Last Updated May 30, 2007 1:23 PM EDT
Customer feedback is a vital source of information when you are thinking about improving your product offering. It is also an excellent way of picking up on problems quickly and addressing them. To elicit the greatest response, offer customers a choice of feedback mechanisms. Each method, however, must be easy to use. For high-value goods, a structured follow-up system will encourage valuable customer comments.
For customers, the choice of feedback mechanism is probably a matter of personal preference. Some may prefer the anonymity of a mail-in questionnaire or a Web site survey. Others may wish to discuss their concerns and get an immediate response over the telephone. To increase your chances of getting useful feedback, offer customers a choice.
Customers may provide feedback without an incentive if they feel strongly enough about an issue. An individual with a serious complaint, for example, is more likely to convey their dissatisfaction. Customers who have less urgent comments may not bother, feeling that their feedback is unimportant or simply not worth their own time and effort to communicate. Incentives may encourage these customers, but only if the incentives are appropriate.
An independent research organization provides an objective, independent channel for customer comments. Using such an organization demonstrates to customers that you take their feedback seriously. Customers may also be more willing to talk to a research organization about issues that they are reluctant to discuss directly with your company. The costs of employing a market research company, however, must be justified in relation to the information you hope to discover. You and your own staff—especially field staff and sales people—may already know a great deal about customer opinion.
It is essential to learn what your customers think about your products, your service, your company, and your brand. This information can be vital for identifying problems before they escalate. It also provides valuable input for product development efforts. Some of the many things for which customer feedback is useful are listed here:
- improving products;
- tailoring products and services to the needs of individual customers;
- identifying new product opportunities;
- highlighting potential problems;
- developing focused marketing and customer service plans;
- strengthening customer relationships;
- reducing customer losses.
Determine the most important issues or topics on which you hope to gain useful insight and make sure your feedback mechanisms support these goals.
Involving customers in the product development process has many benefits. By explaining your plans and soliciting input, you strengthen relationships with customers, increase their loyalty, spark early interest in the next product, and provide a service that is mutually beneficial. There are many ways to solicit customer input, from surveys to focus groups. Topics on which to gather customer opinion include:
- How can we improve the current product?
- What problems need to be overcome?
- What features of the current product are most important or useful?
- What new features would customers welcome?
- Do the plans represent an improvement?
- What is the relative worth, to customers, of a product that includes the features they have highlighted?
It is good practice to include a questionnaire with your product, collecting information about the customer's buying experience. A common form for this type of questionnaire is a reply-paid card. For maximum response, the questionnaire should be brief. Questions might include:
- Where did you buy the product?
- How often do you buy the product?
- Why did you choose the product?
- What other (competing or complementary) products do you buy, and how often?
- Why did you choose the retail outlet?
- Where did you hear about the product and retail outlet?
- How did you find the service offered by the retailer?
- Would you visit the retailer again?
- Do you have any specific comments about the product or retailer?
For some products, it is worthwhile to create a follow-up mechanism to learn about the customer's experience in using the product. Typical intervals are a week after purchase, a month after purchase, and six months after purchase. Inquire about any initial problems at the first follow-up. In the subsequent follow-ups, ask more detailed questions about the customer's experience in using the product. Using a scale for responses—such as 1–5, where 1 is "very poor" and 5 is "very good"—enables comparisons and helps to demonstrate improvement over time.
The quality of after-sales service and support is an important contributor to overall customer satisfaction. After every service or maintenance visit, contact customers to insure that they were satisfied with the level of service they received. This kind of follow-up can be handled by reply-paid questionnaire or telephone call. It is a good idea to use a scale, as described above, to compile data easily and enable comparisons over time. Questions might cover:
- convenience of booking a service visit or contacting customer support;
- punctuality and response times;
- standard of service;
- attitude of staff;
- availability of spare parts.
Customer satisfaction has become one of the most important goals for businesses in every market. Known by many different names—such as customer service, customer satisfaction, customer focus—customer satisfaction programs are designed to build repeat business. If customers are satisfied with the product and the standards of service they receive, they will return to the business or retail outlet again and again. The common themes of customer satisfaction programs are meeting the customers' requirements and insuring that all aspects of the business contribute to customer satisfaction.
It is important to regularly & consistently assess the satisfaction of your customers. One of the most useful measuring tools is a customer satisfaction survey, which typically asks customers to respond to individual questions on a scale (such as: fully satisfied, very satisfied, satisfied, not satisfied, very dissatisfied). Another approach asks customers to respond on a numerical scale—for example, where 1 is very dissatisfied and 10 is very satisfied. Consider providing space for written comments on aspects of the service, or for making requests such as contact from a departmental manager.
Metrics can be derived from survey results and used to improve customer satisfaction. For example, allocate numerical values to key customer satisfaction indicators and compute a customer satisfaction index for different groups of surveys. A local outlet might be given an overall index of performance which can be compared with other outlets and tracked on a yearly basis.
In addition to establishing formal mechanisms to solicit feedback, enable and encourage customers to provide feedback at any time. It is wise to include a simple feedback mechanism on your company Web site. With a function similar to the telephone hotline below, a Web feedback form provides customers with an alternative, easy-to-use channel for inquiries, comments, complaints, and other issues. Require minimal personal details, such as name and e-mail address, for feedback submission, or consider enabling anonymous submission of feedback.
A telephone hotline allows customers to call with inquiries, comments, or complaints about any aspect of your products or service. Ensure that all calls to the hotline are toll-free and that the telephone number appears prominently on your customer communications. Staff the hotline with people trained in customer handling techniques. Monitor calls to ensure that customers receive appropriate service and treatment. All calls should be recorded so that call patterns can be analyzed to identify any recurring problems.
The offer of an incentive, such as a free gift, typically increases the rate of feedback submitted. A regular prize drawing for visitors who submit comments can be another effective incentive.
Many companies form user groups to encourage feedback and build a sense of community. A user group operates as a forum for discussing issues of concern to customers—such as quality, performance, standards, and future development. The group should include representatives from a cross-section of a company's customers, as well as from the company itself. A user group provides valuable feedback on current performance, and also helps to identify needs that can be met through new product development.
Acknowledging customer feedback is important; let customers know that their comments have been received, and thank them for their feedback. When corrective action is taken in response to customer feedback, make those affected customers aware that their feedback has been taken seriously. This will encourage further feedback. If a customer highlights a serious problem that requires a longer-term solution, keep them informed on the progress.
Feedback must be easy for customers to supply. If it is too difficult, costly, or time-consuming, customers may become more dissatisfied as a result of the feedback process, or they simply will not offer the feedback. Make sure that telephone hotline calls are toll-free and that mail-in surveys and questionnaires come with postage-paid envelopes. Any questionnaires should be brief and should require minimal, if any, personal information. Feedback forms and surveys should be available in electronic form via the company Web site.
If you go to all the trouble of encouraging and collecting feedback, to get a return on the time you have invested in that process you must demonstrate that you value the feedback and respond to it. The whole point of the exercise is to identify concerns and problems before they become serious and you will have wasted your efforts if no action is taken. A customer whose problem is resolved is far more likely to remain a customer than one who receives no response. Furthermore, if you solicit and act on customer input during the product development process, it fosters a sense of partnership and helps to strengthen customer relationships.
Customer complaints and problems must be well-managed. Without a formal mechanism for recording, storing, and analyzing feedback, it is much more difficult to spot emerging trends or identify recurring problems. This can pose a big threat to a company's success.
American Marketing Association: www.marketingpower.com