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Getting excellent customer feedback, Part 1: What is excellent feedback?

Todd Haskell | January 29, 2019

Ask a business owner if they think it's important to survey their customers about their experience with the company. They will almost certainly say "yes". On the one hand, that's great. On the other hand, there's a long road from wanting to collect customer feedback to doing it well, in a way that allows you to actually become a better business. And there are a whole lot of places you can make a wrong turn. As a professional social scientist, I can say that the vast majority of attempts that I see are less effective than they could be, and at worst may produce highly misleading data. But that doesn't need to be you. This is the first of a series of blog posts that focus on how to gather really effective customer feedback.

Now, I've spent more than 20 years studying and honing my craft as a researcher. There is a tremendous amount to learn, and I am still routinely discovering ways I can improve. So my first piece of advice is to know your own limitations. I would actually steer you away from surveys for the most part because writing good survey questions is a highly technical skill and there are a dozen different ways you can mess it up without even realizing it. Also, because it's relatively simple to throw together a survey and get some responses, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because there's lots of activity going on that you're making forward progress.

Unknown Unknowns

Getting a little more into the theory of research design, surveys also only give you answers to the questions that you ask. And to paraphrase former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, there are known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, and the second category is the one that is most likely to get you into trouble. In other words, it's the things that you didn't even think to ask about that are probably the most important things to know.

So, I'm going to ask you to back up a couple steps, and before you start trying to collect any feedback, think about why you want it. I suppose there are many possible reasons, but in my opinion, there is one "right" reason. Namely, that your passion, your mission, the reason for your business existing, is to truly and deeply understand what your customers need and want, and then deliver it with excellence. Or to put it a little differently, your biggest satisfaction is when your product or service helps your customer move toward their goals, or when it makes their day a little brighter.

If you fully and completely believe this, I honestly think it will make up for much of what you might lack in technical research training. The reason is that a huge part of what you learn when you study research methods is how to avoid fooling yourself into believing what you want to believe, rather than what's really going on. And the biggest mistake when asking for customer feedback is probably focusing on managing your image rather than really hearing what they have to say.

To hammer this point home, here are some images showing a very common, but very lousy, way to ask for customer feedback.

Customer feedback request
Customer feedback request
Customer feedback request
Customer feedback request

If this is what you're going to do, you might as well say, "We don't care what you really think, we just want you to say nice things about us so we'll look good to other prospective customers." After all, that's the message that these requests send.

Reflective Listening

On the other end of the spectrum, today I had an opportunity to visit the Odegaard Library at the University of Washington on a campus tour with my son. While there I noticed a prominent sign with comments from computer lab users about dirty work areas and Cheetos crumbs on the keyboards. And it said what the library was going to do differently to respond to the feedback: Increase the frequency with which the keyboards and tables were wiped down.

If you strive for excellent customer service you probably already know that one of the most effective ways to respond to customer grievances is to simply listen, and then paraphrase the complaint back to the customer to show that you've heard. In fact, as a psychologist I can tell you that it's a principle straight out of counseling 101, and it even has a name - reflective listening (here's a useful primer if you're interested).

If you've followed me thus far, you probably have figured out that the title of this post is a play on words. If you thought it was about getting customers to say that your business is excellent, don't worry, you're not alone. But hopefully I've convinced you that what makes customer feedback excellent is not that it's positive but that it helps your business be the best that it can be.

Of course, in this post I haven't had space to get into the details of how to go about doing that. In the next post I'll start to lay out some concrete strategies for getting great customer feedback.