Customer Relations

by Roisin Murray & Wallace Murray

Listen to your customers

To continue the improvement process you really need to understand what your customers think about you, your products and service.

Capturing this may not be as easy as measuring straight facts. However, customer perception plays a key role in whether you succeed or not. Feedback from customers is one of the most valuable learning sources possible. It’s a great way to focus on what is working, and it also pays dividends in drawing your attention to things that are not working.

Tip

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it – but make sure it isn’t about to break either!

Have you ever noticed how some people seem to only want to hear the good news – they even fix the questions they ask, so that this is all they get?

Have you ever felt manipulated by a customer questionnaire with multiple choice answers that seem to range from ‘satisfied’ to ‘ecstatic’? It’s like asking ‘You do think I’m intelligent and attractive, don’t you?’ Fine, but it won’t give you feedback that will help you develop.

So, how do you go about getting the useful information? You can use a range of methods to obtain feedback. The particular option that proves to be the best method will depend on your circumstances. A good principle to apply here is the more the merrier – this is one area where variety really is the spice of life. Fresh approaches help keep the relationship fresh.

Tip

Why not go beyond that – actively tap them for new ideas? Not only will this strengthen your client relationships, but their idea may be the difference that makes the difference.

Well-established methods of getting feedback include

  • Focus groups
  • People’s panels
  • Mystery shopper
  • Customer surveys
  • User groups
  • Exit polls
  • Questionnaires (administered in person, over the phone, or by mail) – structured and unstructured.

The more creative you are in finding ways of engaging customers in a dialogue the better. Whatever you do, the important thing is to do something with the information you receive. Learn from your customers. If it will help, change what you do or how you do it.

Focus groups

Form some small groups of current or potential customers. Encourage participants to discuss open-ended issues. The idea is for them to spark off each other. For that reason, groups are more effective when expertly facilitated.

You may want them to be statistically representative of your entire customer base. In that case, take expert advice on how to choose them.

Such groups can help you improve

  • Customer relations with participants (with non-participants, too, simply because they know the groups exist)
  • Information and ideas – you get direct feedback about customer perception of corporate performance. The conversation may head down unexpected pathways. These may give you surprising new ideas.

People’s panels

The term is sometimes used to refer to various different types of panel:

  • A group of people who agree to respond to a series of customer questionnaires over a period – a cross between the focus group idea and the questionnaire. The main benefits are that you can
  • Track changing perceptions
  • Build long-term relationships with those people.

As with focus groups, there is a positive effect on wider customer perception, but you need to take care if you want a statistically reliable sample.

Designing the layout and questions for the questionnaires takes care and expertise. Response rates tend to be better than with other forms of questionnaire, because the target population has previously volunteered to take part.

  • A non-executive body which the organisation consults about specific issues – this form of people’s panel is a cross between a focus group and a customer survey. The main benefit of this type of panel over the previous kind is that members interact with each other and with the organisation as a source of ideas. The main benefit over customer surveys is the continuing relationship. As with focus groups, care is needed in composition and facilitation. Take care to manage boundaries so that members do not begin to see themselves as quasi non-executive directors.

Mystery shopper

Someone unknown to the organisation’s employees tests out the customer experience and feeds back the information to the organisation. The idea has spread from shopping to virtually any one-to-one transaction.

The tester does not just act the part of a customer. They do the whole thing for real, with your organisation and possibly with selected competitors.

The main benefit is in getting real-time feedback, unfiltered by any bias that genuine customers might feel. Employees will always have at the back of their mind that the next time they attend to a customer, it ‘could be the one’.

You may get improvements in service, but the mystery shopper approach can damage underlying motivation and levels of trust within the organisation, since employees may see it as a clandestine way to catch people out.

Customer surveys

Actual or potential customers are interviewed about specific issues. The aim is to achieve higher response rates and richer data than with impersonally delivered questionnaires. Methods vary. Some people like to use face-to-face and telephone surveys. Take care though, as unsolicited telephone surveys, in particular, irritate many interviewees.

The surveys are carried out on a one-to-one basis. They are more structured than focus groups, the benefit being that the interviewer can ask subsidiary questions to clarify or dig out deeper responses.

As with any questionnaire, you need to think through how you will interpret and analyse the answers. People often find that the answers don’t tell them what they expected to learn. Use a pilot study to reduce this risk.

User groups

A user group is where longer-term users of the product get together on a regular, perhaps annual basis. It is often funded by the supplier and acts as a forum for users to share best practice amongst themselves, and also to feedback their collective suggestions to the supplier.

If you run an event like this, make sure that you seek to listen to your customers rather than fall into the temptation of selling to them.

Another form of user group is more spontaneous in nature, and becoming more common with the growth of the internet. This is more like a fan club, where owners of a product use an internet bulletin board to swap comments and questions about the product. If this happens with one of your products, make sure you monitor it closely for feedback and ideas. These people are committed users. Some companies even set these boards up themselves.

Exit polls

These are basically customer surveys, conducted immediately after the event and in person.

Actual or potential customers are interviewed about specific issues. The aim is to achieve higher response rates and richer data than with impersonally delivered questionnaires. Methods vary. Some people like to use face-to-face and telephone surveys. Take care, however – unsolicited telephone surveys, in particular, irritate many interviewees.

They are carried out one-to-one and are more structured than focus groups. The benefit is that the interviewer can ask subsidiary questions to clarify or dig out deeper responses.

As with any questionnaire, you need to think through how you will interpret and analyse the answers. People often find that the answers don’t tell them what they expected to learn. Use a pilot study to reduce this risk.

The main benefit over other forms of customer survey is that the interview naturally occurs immediately after ‘the event’ – a purchase, or where new business has been lost (or failed to be gained). The questioner should be tactful if the event may have been emotionally charged. On the other hand, handled carefully, this may be a chance to recover the business.

Questionnaires

People often see a questionnaire as a cheap and simple way of gathering data from a wide range of people. This is only partly true. You need to find ways to encourage people to respond. You will often need to take a lot of care to make it difficult to interpret the questions in any way other than that intended.

For example, it’s good to have lots of white space to make the layout inviting. It helps to start with easy, non-contentious questions to draw people in to the form. You need to think about whether you want yes/no answers. You may need answers that indicate a range of reactions. If you want a range, it will be easier to find patterns in the answers if you have some form of tick-box scoring mechanism, rather than free text. Can you spot the in-built disadvantage of the example below?

With only five boxes across the range, many people plump for the middle box. An even number of options tends to force people to make a more considered decision.

You also need to think through how you will interpret and analyse the answers. Get clear on this before you use the questionnaire. As with all forms of questionnaire, people often find that the answers don’t tell them what they expected to learn.

In order to ensure statistical validity and reliability, you need to be careful whom you ask to complete the questionnaire.

So a pilot study is important. The purpose is to test how easy the questions are to complete, and how clear they are. You may want to know about customer perceptions of your organisation. In that case, a pilot study will help you find out what matters to them.

You will by now realise that the issues can be quite subtle. So, unless you are confident of your own expertise, it is sensible to consult an expert in questionnaire design and administration. You may find you have the necessary expertise in house already – HR specialists, for example, often receive such training as part of their professional development.