“Are You Looking? Are You Listening?”

Feedback from either employees or customers is a gift. And if you use it well, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

In today’s hypercompetitive world, customers are changing even as I write. What was a standard yesterday is yesterday’s standard. The customer’s requirements for speed, accuracy, delivery, customization, and competency increase or change every time a new model of business appears. And that is pretty frequent these days.

Last week I was having lunch with the CEO of a successful conference firm. He told me that he LOVED buying books from Amazon.com. LOVED it–better service than he ever received in a bookstore, and he never had to leave his desk.

I countered with, “Of course, if you know what you want, and you don’t need help, that’s great, but…”

“No buts,” he said. “I find all the help I need online, and I can read the reviews other people put in there. I don’t have to interact with a human being, and I have never had a better experience.”

His buying pattern had changed, and he was perfectly happy with the new model. I wonder what store or catalog had lost his business. I’ll bet it didn’t even know that he was gone. And who is losing the business that is going to all the other companies that offer such elegant online ease without the uncertainty of dealing with real human beings? Could it be you? Are you competing adequately?

It is more important than ever before to be getting feedback from your customers on how their buying habits are changing and what it is they are doing in other areas of their lives that could affect their buying habits in the future. Are your customers falling in love with the concept of self-service? Are they bidding for airline tickets on Priceline? Are they researching for things you could be providing them? Have you checked?

This is why you need to ask your customers for feedback and set up “customer listening systems” so that everyone in the organization is working toward understanding more about what will help you keep your customers.

There are lots of ways of obtaining customer feedback, with each way providing a different kind of information:

* Total market surveys measure the overall assessment of your company’s service and include both your customers and those of your competitors.

* Transactional surveys happen right after the service interaction; they focus on the most recent experience.

* Point-of-service feedback is a great way to ask the “how did we do?” kinds of questions. I like to ask, “Is there any way we could have made it easier for you to do business with us?”

* Mystery shopping measures individual behavior. It’s useful for coaching, but it’s not one of my favorites, unless it is used without judgment. I’d rather see it done on an informal basis: Have your brother-in-law shop your company, have a friend call in and see how long he is left on hold. Use it for general impressions.

* New customer/lost customer surveys determine why customers past and present select, reduce buying, or leave. They help you assess the role that service quality plays in patronage and loyalty.

* Focus groups usually home in on specific topics. They’re most effective when used in combination with projectable research.

* Customer dialogue includes visits with customers to discuss and assess the service relationship and, in the case of business-to-business relationships, where their business is going in the future.

* Customer advisory groups are groups of customers recruited periodically for feedback and advice.

* Complaint/comment systems are processes to retain, categorize, and distribute customer complaints and comments. They enable you to identify the most common service failures and opportunities to improve.

* Employee surveys are great for measuring internal service quality and identifying employee-perceived obstacles to improving service. In addition, they help you to track morale and attitudes.

And then of course, there is the conversation. That’s the ongoing dialogue we can have with a customer every time he calls. During each conversation we should seek to listen deeply and really hear what the customer is asking for. Because sometimes it is the human element of kindness that even our customers need.

JoAnna Brandi is president of Boca Raton, FL-based JoAnna Brandi & Co. (www.customercarecoach.com), a customer service consultancy.

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