you design a feedback process for a movie theater which actually works for its intended purpose?

New Case Study Posted

We've just posted a new case study on one of our clients, a B2B medical technology company where we are conducting customer interviews after a technical service call. You can download it, and please contact us if you have any questions.

What's Effective?

I use the word "effective" a lot in the context of building a customer feedback program.

As in, "to build an effective survey you should...." or, "effective customer feedback programs usually have....." or, "that's not an effective survey technique."

"Effective" is something we all want our surveys to be, but how do you know if your survey is effective or not?

"Effective" just means that something has the desired outcome or effect. So an effective survey is simply one which achieves its goals.

It seems like stating the obvious, but if you don't have a good handle on why you're conducting a customer survey, it's unlikely you're going to get much out of the process.

So the first step in trying to understand whether your survey is effective is clearly stating the goals of the process. Some common goals are:

  • To track opinions about the customer service level month-to-month (a common, if not very ambitious, goal)
  • To coach and train employees based on customer feedback
  • To identify customer pain points and broken business processes
  • To validate changes or improvements to the customer experience

Once you know what the goals of the program are, it's usually pretty easy to determine whether the survey is effective or not. What to do about an ineffective survey is a different issue, though often if the goals are well-understood, it's also pretty clear why a survey isn't meeting those goals (i.e. not enough data, not enough detail, data is not timely enough, surveys can't be connected to specific experiences, etc.).

But more often than not, the root cause of an ineffective survey is simply that it's not clear what the survey was supposed to accomplish in the first place.

So if you're trying to build an effective survey program, the first step is to make sure everyone understands what the goals are. Without that, you don't even know what "effective" is.

Latest issue of Vocalabs' newsletter has been published

We just published the latest issue of our newsletter, Quality Times.

In this issue we announce the availability of 2014 Executive Summary reports for the National Customer Service Survey in Communications Services and Banking. This is our unique syndicated research product where we interview customers immediately after a customer service call to one of the companies we follow, allowing us to collect detailed and in-depth research about specific customer experiences.

As always, I hope you find our newsletter interesting and informative. Email subscribers should be receiving their copies shortly.

Whatever happened to that study?

This particular story comes to us from the Department of Homeland Security, probably one of the most dysfunctional federal agencies (and that's truly saying something). But it will probably be familiar, in lesser form, to many people in large organizations struggling to build an effective feedback program.

You see, DHS has a problem. Its particular problem is having the lowest morale of any federal agency. So they commissioned an employee survey, which pointed to several changes management could do to improve things.

But nothing happened after that study was completed. So they paid for another survey, which pretty much said the same thing.

Still nothing happened. Nothing happened after the third study, either. Or the fourth.

Now, though, a new factor has emerged to weigh on the depressed morale of DHS workers: too many internal surveys.

The problem is that surveys are just a tool, and like many tools, they can be used for many different purposes. The same hammer which can be used to build a house can also be used to smash the windows. It all comes down to the intent of the wielder.

Surveys can be used very effectively to gain insights, identify root causes of problems, and support a program of continuous improvement. Surveys can also be used to delay and hinder change, and create the appearance of action where none exists. It all comes down to the intent of the wielder.

For a dysfunctional bureaucracy like DHS, which apparently does not have the organizational will to face its problems and make real changes, the employee survey is a very effective tool for resisting change. "We need to study the problem" is followed by "we need to finish the study before we do anything," then "we need to do another study," and finally, "whatever happened to that study?"

The lesson is that a survey, by itself, can't change anything. The organization and its leadership has to be committed to improvement before the tool can be used as it should be used. 

Download the latest NCSS reports


We just published the 2014 Executive Summary reports for the National Customer Service Survey (NCSS). This is our ongoing syndicated research project where we track the quality of customer service at selected large companies, by conducting phone interviews immediately after a customer service call.

Our Communications Services report covers AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, DirecTV, Dish Network, Sprint, Time Warner Cable, T-Mobile, and Verizon. This report is based on over 12,000 customer interviews from 2009 through 2014, and we include nine key metrics in our Executive Summary.

The Banking report includes Bank of America, Chase, Citi, and Wells Fargo. For these four companies we have data based on over 4,000 interviews between 2011 and 2014. The Executive Summary includes the same nine key metrics, and historical trends for all nine metrics.

Both reports are available from our website; in addition to the Executive Summary reports, subscribers receive real-time access to survey data as it comes in throughout the year, full responses to our 30-question interviews, and audio recordings of our customer interviews.

>> Download Communications Services Executive Summary

>> Download Banking Executive Summary

Drowning in Data, Starved for Stories

Most customer surveys today are drowning in data, but starved for stories. They're swamped with statistics, but eschew empathy. They're loaded with Likert scales, get the idea.
The typical feedback program asks the customer to rate their experience in several different ways using a fixed scale. This lets you gather metrics, track changes, compare how well different parts of the organization are performing, and generally quantify the customer experience.
That's valuable, but it isn't the whole story. Statistics are very useful for understanding how you're doing in aggregate, but have nothing to offer when it comes to understanding the individual customer's experience.
And it's that individual customer's journey which is most important to the customer experience. Think about it: customers do not interact with a company en masse, they do it individually. Each customer has his or her own journey and own story.
This is where I see a lot of feedback programs falling down. Most programs are designed around the statistics. They do a good job collecting and reporting lots of aggregate data about how customers feel in aggregate. But they do a relatively poor job of communicating the individual customer's experience.
But if you want to improve the customer experience, you have to improve a lot of individual customer experiences. That means paying attention to those individual stories: How did this customer encounter the various touchpoints of the company? What could have been done to improve this customer's journey? What did this customer experience? How did this employee interact with this customer?
Those stories are often available, since customers are usually given the opportunity to provide some open-ended feedback. But the survey doesn't usually go out of its way to ask customers for a lot of details and specifics, and in a distressingly large number of cases those stories don't make it to the people who really need to hear them.
In some cases today, the customer comments never even get read by a person. Instead, they get categorized by an algorithm and dumped into a data warehouse, never to be seen unless some analyst happens to get curious about that particular customer.
The solution is to make an effort to collect stories and not just data, and deliver those stories to the people who can use them to do a better job:

  1. Limit the number of metrics on the survey, and instead ask more open-ended questions. You don't need to measure 53 different things, but a survey that long will dissuade customers from taking the time to tell their stories. Just a handful of metrics is all you need.
  2. If the customer interacted with a person, send the supervisor the customer's comments as soon as the survey is complete. Immediate feedback in the genuine voice of the customer is highly motivating and a powerful coaching tool.
  3. If the customer didn't interact with a person, treat every survey as a potential escalation event. Someone should review each survey as soon as possible, determine if further action is needed, and reach out to the customer if appropriate.


Post-Christmas Survey Design

It's that time of the year again, and if you're a parent and Customer Experience professional like me, you're probably busy designing your post-Christmas survey right now.

We all understand how important it is to have an effective VoC (Voice of the Children) process to help improve the Christmas Experience. So here's a few best practices which, like Rudolph's nose, will help guide you in your survey design.

1. Timely Feedback is Important

Transactional feedback is much more effective in real-time. This is just as true at Christmas as other times of the year. You want to invite your children to participate in the survey as soon after opening gifts as possible, and in our home we try to offer the survey within five minutes. This real-time survey gets a higher response rate and much more detailed feedback than if we waited a day or a week for the survey.

Real-time feedback is important on the reporting side, too. Getting an immediate survey back about something that just happened a few minutes ago is a powerful tool to help both employees and grandparents really listen to the VoC and internalize the feedback they're getting. We don't ever want to let a coaching and training opportunity slip by, so when the survey is positive we make sure to acknowledge that to everyone ("Uncle David got all 5's for the Minecraft playset! Keep it up, David!"). When the survey is negative, of course, we'll use that to do some one-on-one coaching to make sure the underperforming relative is on his or her best Christmas game for next year.

2. Interviews vs. Online Surveys

There's no one right answer about whether to use interviews or online surveys for your VoC program. Interviews have a higher response rate and get more detailed feedback, while online surveys are a lot less expensive. So when deciding which survey channel to use, take into consideration the goals of the VoC program and your budget.

Lately we've also seen a lot of interest in a hybrid approach, where some children are selected for the more in-depth interview format, and others for the online survey. This lets us target the detailed feedback where we think it will be most valuable (for example, if the VoC survey consistently shows that Grandma Joan's sweaters always flop, we may target her gifts for the interview so she can get more feedback on how to improve), but still get a lot more surveys done than we could afford with a 100% interview approach.

3. Keep It Short!

Nothing ruins the Christmas spirit like being asked to sit still for a 15-minute interview, or answer 75 questions in an online survey. So keep the survey short and to the point, and focus just on your most important metrics. I suggest using one or two high-level questions (such as Net Promoter, Effort, and/or Christmas Satisfaction) along with a handful of more specific questions about things like gift quality, wrapping paper, anticipation factor, etc. Don't forget to include a free response question!

My rule of thumb is to try to keep the VoC surveys to under 5 minutes for an interview, or a single screen (no scrolling) for an online survey. You'd be surprised what you can get done in a five minute interview, plus the response rate will be higher and the survey will be less expensive.

4. Implement a Closed-Loop Process

More and more people are realizing that much of the value of a VoC program isn't in the survey data per se, but in what you do with it. And one of the most valuable things you can do with the data is use it to drive a closed-loop process.

That means that you contact dissatisfied children in order to resolve their problems and understand the root cause of the dissatisfaction. By going through this process you will both directly increase satisfaction, and also be able to prevent future Christmas disasters. So for example, if Sylvia is upset that she got the 75-piece chemistry set instead of the 150-piece set, you may be able to offer an apology and a small piece of candy in the moment; and also implement a process to ensure that in the future all relatives understand exactly which SKU she wants for each item on her list.

5. Have Robust Reporting

Improvement over time requires careful attention to detail and the ability to slice and dice the VoC data in a lot of different ways. You want to be able to track key metrics over time, by gift and by gift-giver, by wrapping style, etc., in order to understand what's driving Christmas satisfaction and implement the appropriate process changes.

You will also want to make sure the data is delivered to the right people to enable improvement. Each year, before the gift buying season begins, each relative should have a report of prior VoC scores, along with the children's comments and the reporting tools to allow them to dive deeper into the data. Just having the right reports is going to make a huge difference in your Christmas experience!

Remember: This Is a Process, Not a Project

Bringing the VoC into the Christmas Experience is not going to happen overnight. Some relatives are likely to question the value of collecting feedback at all (remember: those are also the same relatives who are likely to score badly on the survey). My advice is to be professional but persistent. Once everyone starts seeing real data, the value of a robust feedback process will become obvious to everyone.

Mandatory Survey Questions are Evil

You're merrily filling out a survey for some company when you come to a question you just can't answer. Maybe the question is asking about something you don't have any experience with, or maybe the question doesn't make sense (not every survey is well-written). So you skip the question and click the "Next" or "Done" button.

Only to be sent back to the same page with angry red highlighting on the skipped question and a stern warning: "You must answer this question to continue."

At this point you can (a) abandon the survey, or (b) make up a fake answer. Honestly answering the question isn't an option.

This is why mandatory survey questions are evil:

  • Mandatory survey questions don't respect the fact that the customer is doing you a favor. The first rule of conducting customer surveys should always be that the customer's feedback is a gift, and should be treated as such. If a customer doesn't want to answer a question, you need to deal with that fact and not act like you're entitled to an answer.
  • There is no situation which actually requires using mandatory survey questions. A good survey designer and a well-designed process can easily find better ways to do the things mandatory questions are there for. Skip logic? Design a path for "no answer" responses. Blank surveys? Filter them out in analysis instead of rejecting what feedback there might be. Giving incentives? If someone turns in a blank survey send them an "Oops, you forgot to fill out the survey" response.
  • Skipped survey questions are a problem of survey design, not the customer's intent. Mandatory questions treat skipped questions as though the problem is the customer doesn't want to do the survey. But you already know the customer wants to do the survey because he's doing the survey. If you have skipped questions, the problem is the survey is poorly designed. Chances are it's too long, or you're asking questions which don't make sense to the customer. In the real world, well-designed surveys have very few skipped questions: we expect just a couple percent of people to skip any given closed-ended survey question.
  • Mandatory survey questions tell the customer you don't care about his feedback. Forcing the customer to answer a survey question he doesn't want to (or can't) answer says that you would rather get no feedback at all from the customer than a survey with a single box unticked. That hardly seems like the message you want to give to someone who is, after all, taking the time to help you improve.

If you have a survey with any required questions, just make them all optional. You will get better feedback, your response rate will go up, and you will sleep better at night knowing that you aren't aligned with the forces of darkness.

It's Time to Ditch That Long Survey

Is your customer survey too long?

In my opinion, if your transactional survey is longer than five minutes (for a phone interview) or one screen (for an online survey), then yes it is too long.

But even if you're not as ruthless about survey length as I am, there's a lot of surveys out there which everybody agrees are too long. I'm talking about the five-page 25-question online surveys we all know and loathe, or the 10-minute phone surveys which just seem to go on forever.

These surveys are amazingly common, yet I have never found anyone, not a single person, who disagrees with the notion that such a long survey is much too long. And I've spoken with a lot of people who currently field long surveys, and even people who designed them in the first place. Some are even our clients. And every single person I've spoken to thinks the long survey should be shorter.

So if everyone can agree that a survey is too long, why doesn't it get changed? I've heard a lot of excuses reasons, and I'm here to tell you why these don't hold water:

  • Reason #1: It takes time to build consensus to change the survey. Guess what? Everybody agrees the survey is too long. You have consensus. Go change the survey.
  • Reason #2: We've identified 57 different business drivers we need to ask about. You can't focus on 57 different things. If you're trying to focus on that many things, you're not actually focusing on anything. Chances are there are only 3-5 of the questions that anyone ever pays any attention to, and you already know what they are. Get rid of everything else. Or if you truly cannot get away from all those secondary drivers, ask each customer about a random set of three or five. This will at least let you track the overall trends and your customers will thank you.
  • Reason #3: We need to maintain continuity with our historical data set. There's really no point maintaining a worthless data set. And anything beyond the handful of questions you're really using is not serving any function and has no value.
  • Reason #4: We have a lot of process built up around the existing survey. Change is hard, we all get it. But maintaining all that process costs time and money. There's no point wasting the resources to keep delivering reports about things nobody cares about.
  • Reason #5: We are legally required to ask all these questions, in exactly this way. Okay, this is probably the one real reason not to fix a survey which is too long. Those working in the healthcare sector probably know I'm thinking of the HCAHPS survey, a legally-mandated monstrosity comprising 32 questions (which some vendors absurdly supplement with a set of their own proprietary questions). So if this is you, sorry, you're stuck. Go write a letter to your senator.

Well-designed short surveys almost always have a higher response rate, yield more useful data, allow more focus on business goals, leave a more positive impression on customers, and are easier to manage. They're usually cheaper, too.

So what's your excuse?

We Value Your Feedback!

Via the Daily WTF, it seems that Adobe has a unique way to show customers just how seriously the company takes its customer surveys (click the image for a bigger version which is actually legible):

I mean, c'mon guys, I'm sure your QA department is pretty busy testing all your software products, but would it kill you to proofread the survey once in a while?

Be Thankful for Negative Feedback

It's that time of year again: airports are filling up, frozen turkeys are on sale at the supermarket, and writers are searching for a seasonal hook for their articles.

So, right.

Most people don't like getting negative customer feedback. But getting a bad survey from a customer is actually something to be thankful for (see what I did there?). Here are three reasons why:

  1. Negative Feedback Helps You Improve: Can you imagine a basketball coach who gives nothing but positive feedback to his players? I can't, and if such a person existed, I doubt he would be very effective. Of course, everyone would rather hear the good news than the bad news, but it's the negative feedback which gives us the ability to improve. So if you want to improve your customer experience, a customer who gives negative feedback is like a coach. Sometimes coaches are angry, rude, insulting, and hard to listen to. But without that coach to point out your mistakes, you're simply not going to get any better.
  2. Negative Feedback is More Honest: Not only would most people rather hear positive feedback, most people would also rather give positive feedback. It's uncomfortable to criticize other people (even through a faceless web page), and that's why so many customers give top scores on surveys. So when a customer makes the effort to criticize instead of just saying things were fine, you're probably getting the straight dope.
  3. Negative Feedback Keeps you Grounded: The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a big problem in the customer experience world: many many companies think they provide an above-average experience when in truth they stink. A healthy dose of criticism from your own customers is one way to keep your self-perceptions grounded in reality.

So next time a survey comes back with bad scores and withering criticism, don't get upset or defensive.

Instead, take a deep breath and be thankful that you have customers willing to help you in this way.

And pass the cranberry sauce.

Money vs. Attention

Techdirt ran another article about Comcast's reputation for poor customer service today. In it, the author repeated a common conclusion which I think is probably wrong:

...Comcast has no meaningful competitive incentive to change, and therefore simply refuses to spend the money necessary to fix the problem.

He's right that Comcast has no competitive incentive to change, but wrong in assuming it's all about not spending money.

Here's the thing: it's possible to spend money on customer service efficiently, and it's possible to spend money on customer service inefficiently. If you have bad service but spend the money well, then spending more money is likely to improve the service.

But if you're spending the money poorly, then spending more won't get you better service, just more bad service.

The kinds of complaints you see about Comcast have all the hallmarks of money being spent very badly.

For example, take the complaints about very long hold times. While occasional long hold times can be caused by a surge in calls, the hold queue costs money. All those people sitting on hold are tying up phone ports and running up long distance charges. Sure it's fractions of a cent per person per minute, but it adds up. And if those people don't get through today, they're calling back tomorrow, and if they don't call back tomorrow they're probably taking their business elsewhere. Persistently long hold times are a symptom of a company digging itself ever deeper into a hole of unresolved customer problems.

And it's very expensive when a customer talks to a rep but doesn't get his problem fixed on the first call, because that customer is calling back and it's going to cost twice as much. Complaints about poor resolution rates and having to make many calls to solve a problem mean that the company is wasting money by not taking the time to fix problems properly the first time.

But even that's nothing compared to the money Comcast wastes when they have to send a truck to the customer's house multiple times for the same problem (or when they send a truck for something the customer could have fixed herself).

I have no inside information, but my gut tells me that Comcast is actually spending far more on customer service than they should have to. The problem is they are wasting most of the money by delivering very poor service.

My guess is that if Comcast got its act together, it could deliver much better service and save a ton of money. But that would require an upfront effort to (a) train agents better, (b) allow support reps to spend more time with each customer to solve the problem on the first call, (c) empower reps to solve customer problems, and (d) allow different parts of the company to coordinate better.

The irony is that this investment would primarily be in the form of management time and attention, not money. The savings would probably start rolling in pretty quickly.

So to me (as an outsider looking in), the real problem is not that Comcast doesn't want to spend the money to fix its service. The real problem is that the senior leadership doesn't want to pay enough attention to the problem to get it fixed.

Gamification vs. Incentives and Recognition

Call me a curmudgeon, but I have a hard time getting behind "gamification" in the workplace.

For those not familiar with gamification, it basically means using the principles of video game mechanics in a real-life situation, like a call center, to motivate people and change their behavior. Gamification, as a buzzword, has been around long enough to develop both hype and backlash.

My problem is that, at its core, gamification in the workplace is really nothing more (or less) than the systematic use of employee recognition, rewards, and achievement as a way to motivate employees. But people have been doing that for as long as there have been workplaces. So the "new" thing in gamification is just the idea of being deliberate and systematic about employee motivation.

But by calling it "gamification" instead of (for example) "employee recognition program," you're implying that a cleverly-crafted set of achievements can somehow transform a dreary workplace into something fun like Mario Cart. At the end of the day, though, a boring job will still be a boring job.

It can also be insulting if done wrong, implying that handing out meaningless "achievements" is just as good as giving employees raises or bonuses.

So while I'm all on board for the idea of rewarding and recognizing employees, and I think the game industry may have a few things to teach us about what motivates people, can we please stop pretending that work, for most people, is anything other than work?

So much for my life's dream

Sadly, it seems I will never be a Mad Scientist. At least not if I stay in the survey business.

Troubleshooting a Survey: What Can Go Wrong

A lot of things have to happen to build an effective customer feedback program.

The flip side of this that if you have a customer feedback program which isn't effective, there's a lot of potential reasons. Using a systematic approach to troubleshooting the feedback process can help avoid wasting time on implementing the wrong solutions.

So to help with an ineffective survey process, here's a short troubleshooting guide for common survey problems.

Problem: Low Survey Response

General Troubleshooting Questions:

  • Are you are getting accurate contact information for customers?
  • Does the survey work (no errors, database problems, etc.)?
  • Is the survey a reasonable length (one page with no scrolling for online surveys, five minutes or less for phone interviews)?
  • Does the survey appear to come from a legitimate source?
  • Are you ensuring that customers don't get over-surveyed?
  • Can the customer take the survey immediately when asked, or does the customer need to remember to do it at a later time?
  • Does the survey require the customer to go through extra steps (copy a code from a receipt, call a phone number, etc.)?
  • Does the survey have mandatory questions?
  • Is the customer asked to take the survey a long time (days or even weeks) after the transaction?

Troubleshooting Questions for Email/Online Surveys:

  • Are survey invitations being marked as spam?
  • Does the invitation look professional and legitimate?
  • Does the invitation explain why you want the customer's feedback?
  • Does the invitation promise that the survey will be short (note: the survey must actually be short)?

Troubleshooting Questions for Phone Interviews:

  • Do the phone interviewers sound polite, empathetic, and professional on the phone?
  • Do the phone interviewers have noticeable foreign accents?
  • Is the Caller ID set to a real phone number which customers can call back to verify the survey is legitimate?
  • Does the interview script give an honest estimate of the survey time?
  • Do interviewers identify themselves and the sponsor of the survey?

Problem: No Follow-Through With Customers

Troubleshooting Questions:

  • Do you have a closed-loop process for customers who may want or need extra attention?
  • Is there tracking to ensure customers who need follow-up are actually contacted?
  • Are follow-up calls conducted by someone empowered to solve the customer's problem?
  • Do you capture and track the root causes of customers' issues?
  • Are follow-up calls conducted by someone other than the person who may have caused the customer's problem?

Problem: Survey Responses Are Not Relevant to the Business

Troubleshooting Questions:

  • Has the survey been updated recently?
  • Have you reviewed the performance of each survey question, and removed questions which are not yielding useful information?
  • Have you experimented with new survey questions relevant to current business issues?
  • Are you asking follow-up questions when customers have negative feedback?
  • Do you ask business stakeholders to provide feedback on what questions are relevant to them?
  • Do you regularly update the survey as the business needs evolve?
  • Do front-line employees have access to raw customer feedback in real time?

Problem: The Business Does Not Fix Known Problems in the Customer Experience

  • Is there a leadership commitment to improve the customer experience?
  • Do other parts of the organization get data to show how they impact the customer experience?
  • Are you using individual customer stories to persuade the organization that these issues are important?
  • Is the customer survey perceived as credible?
  • Does the company culture encourage listening to customer feedback?
  • Can you connect poor customer experience to financial metrics (through churn, increased operational expense, higher customer acquisition cost, etc.)?

Problem: Too Much Survey Data and Not Enough Useful Information

  • Have you reviewed the performance of each survey question and removed questions which are not yielding useful information?
  • Are you giving customer-facing employees direct and real-time access to their customer feedback?
  • Are you asking follow-up questions when the customer gives negative feedback?
  • Do you have a reporting tool which allows easy filtering of customer feedback?
  • Are you tracking general categories of customer comments in free response questions?
  • Do your categories evolve as the business needs change?
  • Do you keep the number of categories manageable, so you don't have categories which are either irrelevant to the business or statistically insignificant?

Problem: Survey Reports Are Ignored

  • Is there a leadership commitment to improve the customer experience?
  • Does the company have a culture of listening to customer feedback?
  • Are survey reports tailored to the needs of the individual recipient, or does everyone get the same reports?
  • Can recipients of survey reports modify the reports (filter the data, calculate new metrics, read customer comments, etc.)?
  • Have you asked for feedback on survey reports from the people who receive them?
  • Do recipients of reports feel they have a stake in the customer feedback process?

These questions get to a lot of common underlying problems we see with customer feedback processes. This doesn't cover everything that can go wrong, but it's a good place to start if you don't think you're getting the results you should.

Vocalabs Newsletter #83 is published

We just published issue 83 of Quality Times, our newsletter about measuring the customer experience.

In this issue I have two articles: one about the difference between "insightful" and "useful" data (spoiler alert: they are not the same!), and another about what makes a customer experience brittle.

As always I hope you find this interesting and informative. You can also subscribe to receive our newsletter via email, and receive it as soon as it's published every month.

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