Forget Customer Feedback!


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Ever had a maitre’d, waiter or waitress saunter up to your table and ask the ubiquitous “How’s everything?” and even though you were unimpressed and under whelmed, you said “Fine?” Congratulations – you are not alone – and you have participated in one of the most meaningless efforts in modern business — useless feedback solicitation.

What the restaurant learned from your “Fine” is not only irrelevant; it’s probably an absolute lie. The front line employee thinks he or she has heard an accurate evaluation of the meal and service. The customer thinks he’s just given a generic greeting…sort of the other side of “Good morning, how are you?” And, management thinks they have another satisfied customer.

Evaluative customer feedback of this sort is sold to organizations as a critical tool in understanding customers’ needs and expectations. “How can we know how good our service is,” asks the well meaning but ill-informed, “Unless we ask customers?” That belief leads to a lot of money being spent on plain-vanilla surveys, irritating dinnertime interrupting phone interviews, and ends with long winded market research reports replete with cross tabulations and PowerPoint presentations.

What’s wrong with soliciting evaluative customer feedback? It is a piece of superstitious corporate behavior built on five myths.

Myth: A satisfied customer is a loyal customer. Fact: Across all industries, over seventy-five percent of customers who leave a purveyor for a competitor rate themselves as “satisfied” or “completely satisfied.” It takes more than satisfaction to ensure long-term loyalty.

Myth: If customers say they are satisfied, it is true. Fact: Most customers would rather tell a little lie about being satisfied than to engage in a possibly confrontive dialogue explaining why they were not satisfied.

Myth: Customers want the organizations they do business with to ask them for feedback. Fact: Customers want organizations to read their minds! Only the raving fan or the super angry have the motivation to provide feedback.

Myth: Customers believe that if they give feedback, something will actually change. Fact: Some do. Most are twice bitten cynics. Most customers believe organizations solicit feedback because they are either directed to by some edict or incented to by some prize, not because the organization is sincerely anxious to improve. Even if improvements are made using the customers’ feedback, most never learn of the changes so the overall perceptive effect is “they don’t really care.”

Myth: Complaining customers are your most at-risk buyers; the ones just about to split. Fact: Not so. The noisy ones have either hope or larceny in their souls. It’s the quietly disappointed ones you have to look out for. Those are the ones who, approached by a competitor with a shiner widget or a slightly better deal, will abandon you for bluer skies, greener pastures and – the home of a modicum of hassle free treatment.

Customers often view solicitation of their feedback as a redundant activity. Customers believe they are giving the organization feedback each time they buy another product or service, a different product or service, recommend you to others, and remain a customer over time. So how can an organization remain current on customers’ ever-changing needs and expectations without annoying or estranging them?

Focus on Learning, not Evaluation

Customer feedback is about evaluation; customer learning is about problem solving. Evaluations are grades; learning is about improvement. Problem solving means learning for improvement. Problem solving requires more customer intelligence than customer evaluation; more ideas than critique. And, customers enjoy solving problems with you when they are invited. Shifting from a customer evaluation to a customer learning focus requires new tools, new methods and above all, new mindsets.

Rule #1: Stop expecting surveys to be your tools for learning.

Customer surveys yield mildly interesting demographic and psycho-graphic information that can, generally, be useful in marketplace positioning, benchmarking or strategy. But customer intelligence, the kind relevant for service or product improvement, is best achieved face-to-face and ear-to-ear. And, your front line has that opportunity every day.

Rule #2: Train customer contact people to ask open-ended questions.

Learning begins with a spirit of openness. If customers feel free to move the conversation as they see fit, they will gravitate to areas of significance to THEM—the good, bad and ugly of their personal experience. “What are ways we can…” or “How would you suggest we…” are much more likely to give you a lesson your customer is willing to deliver, not “On a 1 to 10 scale, how would you rate…”

Rule #3: Train customer contact people to present problem-solving, non-evaluative questions.

Questions that are evaluative in nature create a tone of critique…right and wrong; good and bad. Problem solving questions can be fun for customers to answer and are generally taken seriously. Ask a customer questions like “If this were your restaurant, what would you do differently?” And, if the customer says, “I don’t know,” respond with a warm “If you did know, what would you suggest!” This tells the customer you are both serious about their ideas.

Rule #4: Honor customers for taking the time to teach you.

Most customers have no particular interest in instructing you in their perspective on your service. It is incumbent on the student (that’s you) to give the customer some incentive to provide you a quick lesson. If possible, let the customer know how you plan to report on the improvements made from their lesson. And, if you make that promise, always keep it.

Rule #5: Listening to customers is good; watching customer behavior can be even better.

People often behave in ways different than they predict. When Professor Gerald Young at the University of Florida compared the reasons patients gave for switching physicians with the reasons they predicted would influence that decision, there was a major difference. “Quality of medical practice” was the factor patients consistently said would send them away, while in fact, “bedside manner” was the most frequent trigger for the change. Actual customer behavior is often more telling than the customer’s words.

Rule #6: Service wisdom comes from customer intelligence not just customer feedback

General George Patton soundly defeated German General Erwin Rommel in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. When asked his secret of success, Patton pronounced, “I read his damn book!” Service wisdom comes from valuing an assortment of sources for customer intelligence. The security guard’s assessment of the demeanor of a departing key customer can be more instructive than forty focus groups and sixty surveys; talking with a customer you lost last year might be more helpful than with the one you acquired last week.

Rule #7: Spread your customer learning’s as widely as possible.

Stew Leonard’s Dairy headquartered in Norwalk, CT posts customer suggestions on their giant bulletin board for all to see. They also make copies and distribute them to key departments throughout the supermarket. USAA Insurance in San Antonio, TX posts customer ideas on a special section of their intranet. The key is to let as many people as possible know what customers think as quickly as possible. Waiting until the marketing department has sanitized the data robs the front line of real-time information needed to adjust what they do.

We typically think of customer feedback as judgmental opinions, not as instructive information. Consider the word itself. “Feeding back” implies nurturance, like returning important nutrients to the soil through fertilizer. Customers will more likely give you their lessons that “fertilize” your customer service if you approach them as a student eager for a lesson rather than as a student uneasy about getting a grade.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


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