Customer Feedback: The Method is the Message


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Just for a moment, imagine this scenario:

A husband and wife are celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary with a romantic dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant. During the meal, the man says to his bride, “Honey, I hope you know how important our relationship is to me. I sometimes wonder if I’m doing all that I can to be a good partner for you. I’d really like to know what it is that you appreciate about me and also what I can do to improve. To help me better understand that, would you please go to this Web site and fill out a survey about our relationship? Your responses can be anonymous, and they will be consolidated with other women’s input about their husbands. Then, based on the report I receive, I’ll see what improvements I can try to make.”

As preposterous as that scene may be, it’s not all that different from what some companies do with their customers. Many organizations have adopted the common refrain that, “We need to get closer to our customers,” or that they want to become more customer-centric. Some even talk of developing “intimate” relationships with their best customers.

In an effort to guide their efforts and measure their progress toward those goals, many of those same organizations have implemented some form of a structured feedback process. That’s entirely understandable and appropriate – just as the husband’s desire to get input from his wife was commendable. The disconnect comes when companies choose a method of listening to their customers that doesn’t accurately reflect their stated intent. An e-mailed request to respond to an automated, Internet-based, and perhaps anonymous survey can hardly be seen as an invitation to develop a closer relationship with a key supplier. The method just doesn’t quite match the message.

I personally have nothing against surveys. In fact, I often respond to them when asked to do so by the coffee shop I just visited or the rental car company whose vehicle I recently used. I’m not put off by the request, but then I’m not desiring a closer, more “intimate” relationship with those service providers either. They want to know my perceptions of their products and services, and I’m willing to invest a few minutes of my time to provide it in the hopes that they’ll keep doing the things I value and improve where I think they ought.

Now, if I was considered to be a critical or strategic customer to an organization, my attitude about being surveyed and the probability that I’d respond to such a request might be different. If I’m making big decisions that impact my own company and the supplier’s, I would expect more of a dialogue – a personal connection – with someone from that organization. I would want the sense that my supplier understood my organization and its needs at a deeper level, and would want to know that my voice was heard and that my opinions and requests were considered.

To some degree, the level of effort a supplier puts into listening to its customers defines the difference between having a business relationship and just executing transactions. As an individual traveler I don’t really expect, or even want, a relationship with my rental car company. However, if I’m making travel purchases for an entire enterprise with thousands of mobile employees, I’d appreciate a more in-depth and personable approach to capturing my perceptions and preferences.

When evaluating your current customer feedback process or reviewing the options for a new one, I suggest that you consider the message you want to send to the most important contacts within your most important customers. Our clients routinely hear from their customers that an active and personal yet structured approach to gathering feedback distinguishes them from competitors and sends a strong signal about the commitment to listen and respond to customer needs. The method is indeed the message.

Eric Engwall
President of E.G. Insight, Inc. Experienced consultant and business leader in the areas of strategic customer and employee feedback processes, customer loyalty, and sales effectiveness. Primary focus is using stakeholder feedback to improve critical relationships, make operational and service improvements, and pursue growth opportunities with key customers.


  1. Eric

    Your key point that feedback processes should be matched to the type of relationship that you have with the customer is well made, and one with which I heartily agree.

    Another consideration in the selection of feedback process is the type of business interaction that connects you and your customer. If a sales rep calls monthly, then that provides an opportunity and context for obtaining feedback. If I sell my services over the web then I could push automated surveys to the customer. If I am a retailer with my own credit card, I could send a feedback request with the monthly billing cycle.

    Dr. Francis Buttle
    [email protected]

  2. Eric,

    Nicely done. You got my interest immediately and set the stage with a great example for us to consider the similarities between the intimacy of the relationships with our spouses and the desired level of intimacy with our customers/clients.

    How we ask is just as important as what we ask and the fact that we’re asking for feedback.



  3. Eric:
    Having worked with you previously, I am convinced you walk the talk. Your process works and delivers usable feedback. Well stated article.

  4. Eric: I think you have got it right. Our contact with customers needs to be approriate and personal. Key skill is listening and the objective is better customer outcomes (short, medium & lomg term), pure and simple.

    Francis: Sorry to disagree with you but in my experience a sales rep is not the right person to obtain quality feedback from customers. He is a “hunter” and will be seen as such by the customer. Not a bad thing but a salesman’s context will always be “the next sale.” We need to cultivate “farming” skills in business with sometimes time consuming, none sales, listening as the number one skill.

  5. Ray,

    Thanks for your comment – and you’re right, ultimately the goal of any customer feedback process is to sell more product or service.

    I will try to walk the line between your comment and Francis’, however. In many businesses, the person who is most directly responsible for managing the relationship with the customer is EXACTLY the right person to capture feedback from customers. When the relationship is long-term, complex, and involves multiple contact points on both sides of the buyer/seller relationship, who better to respond to customer needs and requests? Who better to take ownership of the action items coming out of a personal interaction with a customer? Who better to leverage the rest of the team to respond to customer complaints and opportunities?

    If the nature of the business is more like “Close the deal and move on to the next one,” then I may agree with you that the sales person is not the best one to capture feedback from customers. That is more of a pure hunter role, and the relationship may not be as critical to long term success.

    The key, I think, is that the person who has accountability for the ultimate success of the relationship should have a role in gathering feedback from key contacts in the customer organization. Going back to my analogy in the post above, I could send you to interview my wife about my relationship with her, but in the end it’s got to be me that takes action. It’s generally going to be more effective if I’m the one that hears the messages directly. There is no one-size-fits-all solution – which is sort of the point of the article. Thanks again for your perspective.

  6. Hi Eric,

    I agree with your recommendation to re-assess how we ask customers for feedback.

    I recently took a cruise to Alaska, and received a survey from the cruise line that was clearly intended to be instrumental in determining each department’s bonus. I found it quite tedious, even though I’ve also developed surveys like that in the past.

    What occurred to me is that they already received remuneration for the services they offered me, and then they wanted me to enter their world to rate them. I would have preferred that they enter my world to see how well they satisfied me on MY criteria.

    If we take a look at the way customers volunteer feedback in contact centers and social media, the terminology, factors and measures of goodness may differ quite a bit from the way companies request their feedback.

    In July I wrote a post on this: Customer Experience Research.

    Thanks for your post!

    Lynn Hunsaker helps companies improve customer data ROI, customer-centricity and customer experience innovation. She is author of 3 handbooks. See,,

  7. I have just started my own Insurance Consultancy(VARIER ASSOCIATES). I want to send all the customers an immidiate email and a sms from my cell number so that it would create a impact on their mind about me. And i should receive some feedback from them after reading the mail.

    I wish to create a relationship with all the customers i meet everyday.

    What should i do?


  8. Abhilash –

    I apologize for the late reply as I did not see your question until today.

    I would say that the goal, building relationships, is the right one. But don’t confuse sending electronic messages with relationship building. An SMS or mass email are good tools for getting customers to think about you, but only build relationships if they provide value for the readers. If the contents of the messages are useful and personal, you may get some lasting benefit from your effort.

    A phone call or a hand-written message may have much more impact. That might not always be practical, but after a significant interaction with a good customer the personal touch is always appreciated.

    Please contact me if you have additional questions.



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