Time to junk the satisfaction survey
Buster Keaton's approach to housebuilding is still alive and well nearly 100 years on

Time to junk the satisfaction survey

Why your customer strategy should focus on complaints

I was half listening to the news the other day when I heard a story about a couple who were selling their new-build house at less than they paid for it “because it was sh*t”. Apparently, the poor people had got so fed up with the number of things wrong that they had wearied of their constant complaints to the builders and decided that to put it on the market. Presumably they’d felt that the loss they’d realise on the sale would be less than the stress of continuing to live there.

I can’t find the reference to the story – there’s only so many times you can type four-letter words into Google – so I don’t know who the builders in question were, although they did issue a statement to say that the customers had received compensation and repairs in line with the contract they had signed. Whoever they were though they have missed a massive opportunity. In fact, they should have paid the couple handsomely for taking the time to complain, because

complaints are the best customer feedback you can get.

So wrong, it’s right

Most companies I know invest time and money in finding out what their customers think of them. The problem with this “voice of the customer” approach is that, when applied to all your customers, it just produces an average view – i.e. what keeps most of them satisfied. Even the sainted Net Promoter Score approach frequently fails to ask the net promoters why they are so enthusiastic about the company.

I think you could just junk most customer satisfaction surveys as the surefire way to get meaningful feedback is to make it easy for the customer to provide you with it, positive or negative.

Think about it: customers who love you or who have just had amazing service will want to tell you about it and those who haven’t will also do the same.

“That’s all very well” I hear you say, “but what about the ones who don’t complain and just leave.”

To which my reply is: too bad – you probably didn’t act on the feedback from your complainers earlier – and those middling-dissatisfied customers would be unlikely to respond to your customer-wide survey.

Inconvenient truths

I’ve noticed that organisations generally don’t give as much attention to complaints and negative feedback as they should do, and I think the reasons for this is that there’s a bias – reassuringly it’s a human trait – towards good news. We’re hard-wired to create a story around the way we want things to be rather than how they actually are, or indeed, how they appear to someone else.

Customers who fail to fully appreciate the products and services we’ve spent a massive effort perfecting are an inconvenience, a distraction from the narrative we’re trying to create, even when their lack of appreciation is down to something we’ve failed to deliver.

Our bias, therefore, is towards those customers who fit the norm. Unfortunately, they are not the source of innovation and improvement.

Just about managing

Dealing with customers who don’t fit the norm – i.e. the massively dissatisfied ones – is the domain of complaints management which is a frequently neglected and under-resourced area. The overriding attitude is to get the complaint dealt with as efficiently as possible, making sure the customer isn’t over-compensated along the way. Sure, you need to provide redress and to put things right, but the opportunity is often missed to find out what the customer’s desired outcome was and to do what you could to deliver that outcome, not just the initial product service.

For example, the hapless couple in the new-build house probably wanted something more than a non-leaking roof over their heads (although apparently even this was beyond their builder’s capability), they wanted a home. And whilst this isn’t an unusual outcome, I bet the building firm didn’t have the nous to sit down with their customers and find out what it was about a home that they wanted – their unspoken needs if you like. Finding and delivering against these, rather than ineptly repairing an initial botched job, would have created delighted customers.

Complaints at the core

Building a customer strategy around complaints is the efficient, if counter-intuitive, route to increasing the number of delighted customers. The elements of such a strategy should answer the following questions:

  • How easy do we make it for customers to provide feedback? (Answer: it should be very easy, and through multiple channels, including social media.)
  • How do we resource those channels?
  • How far do we empower front line people to sort out complaints focusing on customer outcomes?
  • How do we learn from feedback?
  • How do we use the learning to be able to anticipate and deal with complaints before they happen?
  • Who is responsible for driving through the improvements that result from root cause analysis?

Focus your strategy on answering these questions and you can drop your customer satisfaction surveys.

Nick Bush

Nick is a business advisor and non-executive director who helps organisations improve their focus and performance by developing customer-centred strategies and business plans. He has helped companies transform the way they do business through better strategies, change management and technology, with a relentless focus on the customer. Nick has worked across all kinds of business sectors from telecoms to banking, chemicals to charities - as owner of Open Chord his current focus is on helping arts and non-profit organisations to be more successful by creating a solid planning foundation that will help them grow.