Back in my youth I spent my summers travelling to athletics meetings. This was a time before Garmin and Google when you had to navigate with something called a map book. Arriving in a new town I’d sometimes get lost and need to ask for directions.
I soon learned that “please can you tell me the way to the athletics stadium” provided much better information than “the athletics stadium is this way, yes?” This is how feedback works. You ask for directions is to learn something new, not to confirm your assumptions were right.
Asking another human for directions seems to be a dying art. But businesses are asking their human customers for directions all the time. Or at least they should be. These directions are the best way to help a business to course-correct. But easy access to simple survey tools has turned most businesses from listeners to measurers. Just like easy access to GPS has turned most travellers from askers to followers.
How feedback works
When asking for directions from customers, businesses can focus on one of three things:
- Measurement-focus – listening to measure
- Response-focus – listening to reply
- Customer-focus – listening to understand
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
Stephen Covey, Author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Measurement-focused – listening to measure
Satisfaction is now very easy to distil into a number or smiley face. This makes it quick to give and quick to analyse. Smiley face terminals are cropping up across physical locations. NPS questions are often texted or emailed to customers after each interaction. Businesses like the simplicity of the feedback process. The question is consistent and requires minimal customer engagement.
However, this 1-way process can also leave customers confused. Where does the feedback go? What does the business do with it? Why should I bother responding next time? Several years ago I got so frustrated with BA texting me the same survey, that I rated everything a zero. I put my email address in the comments and asked them to prove that someone was reading them. I’m still waiting…
Being able to measure customer experience is important. But only focusing on the number is not how feedback works. If you don’t know why the number is going up or down, you can’t make any informed decisions about how to change it. It’s like asking decision-makers to hit a moving target wearing a blindfold.
Response-focused – listening to reply
Listening to reply makes feedback a 2-way process. Usually between humans but occasionally between chatbots. Most customer service falls into this category. The customer has a question or query, and a staff member helps them to answer or resolve it. Over time, staff get quicker at resolving the common issues. They also feel good about being able to help more people faster.
A similar situation happens with organisations who can’t see the difference between feedback and complaints (banks, I’m looking at you). So all feedback gets funnelled into their complaints process. Once again, the goal becomes resolving the feedback, not learning from it.
As businesses get better at resolving issues, they get worse at addressing the root causes. The issues aren’t captured or tracked across channels. No-one is responsible for asking why they are happening in the first place. As a result, they miss out on valuable opportunities to reduce cost and improve revenues.
Customer-focused – listening to understand
If our friends are unhappy, we don’t ask them to rate their happiness each day until it gets magically better. Or ask them a series of multi-choice questions to diagnose their problems from our perspective. Instead, we ask open questions and then listen to their answers. Rather than assuming we know why they’re unhappy, we let them tell us.
Using feedback to understand works the same way. It means asking open questions that help customers explain their feelings and experiences. In their words and from their perspective. It’s about seeing the situation ‘outside-in’.
Summary – reimagine how feedback works
When you look at how feedback works in successful organisations, you see a blend of all three approaches. Customer experience is measured to identify trends, track brand alignment and see the impact of decisions. Customer service processes are based on quickly categorising and responding to customer issues. Crucially their decision-makers can also respond quickly. They understand the ‘why’ behind these numbers and queries.
This understanding comes from asking open questions and listening to the responses. From seeing the situation from the customer’s perspective. Yes, if you analyse text comments manually it’s a slow and inconsistent process. But that doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore feedback. The customer’s perception is your reality. And if you can see your brand from your customer’s perspective, your reality will be higher revenues and better retention rates.