Fix the problems—then we have fully responded to customer feedback; so the thinking goes…
Posted by Bruce W. Woolpert on Mar 18, 2015
How do businesses manage customer feedback? The feedback could arrive in a letter, a phone call, a face-to-face meeting, or a formal customer satisfaction survey. In most organizations, businesses focus nearly all of organization’s time and energy on what the feedback tells us didn’t go well or areas in which the business fell short of a competitor. Effort is needed to attack these problem areas and correct them. The goal is to be the best at earning a customer’s business every day. The thinking is that if we eliminate any “negatives” then customers will want to continue to do business with us.
Actually, the necessary work of effectively utilizing customer feedback is far from complete. What’s missing is developing a clear, well-communicated understanding within our business teams regarding reasons why customers are already doing business with us. We are already doing many things right to earn a customer’s business (or we would already be out of business). But, I find in an amazing number of businesses, or departments within a large organization, there is very little understanding and precious little agreement within the organization on what those “positive things” are. If the question is asked internally, so why did “Customer X” decide that spending money with us today was a good idea? The answers are often couched in the service-focused personality of a single sales representative or a gregarious private work estimator. Such non-thoroughly considered responses tell everyone in the organization that the current success (and by implication future success) is not dependent on the entire team’s hard work in meeting customer needs. We all know that an organization’s service delivery is like a strand of metal chain—our service quality system can only be as strong as the weakest single link in that chain.
Every member of the team carries out an essential function (single link) in serving a customer (or we don’t need that function to be performed). No business can allow weak performing links. The feedback tells us which link fell down, but it also implicitly tells us that the rest of the chain of service did well. In making the customer satisfaction chain strongest, we need to fix the broken links and strengthen the positive performing ones. Otherwise, and it happens regularly across America, the positive customer service links gradually weaken. That’s why you often hear about a supplier or contractor, “their service was better many years ago.”
Taking an example, a customer complains in a face-to-face meeting about invoice timeliness and accuracy. Does that not occur normally at the end of the service chain? We shouldn’t forget to ask about how service performance had gone up until invoicing? What the customer is likely saying is “everything starting with placing the order through delivery of the product or service met my needs, but at the end of this business transaction, the invoicing fell down.” So, we didn’t just learn that a customer thinks invoicing needs to be improved. The other message is “keep doing well what you are already doing well.” It’s important to have a discussion with our teams about each step of the customer service process, in other words define the service chain, and reinforce what is performing well for customers and then talk about how to fix what is broken. This strengthens the positives so that they are consistently done well by everyone. Remember, these positives are essential to our business, because these strengths are why customers are doing business with you now. Strengthen them AND also address the invoicing deficiency. Do not allow those strengths to be taken for granted as they will require continuous improvement.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Nordstrom was considered the unquestioned customer service leader in retailing. James and Bruce Nordstrom told Graniterock People that it was a never-ending challenge to get store clerks to cheerfully exchange merchandise or give customers their money back. They tracked “return percentages” at each store and when the percentage went down slightly (as they inevitably did) they visited the store to get trends headed in the right direction again. The Nordstrom brothers had learned that it was human nature to protect the business by “not wanting to give customers their money back.” So, over time, retail associates naturally and gradually lost their enthusiasm for returns, yet when good return practices were celebrated and reinforced, this customer satisfaction link did not wither.
There are countless other business customer satisfaction chain links: quickly answering telephones and taking responsibility for the caller’s complete needs without passing the caller onto someone else; being available to customers whenever the customer needs something done; be product and service expert-knowledgeable so customer advice and support are effective and valuable; do what you say you will do for a customer—keep 100% of your commitments; take care of problems with even greater courtesy and professionalism than you did in taking the customer’s order in the first place; and always abide by the organization’s core values especially honesty and integrity in all dealings with customers, co-workers and members of the public. These satisfaction-link examples weaken on their own if their importance is not consistently celebrated, re-enforced and re-taught. When we use customer feedback to teach only what is wrong, we miss a very important opportunity to build cohesiveness in delivering service quality. Research studies have shown that the highest performing business organizations are those in which everyone in the organization can automatically, and without discussion, anticipate how the organization will respond to customer need situations. There exists among team members an “implicit agreement” on all of the service links that matter the most.
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