I recently received an email from a magazine writer saying that she was doing a piece on how retailers should obtain and use customer feedback. Would I be available for an interview on the topic and if so what would be a good time?
I wrote back saying I'd be happy to talk but just by way of preview I wanted her to understand my position, which was basically that good retailers and other service providers don't regularly seek customer feedback in any active sense. Executives at these companies are well plugged in to what is happening in every aspect of their business. Their principal customer feedback consists of healthy in-store conversion rates, returning customers, growing sales and increased profitability.
Predictably, the reporter responded by saying she didn't want to interview me after all.
Customer feedback surveys have, of course, become easy to put out there because of inexpensive survey software and widespread use of the internet. Yet the idea of seeking customer feedback via these surveys is based on a fundamentally absurd premise: that it is the responsibility of the customer to help the company run its own business and become more profitable.
American comedian Bill Maher was among the first to question the practice of companies surveying consumers about their customer experiences.
In a stand-up gag on TV he tells a company, "I'd love to help you improve your customer relations. But a) I don't work for you and b) I don't give a (expletive). You know, I was actually pretty happy with your customer service, up to the point where you asked me to take a survey about your customer service."
Maher makes a good point. Why should customers spend their valuable time helping you without compensation?
'Secret shopping' has been around for a long time and the practice has often gathered valuable information. So too has the practice of administering 'exit' surveys at shopping centres, where shoppers are intercepted by researchers and asked if they would submit to a brief survey in return for some form of compensation, usually coupons or another form of non-cash reward. These forms of research are hard work and expensive to put together.
Enter the electronic consumer feedback surveys that pop up on computer screens or appear in email inboxes.
By making the research process so cheap and easy these feedback surveys have become ubiquitous, rote, demanding, frequently irritating and almost always worthless to the company asking for the information.
Why worthless? First, because the respondents are going to be biased in numerous ways; for example, toward those who have had a bad experience and want to vent. Second, for economic reasons. When consumer research is free or very cheap it is more likely to be used at times when it isn't really needed and it may even become company policy to administer it regularly even when the benefits are marginal or non-existent. This leads to formulaic questions and, worse, to the company not really listening to the answers.
The need to constantly survey customers also often reflects a disconnectedness on the part of executive management about what is happening at the coalface. If management were occasionally out there on the sales floor engaging with shoppers, and also willing to analyse transactions data thoroughly, maybe they would know what was going on without wasting the precious time of their own customers.
Some companies use the survey habit to unwittingly remind their customers over and over again how little they care about them. For example, take the telcos and banks that ask you to stay on the line at the end of the call to “tell us about your experience".
Now let's dissect this for a moment. First, most likely the customer has already been tortured by an uncomprehending voice recognition system and a menu of options that didn't appear to address his or her specific need.
Second they were on hold for anywhere from five to 25 minutes and up, listening to muzak punctuated by reminders of "how important to us your call is".
Third, they finally got through to a customer service rep with whom as much as half an hour was wasted, during which the customer was hounded by security questions and asked to hold on three separate occasions. At the end of this he or she may well have been passed along to a second “specialist” and even at the end of the second conversation there is a good chance the enquiry was not satisfactorily addressed.
And now, after all that, they want the customer to stay on the line and rate their experience?
These companies genuinely do not care about their customers and are simply fulfilling a bureaucratic requirement. Fortunately, not all companies are like that and many do genuinely care what their customers think. But that still doesn't give them carte blanche to routinely hang out a consumer feedback survey.
Some companies are well justified in asking for feedback from their customers once in a while though, for example if they are planning to change something about a product or how it is sold. If you do decide to use an electronic feedback survey, make the survey really short and make sure the respondent is rewarded appropriately for his time. Remember, he or she is not your employee.
Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.mbaker-retail.com.