There's nothing that is more effective for improving the quality of your product or service than listening to your customers.
But often businesses don't solicit their customers' opinions. Sometimes the problem is that business owners or managers don't know how to go about setting up a process, or think that obtaining customer comments will be too expensive or complex.
But sometimes the barrier to instituting a plan for listening to the customer is simply the fear of what they will hear.
I learned from my father, who founded J.D. Power and Associates in 1968, that ultimately the truth is already out there. You may not want to face it, but it's there. Customers--and often employees--know when there are problems, issues, or concerns. Even the business owners or managers might know a problem exists but are trying to ignore its presence.
Another reason my dad always gave to push past a reluctance to bring problems to light is the fact that perception is reality when it comes to customers. Customers can feel the pain: they see the symptoms of poor processes, leadership, or quality. The customer may not always be able to give you the exact reason or cause for the problem, but they can pinpoint the symptoms.
Once there is acceptance for learning what the customer has to say, the question becomes how to go about it.
Large companies might engage a market research company like J.D. Power and Associates, or assign the task to an internal division. Too often my father would see the pitfalls of handling the analysis of customer feedback within an organization: the very human instinct of self-preservation is just too strong for employees with a vested interest in the status quo to not somehow shade the results as they make their way up the chain of command.
Small businesses can do simple things to avoid this. Just asking customers what they think or feel is a start. If you have people who call on customers, you might consider sending them an email survey or making phone calls to collect the customers' reactions. Do so a few days after the visits so that they've had time to reflect on their experiences.
It's so easy to do simple Internet surveys by sending an email through a service like Survey Monkey or Zoomerang for a small cost. Have the survey come from you as the owner or manager. Offer a sincere appeal for feedback, and make sure they know not only that it's important to you but why.
The fact that you want to make sure your organization is doing what it should and want to get better will not only result in more thoughtful responses, but in itself will show customers how you value their satisfaction.
Setting up a process to regularly collect feedback is the most valuable strategy. Maybe it's once a year or once a month--or maybe it's after every transaction. But plan on it, and make it part of your regular routine.
Another simple step is to ask your customer-facing employees about their observations of customer reactions. Consider gathering your employees to talk about the customer experience regularly. Ask them what they are experiencing--what is working, what is not working, and why. You don't want to make this a gripe session, so it's critical to make the meetings productive by also discussing solutions and action plans for improvement. This discussion group can be a great way to also seek ideas for new opportunities to delight customers.
Delighting the customer--increasing customer satisfaction--is the reason you want to gather this information in the first place. So in addition to setting up processes to regularly solicit customer feedback, never lose sight of the value of empowering your employees.
This means that owners and managers need to not only summon the courage to listen to customers but also need to trust their employees' perspectives. Many times when we would consult for organizations, we would see situations where the employees knew what to do. So why not give your employees the latitude and authority to do what is right for the customer?
This might mean they can quickly make good on a problem to head off a negative experience, but it also means that an employee may see an opportunity to delight a customer with something unexpected. We know that it makes employees feel great when they can delight their customers, but it is also a tremendous way to build advocates for your business.
--Jamey Power is the former Executive Vice President of International Operations at J.D. Power and Associates. He is also the son of founder Dave Power, the subject of Power: How J.D. Power III Became the Auto Industry's Adviser, Confessor, and Eyewitness to History. Jamey also co-authored Satisfaction: How Every Great Company Listens to the Voice of the Customer.
[Image: Flickr user Henri Bergius]