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Getting excellent customer feedback, Part 2: Guidance rather than evaluation

Todd Haskell | February 11, 2019

In the last post, I made the case that excellent customer feedback is not feedback saying how awesome your business is, but feedback that helps you become the best business you can be. But what exactly does that mean? The trap that a lot of businesses fall into is treating this as a kind of evaluation process, maybe even using it to single out particular employees for recognition or awards. This is not going to result in the kind of feedback you want. To understand why, it's useful to draw an idea from education - the distinction between formative and summative assessment.

Summative Assessment

Imagine you're driving somewhere with a co-worker in the passenger seat. Now imagine two different things your co-worker might say to you:

  • turn left at the next light, it will save some time
  • you got lost and made us late

Think about how each of these comments feel when you hear them. The first one feels a lot better than the second, huh? The first comment is an example of formative assessment - feedback provided during a process with the goal of improving the result. The second comment is an example of summative assessment - feedback provided after a process with the goal evaluating the result.

There are times and places where summative assessment is necessary, but I've already made the point that negative summative assessment makes people feel bad. So, naturally people try to avoid it. They may do that by working hard. Or by lying. Or by cheating. Or by blaming other people for everything that goes wrong.

The other issue with summative assessment is that, by definition, it comes at the end of a process, too late to do anything to change the outcome. So even if there are valuable lessons to be learned, the timing is bad.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment avoids both these problems. First, the goal of formative assessment is to help people grow and improve. And everyone can always improve. When everyone gets suggestions for improvement, then getting a suggestion for improvement doesn't make you feel like you're falling short or not measuring up. Also, because formative assessment doesn't require ranking people on some scale, you can provide other sorts of feedback. For example, you might tell someone that they're trying to take on too many tasks, and because they're spread so thin they are finding it hard to excel at all of them. Or you might tell someone that you think they're ready to take on a new challenge.

The other advantage of formative assessment is that because it is provided during rather than after a process, it can be immediately used to make adjustments. In fact, when done well, formative feedback might be provided several times during a process, allowing for multiple small course corrections, and potentially leading to a much improved outcome.

You might be wondering at this point how all this applies to customer feedback. Well, you want the feedback from customers to be more like formative assessment. In particular, you want to avoid anything that makes you feel like customers are judging or evaluating your business. That tends to immediately shift the focus to you rather than keeping it on the customers, and if you get negative feedback, it's likely to make you defensive as well, so that you're inclined to dismiss some or all of what they have to say.

There are a few different ways to avoid this problem. One good approach is instead of asking customers a "good or bad" question, ask them a "this or that" question. For example, you could ask them whether it's more important to them that shipping be fast or be cheap. Another good approach is to ask them open-ended questions about their experiences, such as "Can you think of a time you had a really positive shopping experience? Tell us about that experience. What made it so positive for you?"

Free Feedback

You might have noticed that for neither of these examples are you asking customers anything about their experience with your company in particular. Cool side effect of this: It means you don't need to only ask your customers. You can ask anybody's customers, and you can also take advantage of existing data that might be lying around out there. For example, if you run a restaurant, even if your restaurant isn't reviewed on Yelp, you can read reviews of other restaurants to learn what pleases customers and what irritates them.

Maybe you're staring at me in disbelief by now. Do you mean to say, you ask, that we shouldn't ever directly ask customers their thoughts about our business? I wouldn't want to say never. But I'll wrap up with this quote from the 90's hit song "More Than Words":

More than words is all you have to do to make it real,
Then you wouldn't have to say that you love me
'Cause I'd already know

If you have been carefully listening to your customers, learning about what they like and don't like, what they want and need, and using that information to guide how you run your business, then you won't need their words to tell you if you're getting it right. You'll already know.