Agile Customer Feedback

Why We Still Like Phone Interviews

by Peter Leppik on Fri, 2017-09-08 16:26

While we at Vocalabs provide a variety of customer feedback channels to our clients, we still think phone interviews are often the most important tool when it comes to using customer feedback to actually drive change in an organization.

That may sound strange in the year 2017. Isn't everything supposed to be online and automated now? Aren't phone calls going the way of the carrier pigeon? And what about those millennials?

Here's why we think phone interviews are not only still relevant, but often the best survey tool for improving customer experience:

  • People still respond to phone interviews. Response rates for email and online surveys have been dropping for years, but remain significantly higher for phone interviews. Customers are more likely to respond to a request from a living, breathing human being than an automated email dropbox. And, yes, millennials do still use their smartphones as phones from time to time.
  • Phone interviews capture depth and nuance. In a two-way conversation we can ask follow-up questions, and the audio recording captures not just what the customer said but how they said it, giving emotional depth and a deeper understanding of what happened.
  • Employees respond to audio feedback from real customers. Hearing a customer tell their story packs an emotional punch you just can't get with written feedback and numerical survey scores. People respond and are more inspired to change when they hear how the customer experience affects individual customers.
  • Phone interviews can be in the moment and real-time. Often you want customer feedback after a specific customer experience, like a customer service call or purchase experience. Calling the customer on the phone lets you get feedback immediately, not when the customer gets around to it.
  • Person-to-person contact shows you care and creates a positive brand impression. Making the effort to have a real human being follow up with a customer sends a powerful message that you actually care what they have to say and their feedback won't just disappear into the machine.

Of course no one solution is always the right answer in every situation. Our experience with phone interviews is that if you want to collect feedback your organization will actually listen to, then most often than not phone interviews are the way to go.

Listening to Customers

by Peter Leppik on Wed, 2017-06-14 14:01

Every company likes to say that it listens to customers. But when was the last time you literally listened to a customer?

I've learned over the years that listening to customers--through audio recordings of interviews or direct conversation with customers--is one of the most powerful tools for developing customer insights and empathy. Through our voices we communicate so much more than mere words: we communicate emotions, context, and subtle shadings of meaning.

If you've ever tried (and failed) to use sarcasm in an email, you know what I'm talking about.

I firmly believe that how you use recordings of customer interviews is a big factor in whether your customer feedback process actually drives change in your company or just sits on a shelf. From coaching front-line employees to advocating in front of executives, audio recordings are often the difference between inspiring change and arguing about statistics.

But I've found that many companies don't use this powerful tool, even when it's available. They think that listening to audio feedback will take too long, or bias their thinking. Or they assign low-level employees to listen to recordings, and senior decision-makers never hear them.

Here's three places you should be using the literal voice of your customers to drive change in your organization:

1. Persuading leadership to back changes

As part of your customer feedback, you've probably identified a few areas where investment is needed. It's important to make the business case, but many other initiatives will also have a strong payback (at least on paper).

I believe that in a customer-focused company customer-focused initiatives should have priority (all else being equal). Using a few audio snippets to illustrate the customer impact can help drive this point home. Of course you will want to make sure that your recommendations are backed by solid data and statistics.

It's hard to ignore when actual customers are telling you that you've got a problem. Illustrating your recommendations with selected recordings can help build a sense of urgency for taking action.

2. Gaining new insights

Recordings of customer interviews can help you understand customers' needs and opinions in a way that statistics and written feedback often don't. Audio lends itself to empathy and understanding.

Rather than listening to a large number of customer recordings (which can take a long time and not feel very productive), I generally use the statistical data to look for interesting trends and correlations. When I see something that makes me go, "hmmm," I'll select several recordings that seem to have a similar pattern and listen to them all to see what's really going on.

This method avoids a lot of the guesswork and assumptions that often happen when you try to interpret survey data. Often you discover that the customer is telling you exactly what you want to know, you just need to listen.

3. Coaching customer-facing employees

Interview recordings can help employees better understand what customers want and need. Customers are viewed as more credible sources of criticism and feedback than supervisors and coaches.

I recommend having the employee listen to the entire customer interview, and then ask the employee to interpret the interview through the lens of how their actions could have better served the customer or changed the customer's opinion of the interaction. In many cases, when the customer was completely satisfied, there's not much that could be done. But if the customer was not happy, often the employee will see the root cause and what could have been done differently to help or mitigate the problem.

It's important with this kind of coaching to remind the employee that each customer's feedback is just one person's opinion, and should be taken in the spirit of constructive criticism. Viewed in this light, often very negative or unfair feedback can lead to ideas for how to better handle a similar situation in the future.

The bottom line is this: If you are collecting audio customer feedback and not actively listening to it and using it to drive change, you are missing one of the most powerful tools in the Voice of the Customer toolkit.

Two Views of Your Company

by Peter Leppik on Wed, 2017-04-19 15:11

Perspective matters.

One of the reasons we do customer feedback is because customers have a different view of a company than the company has of itself. Getting that outside perspective is important not only because you want to please your customers. It's also often the case that customers see inside the company's own internal blind spots.

It's common for companies to have lots of internal moving parts that have some friction between them. This is especially true when the company has been around a long time, or has grown through multiple acquisitions. There can be very complicated multilayered processes to help all the pieces work together, and when thing go well all of this should be invisible to the customer.

But the more complicated the processes and organization, the more likely it will be that there will be gaps. That's where getting the outside view can be extremely helpful.

Because chances are if you have gaps in your processes, there's customers falling into it. They may not understand what exactly is going wrong, but they will definitely notice that they aren't getting the level of service they expect. Maybe calls aren't being returned, or paperwork is getting lost, or customers are getting incorrect invoices. But whatever the situation, the customers know that their expectations aren't being met.

Chances are that any process issues like this are relatively rare, because if they were common they would have been noticed and fixed.

(If problems like this are common, then you might have a completely different set of issues like systemic mismanagement or even fraud. Wells Fargo probably had lots of customer complaints about fraudulent accounts, but senior leadership had a strong incentive to ignore them.)

Just because a problem is rare doesn't make it any less important to the customer who experiences it. And some of those process gaps can be very expensive in terms of added customer service cost, lost business, and even legal expenses if the situation is bad enough.

Fortunately, it's not hard to bring the customer's perspective into your organization to shine a spotlight on your blind spots:

  • Treat every customer complaint as though it might be the tip of a larger iceberg. Most of the time this won't be the case, but always ask yourself whether it could be.
  • Assume that for every customer who tells you about a bad experience, there are ten others who had a similar experience but stayed silent. This is going to be true more often than not, and will help put what may seem like isolated incidents into perspective.
  • Understand that your internal processes and metrics aren't giving you the whole picture. Gaps exist precisely because your internal view of the customer's experience isn't giving you the whole picture. Don't accept a "nothing went wrong" conclusion until you know exactly why the customer's view is different from yours.
  • And as a corollary, don't conclude that the customer is wrong or trying to cheat you until you've rules out every other reasonable explanation. There are some customers who will try to get something they don't deserve, but it's too easy to use that as an excuse for ignoring a bigger issue inside the company.

The key is to remember that there are two sides to every story, and two views of every company. Often we're blind to the problems inside our own organization, maybe because we've become habituated to them, or maybe because they don't seem as important as they should be. Getting the customer's view can help see gaps that live in your blind spots.

Helpful Feedback

by Peter Leppik on Wed, 2017-02-08 15:58

Imagine taking a college class, and at the beginning of the semester the Professor announces, "For this class, we're not going to be handing back any of your papers or exams, and we won't tell you any of your grades on individual assignments and tests. The only grade you'll get is your final grade at the end of the semester which will be an average of all your work."

You wouldn't expect to learn much in this class. In order to improve, you would want to know what you were doing well at and where you needed to improve throughout the semester. You would want specific feedback about specific things you had done.

And yet many customer feedback programs are structured just like this insane Professor's class. Somehow we expect employees to know how to improve despite only getting an average survey score every month or every quarter.

In order to make a survey program helpful, we need to give people the chance to connect specific customer feedback to specific things the employee did to garner that feedback. We also need to help employees think about the feedback as constructive criticism so they have the tools to apply the feedback to their daily customer interactions.

Here are some tips to help make this happen:

  • Deliver feedback directly to front-line managers and supervisors as soon as it comes in. Managers and supervisors should discuss the feedback with employees as soon as is practical, either for encouragement or for ways to improve.
  • Don't make the survey process so high-stakes that employees feel they must get good scores or else. This inhibits learning, and can also lead to survey manipulation.
  • Treat negative surveys as opportunities to improve, not mistakes to be punished. Always remember that each survey is only one customer's opinion, and while you want customers to have good opinions it's also not possible to please everyone.
  • Don't just ask customers for a rating, ask them to explain what happened and why they feel they way they feel. We learn more from stories than from statistics.

There are, of course, real concerns about managing the delivery of customer feedback to employees. But the solution is better coaching and supervision, not giving people so little feedback that it becomes useless.

Proven Success

by Peter Leppik on Wed, 2016-09-21 15:21

I was going through some of our old client data and discovered something very interesting. In every single case where a client has adopted the broad outlines of the kind of survey process we advocate in Agile Customer Feedback, the client has seen substantial long-term gains. For example:

  • Client A: +10 to NPS
  • Client B: +12 to CSAT with the support incident
  • Client C: +14 to Call Sat in the contact center
  • Client D: +13 to Call Sat

These improvements are changes in full-year survey scores from the first year we started working with each client up to the most recent year we have comparable survey data.

I didn't include all our clients on this list, but we have seen statistically significant (and often remarkable) improvements in survey scores at every single client where we:

  1. Conduct real-time phone interviews of their customers after a customer experience,
  2. Deliver the feedback to the front lines of the organization in real time, and
  3. Have at least two years of survey data.

It's not often in the business world where you can honestly say you have a solution that works every time. But in our case it's true. Every single time we've implemented an Agile Customer Feedback process for a client, it's delivered significant and sustained improvements over the long term.

Do You Want Positive Feedback or Honest Feedback?

by Peter Leppik on Fri, 2016-04-08 17:16

Which would you rather have: Positive customer feedback, or honest customer feedback?

Most people would probably say "both," but it's not always possible to have both. If the honest customer feedback isn't positive, then you can only get one or the other.

So when forced to choose, I would generally prefer honest feedback over positive feedback. As long as the person giving me feedback isn't being cruel or demeaning, I would rather hear about ways I can improve than get my ego stroked. At least that's what I say, and what the rational part of my mind thinks. In reality, hearing negative feedback can be hard, even though it's also much more valuable.

I think most business leaders would probably agree with me: it's better to get honest feedback from customers than positive feedback.

But the real-world incentives at most companies don't support this. Incentives based on customer feedback are always designed to encourage positive feedback, not honest feedback. That's because it's easy to measure how positive the customer feedback is, but almost impossible to measure how honest it is.

Where companies base bonuses and compensation on customer surveys, this leads to a perverse incentive to get customers to give higher scores no matter the customer's actual opinion. Is it any wonder that survey manipulation is so common?

The problem is that when customers don't give you the straight story, the feedback has no value. You might as well not do the survey at all if you can't get honest feedback.

So what's the solution?

The first step has to be to stop undermining yourself. If you give employees incentives to only deliver positive feedback, stop that.

That probably means you shouldn't be using survey scores for employee bonuses at all, since it's difficult-to-impossible to create an incentive system that encourages honest feedback.

The next steps are much harder. The goal is to create a culture where customer feedback is seen as constructive criticism and an opportunity to improve. That will require significant effort coaching employees in how to listen to customers without becoming defensive or negative.

But if your customer surveys are biased towards giving you positive, rather than honest, feedback, then you're not getting any value anyway.

What's Effective?

by Peter Leppik on Mon, 2015-03-02 12:05

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.

Whatever happened to that study?

by Peter Leppik on Fri, 2015-02-20 16:44

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. 

Drowning in Data, Starved for Stories

by Peter Leppik on Wed, 2015-01-28 16:08

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, but....you 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.

 

Be Thankful for Negative Feedback

by Peter Leppik on Fri, 2014-11-21 15:31

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.