How to use customer feedback to improve your business

Suggestions boxIt's all about feedback, isn't it? If you can make it easy for your customers to provide feedback, use their feedback to find out what's most important to them and focus your efforts on meeting and/or exceeding those needs, you'll get the benefits of their future patronage and that of many new customers

So if it is all as straightforward as this, why does UK customer service continue to underwhelm? Well, my travels have uncovered a number of reasons, starting with this old chestnut: we Brits hate giving feedback.

To start with we baulk at confrontation (unless we read the Mail on Sunday). For example, when we've been presented with a piece of steak so underdone we could probably revive it; the waiter always passes by and asks 'is everything OK?'

We may have ordered the steak well done. We may not have even ordered steak. But our answer is always the same. 'Yes, fine'.

Elsewhere businesses leave little feedback forms for customers to complete. But, as I'm reliably informed, only one in a hundred customers ever fill these in. And, as my kids keep pointing out, that person is usually a very sad person with a form-filling fixation.

Telephone surveys ask you to recall details from transactions carried out a couple of weeks ago. Personally I can't remember what I had for breakfast, so don't expect any searing insights from a mid evening conversation with yours truly (especially if it interrupts Masterchef).

And why is it that so many surveys want your 'ratings'? Unless you have specific clues as to how you can specifically improve, what good are those?

Feedback is absolutely vital to business success, but somehow we've created the conditions in the UK to repel it. How, then, do we devise a feedback strategy that will increase our business' customer focus?

1) 'Walk in the customer's shoes'

Corny, I know, but as a business owner you should be aware of what it is like to experience your organisation as a customer. Contact your business yourself or get a friend to. Better still, engage someone to provide a detailed snapshot of his or her experiences. Where does the experience start? Where does it end? Where are the areas where your business has the greatest opportunities to impress (or depress) your customer? You can underpin your findings with the results of an informal focus group.

2) Make it easy for customers to give their feedback

Is it possible to give out an SMS number, so customers can text in their comments? Failing that, make sure that in every email you send, there is a link allowing customers to share any observations or feedback. Have a high profile link on your website for customers to use to share their feedback. Publish your own email address and telephone number and ask for the feedback.

3) Be transparent

You would forgive customers for being sceptical when they receive a request for feedback; since few are the organisations who appear to take it seriously, do everything you can to show that you're committed. Consider putting your customers' feedback on to your website, unedited - or if this sends a shiver up your spine - summarise, on a regular basis, what customers are saying (good and bad) and what you're doing about it.

4)  Draw on existing feedback channels

There's likely to be plenty of it around. The likelihood is that both existing compliments and complaints will give you an indication of where you might profitably direct effort and resources. Phone up a customer whose complaint you resolved some time ago and ask them how they felt about the way your organisation dealt with it. How did the complaint experience affect their perceptions of your company?

What does the experience of the complimentary customer tell you? Do some parts of your business embody your values more than others?

5) Save money on surveys

Use on-line web-based surveys and save money. From calculating sample sizes to designing, deploying and analysing the results of an email survey, it's possible to get feedback from a statistically representative group of customers for less than £200 (if you're prepared to do the leg work yourself) not to mention the glow that customers feel when their supplier actually asks them what they think!

And when you do survey your customers, use the findings from your snapshot exercise to determine the questions you ask. The snapshot will have given you a list of moments of truth - and they could be anything from first impressions, via the ordering process, to your approach to invoicing or handling problems - so design the survey to let you know which of these moments of truth are most important, how well your company delivers them - and ultimately how likely they are to recommend you?

6) Measure it

Once you have your results, look at the links between the ratings given to each 'moment of truth' and compare them with the resulting advocacy scores. You're looking to identify which components of your customer's experience correlate most strongly to their overall perceptions of your organisation.

Now you know where to target your improvements, so establish this as your critical success factor, keep improving ... and send that steak back.

For more on this topic, see the Resources box on the right.