Constructive Criticism


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Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, which is to say in my college days, I entertained the idea of fiction writing. For me it was more of a hobby than a career, but my wife also enjoyed writing and we had some friends who were of a similar mind. We formed a small writers’ circle, which is how I learned the power and difficulty of constructive criticism.

Part of the challenge of becoming a good writer is getting the feedback to understand what good writing is. Since writing is both personal and subjective it can be hard to understand what a reader thinks of your work. Also, since writing is both personal and subjective very few people want to offer sincere criticism. And, since writing is both personal and subjective it can be hard to hear negative feedback without taking it personally

As it happens, good customer service is also both personal and subjective (how’s that for a segue?). And it can be hard to both give and receive honest feedback about how a customer interaction should have been handled better.

Enter constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is a technique for providing feedback which relies on a basic contract between the person giving the feedback and the person receiving it:

  • The person providing the feedback agrees to offer criticism in a genuine attempt to help the receiver improve. The giver provides both positive feedback and well-reasoned negative feedback along with suggestions for improvement. The giver acknowledges that the feedback is just his or her own opinion.
  • The person receiving the feedback agrees to make a genuine effort to improve. The receiver does not need to agree with the feedback, but does have to give it honest consideration. The receiver recognizes that the feedback represents just one person’s opinion.

Using the constructive criticism approach can allow people to be more open to change, but it doesn’t come naturally. It takes a deliberate effort (and some practice) to give and receive honest feedback in a non-confrontational manner.

Unfortunately most customer feedback programs are structured to be almost the opposite of constructive criticism. For example:

  • Only asking very general questions without getting detailed enough feedback to show employees how to improve.
  • Treating each survey as the gospel, rather than one customer’s opinion.
  • Setting punitive consequences for not meeting targets.
  • Ignoring flaws in the survey process.

These mistakes make it hard to make any use of customer feedback even if you want to. Combine it with the very human desire to not have to change, and it leads to frustration and apathy about the feedback process. But these problems persist because it’s easier to just tell people to improve than it is to help them improve.

Here are some ideas for bringing an attitude of constructive criticism into a customer feedback process:

  1. Treat every customer survey (and especially the negative ones) as a gift from the customer: an opportunity to coach, learn, and improve. Every time a survey is completed, look for both things you did well and things you could have done better.
  2. Be willing to disagree with the customer’s opinion, as long as your disagreement is well-reasoned and based on what the customer actually said. For example: don’t just assume that the customer gave you poor feedback because she’s mad about a policy; but if the customer said she’s mad about the policy, it’s OK to recognize that a front-line CSR can’t do anything about it.
  3. Actively look for ways to get better, more useful, and more accurate customer feedback.
  4. Goals and metrics are important, but only when you have a statistically large number of surveys. Don’t make an employee accountable for one customer’s grumpiness.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Peter Leppik
Peter U. Leppik is president and CEO of Vocalabs. He founded Vocal Laboratories Inc. in 2001 to apply scientific principles of data collection and analysis to the problem of improving customer service. Leppik has led efforts to measure, compare and publish customer service quality through third party, independent research. At Vocalabs, Leppik has assembled a team of professionals with deep expertise in survey methodology, data communications and data visualization to provide clients with best-in-class tools for improving customer service through real-time customer feedback.


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