Don’t Ask, Know! What Are Your Customers Not Saying? Not Doing?


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Over the past 5 years we have seen an explosion of customer surveys including ones administered to us in IVR or email post-call, forms passed out onboard aircraft, online during web sessions, emailed to our Inboxes, outbound automated IVR, outbound pollsters, mall intercepts, “usage and attitude” forms, and much, much more!

Unfortunately response rates haven’t risen despite pleading or coupon offers – sometimes under 5%, introducing disturbing levels of sample bias, and the stark reality of uneven survey results plaguing interpretation – customers still tend to provide “polar” responses, low or high, only. This means that we are extrapolating from low levels of skewed replies, hardly the prescription for gaining wisdom.

While it is also important to figure out customer sentiment and collect suggestions and ideas from your customers (Insights), discover if they are loyal to your brand (e.g. NPS), and find ways to make it easy for them to do business with you (e.g. the new metric CES = Customer Effort Score), low response rates and biases mean that companies can’t get an accurate picture or forecast or list of remedies.

We all know, too, that it is important to get a “statistical sampling” of each customer segment, but to paraphrase Don Peppers and Martha Rogers’ seminal books on “One to One Marketing” we really have “segments of one”, somewhat artificially collected as personas or demographic categories.

As my co-author and I discovered researching our latest book Your Customer Rules! Delivering the Me2B Experiences That Today’s Customers Demand (Wiley, 2015), the fact that we do subject our customers with so many surveys and ask them to spend their valuable time responding to them violates one of the 7 customer needs that lead to a winning “Me2B” culture, that of “You make it easy for me”1. This is especially true with multi-page surveys that often ask customers to repeat what companies already know.

And that’s the key point here: Don’t Ask, Know!

Instead of spinning up more surveys and spending a lot of effort to interpret what customers are telling you and decipher what customers are saying and doing, doesn’t it also make sense to figure out what customers are not saying and what they are not doing?

Here are four other approaches that will bear bigger and better fruit:

  • Listen to what your customers are already telling you online (via social listening), in your contact centers (recorded call speech or data analytics), or in home (installer or repair crew post-visit voice capture). We’ve seen big advances in the accuracy of unstructured speech and text analytics that do not need a taxonomy to reveal fascinating insights, and in structured analytics that use key words or expressions to search for meaning. In our Me2B book we cite Suddenlink’s Customer Insights team’s exciting advances here replacing “the quality monitoring function to used to sample contacts in favor of the ability to analyze 100% of customer calls”.
  • Ask your front line what customers are saying as you wander around their cubicles or hold roundtables or sit with them to listen to customer calls (you do this already, right?!) or via an online form. Nothing better than MBWA as Hewlett-Packard used to call it, and as Tom Peters popularized it – Management By Wandering Around. At Amazon we created a closed-loop process called WOCAS = What Our (or yOur) Customers Are Saying, now a SaaS-based service by the same name Fiserv built one they called Shout! and Dell used the “pitchers and catcher” analogy to collect and apply VOC via their front-line staff.
  • “Staple yourself to an order”, from the now-famous article in Harvard Business Review, is a great way to figure out what customers are encountering. If you could simply “staple yourself to an order” that your customer placed and discovered how complicated the process is and how much customers had to wait, or if you listened to your company’s IVR tree and then got connected to an agent who asks the same questions, or if you got copies of all of the customer correspondence that you team sends to explain how to easy it is to use your products or services – all of this would reveal more than a survey that garners a 5% response rate.
  • Predict customer wants and needs, loyalty and ease-of-use using “Big Data” (and even “small data”) analytics that collect from disparate sources operational and performance results plus social listening, 100% call recording analytics (like Suddenlink is doing), WOCAS or Shout!, and other inputs. We are now beginning to produce primary and secondary drivers to predict NPS and dispense with its 0 to 10 survey tool, predict Customer Effort based on what customers need to do, and collect much wider and deeper customer insights using these new data analytics.

So the next time you get a survey from another company, ask yourself “isn’t there a way for them not to have asked me this?” and then start challenging your team to “Don’t Ask, Know!”

1. Here are the 7 Customer Needs that Lead to a Winning “Me2B”Culture:

  1. “You know me, you remember me”
  2. “You give me choices”
  3. “You make it easy for me”
  4. “You value me”
  5. “You trust me”
  6. “You surprise me with stuff that I can’t imagine”
  7. “You help me better, you help me do more”
Bill Price

Bill Price is the President of Driva Solutions (a customer service and customer experience consultancy), an Advisor to Antuit, co-founded the LimeBridge Global Alliance, chairs the Global Operations Council, teaches at the University of Washington and Stanford MBA programs, and is the lead author of The Best Service is No Service and Your Customer Rules! Bill served as's first Global VP of Customer Service and held senior positions at MCI, ACP, and McKinsey. Bill graduated from Dartmouth (BA) and Stanford (MBA).


  1. Bill – I enjoyed reading your article. What’s interesting about your recommendations is all these customer experience artifacts must pass through filters – some are human, some are cold algorithms. That “workflow” makes me wonder what gets lost, and whether the details that are imparted to executives match the truth.

    When I was young, my family visited Hot Shoppes Cafeteria, which was run by Marriott. At every booth was a stack of postcards for customer comments. There was a sign explaining that every comment was read directly by J. Willard Marriott himself!

    This blew my eight-year-old mind. A comment card in a rack next to the ketchup, paper napkins, and crayons would be read by the CEO of Marriott after I filled it out! Of course, I proudly included my name when I asserted that the fries could use just a little more salt next time. Would JW call me to tell me he read and appreciated my comment? He never did. But that was OK.

    I trust that it must have been valuable for J. Willard to read raw customer opinion, and not to just look at the “numbers” or “satisfaction scores.” Otherwise, why would Marriott be moved to tell its customers that every comment card went right to JW’s desk?

  2. This is excellent, Bill. One of the reasons customers fail to respond to traditional surveys is they don’t get to experience the effect of their input. Your alternative approaches to customer intelligence and insight are great…and, can yield a richer understanding than a sterile survey. I really liked your “Stable Yourself to an Order.” I did consulting with a large wholesale auto auction company where many dealers purchased cars to export for oversees sales. The “Being a car” project I engineered and managed, followed a purchase at the auction, to inspection, to transportation, to containerization, through customs at the port, to loading it on a ship bound for Russia or China or whereever. It lead to the alteration of auction procedures aimed at making it much easier for the buyer-exporter.

  3. Critical in your statement “Instead of spinning up more surveys and spending a lot of effort to interpret what customers are telling you and decipher what customers are saying and doing, doesn’t it also make sense to figure out what customers are not saying and what they are not doing?” Is the word ALSO. Utilizing employee input (especially their perceptions of how customers will rate performance, a technique we call ‘mirroring’) and integrated use of structured and unstructured data will add depth to what customers reveal about themselves through both their actions and inactions.

    An additional technique I’d encourage has to do with complaints. Since such low percentages of b2b and b2c customers actually inform the company when problems occur, it is beneficial to incorporate a complaint set into surveys. Companies can learn a lot about what contributes to customer negativity when they ask a) how effectively registered complaints have been resolved, and b) what complaints exist that haven’t been communicated (and reasons for non-communication).

    Finally, with respect to surveys themselves, research can generate a lot of actionable information a) if the studies are designed to create corrective action, b) if the type of analysis goes beyond the rudimentary and superficial to yield really insightful content, and c) the company shares with customers, in overall terms, what they have learned in the research. On this last point, researchers historically cloister the data they generate and keep results close to the vest; but experience has taught that customers are more participatory if the company comes back to them with key learnings.

  4. Michael — If only more companies did go back to their customers with key learnings! Similar to Andy’s comment from Hot Shoppes and JW Marriott. My co-author has often completed long-winded surveys with “I need for you contact me” and other come-ons, but how often has he gotten a response? Never! At least companies have cottoned onto social media and respond faster.

    Chip — Glad to see another fan of “Staple yourself to an order”! Been using it with my MBA students and many clients, as well as my Amazon colleagues many years ago.

    Andy — Who knows? Maybe Hot Shoppes subtly increased the salt content, but would have been so easy to get back to you. Closed loops!

  5. It’s not just a one-off comment when a survey respondent requests a contact. In times past, I’ve had clients request, as part of the performance study project, that we help them prepare a distilled, and somewhat pasteurized, summery of study findings. One of the several benefits is that this simple loop completion helped them with response subsequent studies, because they could promise that results would be shared and the information they provided wouldn’t just disappear into the ether.

  6. Hi Bill

    There are two things I took away from your insightful article and the informative comments:

    The first is how important it is to get out of your office and go listen to, talk to or watch customers as they traverse the customer experience. Gouillart & Sturdivant wrote the original HBR article ‘Spend a Day in the Life of Your Customers’ back in 1994. It become a key principle in Lanning & Phillips’ ‘Building Market-Focused Organisations’ methodology in the mid-90s. Today, ethnography is a key research method used by D-school trained service designers. As Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank says, ‘there are no facts inside the building!’

    The second is the growing importance of big-data about customers, their circumstances, what they do and who influences them. As Reeves et al wrote earlier this year in an HBR article on ‘The Self-Tuning Enterprise’, companies like Alibaba are starting to collect so much real-time data about their customers that they are able to dynamically alter how they operate in response to changes in customer behaviour; what service design agency Fjord calls ‘Living Services’. We are some way off this state yet, but it is only a matter of time.

    Graham Hill


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