The customer is everything

It's critical to proactively seek out and understand the customer voice, to act on that voice, and to let the customer know you acted on it. RightNow Technologies CEO Greg Gianforte tells how.

Commentary--Today, the success of every consumer-facing business depends on making it easy and satisfying for people to do business with you.

According to a recent Harris Interactive survey, 80 percent of consumers will never to go back to a company after a negative experience. On a positive note, outstanding service is the number one reason customers continue to do business with a company or recommend it to others. These facts highlight the value of delivering an exceptional customer experience.

Providing customers with an excellent experience is virtually impossible if you don’t know what they want or need. Companies should solicit customer feedback in every customer interaction. They should also implement real-time response and escalation mechanisms to ensure that they can react quickly to that feedback.

Some guidelines for using customer feedback to improve the customer experience include:

Capture feedback at the "moment of truth"
To know what customers think, ask them immediately after--or even during--an interaction. A brief email survey that includes a comments field can be used to collect valuable information. For example, a day after a customer receives a shipment or just after a customer service interaction. Avoid inundating customers with surveys by building business rules into your customer care system that limit the number of surveys a particular customer may receive in a given month. The traditional approach of surveying customer in mass once or twice a year might give general feedback, but these infrequent, non context specific surveys generally have very low response rates and to not allow immediate intervention when problems have occurred.

Accentuate the negative
Pay close attention to unhappy customers. The complaints registered by a small few may tell you about problems being experienced by many customers who haven’t communicated their frustrations to you. Rather than feeling proud about your 80 percent customer satisfaction rating, work to understand why 20 percent are not satisfied. Correct those issues and the 80 percent will rise and you will lose fewer customer and drive cost out of your business.

Act on what you hear
Organizations that ask for customer feedback should put processes in place that address negative feedback, such as routing feedback to a specific person in the appropriate department that can resolve any issues promptly. For example, you might institute a policy that requires the responsible person to contact the unsatisfied customer personally within one business day to attempt to resolve the issue. Companies should also analyze feedback to spot trends and dictate appropriate action. Each issue or complaint should be closely tracked and monitored, from initial contact through complete resolution.

Make customer feedback accessible
In addition to promptly triggering intervention and corrective actions, customer feedback should be readily available to anyone who interacts with customers. Including feedback in the customer record used by all front-line employees ensures that customers receive personalized attention. Some companies publish satisfaction scores on a daily or weekly basis; Being able to publish customer satisfaction trend data is another benefit of capturing feedback at the moment of truth rather than semi-annually.

Let customers know you have listened and acted on their input
Asking customers for feedback and then ignoring it will frustrate them. When you do act on feedback, inform customers of the actions your organization has taken--otherwise your credibility will be undermined. If you don’t explicitly inform customers about your actions, you can’t blame them for thinking you don’t care. There are a variety of ways to let customers know you’re listening and taking action. For example, highlight on your web site or in a customer newsletter any changes you’ve made based on customer feedback. When possible, send a personal response to customers who have provided feedback that is particularly useful.

Make the customer’s voice visible internally
In addition to letting customers know you’re listening to them, it’s important to let your staff know the importance of the customer’s voice. This principle is essential for building a truly customer-focused culture. One way to instill the importance of the customer voice in front-line staff is to tie compensation to customer satisfaction. Rewarding individuals or teams that achieve high scores or significant improvements in their scores is a typical approach. Also, you might convene a cross-departmental working group once a month to review the issues that were raised by unsatisfied customer during the prior month. This is not a replacement for prompt intervention when the feedback is first received, but it is a great way to help other departments understand major issues and trends in customer satisfaction.

The strength of a company’s brand and its bottom-line business performance depend on how well it understands and responds to customers. To deliver excellent customer experiences, it’s essential to actively listen and respond to your customers as they’re communicating with you—not weeks or months later. You need to capture their feedback in real-time, act on that feedback immediately, and demonstrate how what they’ve told you has changed the way you do business. These types of behaviors will enable you to differentiate your brand and retain your customers for years to come.

Greg Gianforte is founder and CEO of RightNow Technologies.