Be Careful What You Ask For

Apr 28, 2017


Utter the phrase “voice of the customer” to a researcher and you’ll typically get an emphatic lecture about how important it is and some details about the various feedback efforts underway at their organization. While it’s heartening to know that these programs are no longer dismissed as fluffy or unnecessary, they are not all implemented with great strategic design. In the worst cases, the collected responses from customers can actually be misleading, and cause companies to make decisions that could harm the overall customer experience.

Take, for example, a real experience one of my teammates had with a certain plumbing company who shall remain nameless. They’ve been a slowly growing, but profitable business for a few years, and wanted to make sure they were managing their public reputation to maintain their growth. A well-intentioned business leader decided to implement a customer feedback program, specifically aimed at tracking the performance of their plumbers. He knew that the interactions their customers had with the plumbers in the field would directly influence their intent to use the company again.

After launching the survey, they were surprised to find that survey results were painfully low. While a handful of exceptional plumbers were getting positive reviews on Yelp and Facebook, the majority had their service flagged for performance issues. The office hadn’t been receiving a large volume of calls of complaints, so these results were their first indication that anything was wrong.

They quickly looked to the open-ended comments in the “what went wrong” section to try to uncover the source of the problems. Unfortunately, the comments were either missing or containing cryptic phrases like “nothing” or “no review.” Concerned, they conducted random interviews of recent customers, and didn’t see the same negative trend the survey results were showing. The company’s leaders were baffled. Results were terrible, but they couldn’t figure out why.

If they happened to look at the survey, they would realize what was happening.

It turns out that most customers weren’t actually having a bad experience—they just didn’t want to be forced to write a review. It’s a little obtuse to assume that just because someone was satisfied with their service means they would be willing to give a testimonial online. In reality, most people who clicked on “yes” saw the review requirement, decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and either abandoned the survey before positive results could be recorded or went back and changed their response to “no.” A few changes to the survey logic, and results would look much better and be a more accurate representation of their customers’ experiences.

If they trust the data alone, they might decide to fire their current workforce and hire new plumbers. The time it will take to get the new plumbers up to speed could end up harming the real experience their customers have. Hopefully, the company will catch this error before any harm is done.

The next time you are looking to collect customer feedback, make sure you’re actually collecting it in the right way. Otherwise, you may end up with some pretty bad results—both literally and figuratively.