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Craig Cochran

Quality Insider

A Quality Lesson from Hopeulikit

Don’t rely on traditional customer surveys

Published: Monday, February 12, 2007 - 23:00

Last year I had the good fortune of doing some consulting with B&C Specialty Products in Hopeulikit, Georgia. B&C does light manufacturing, primarily plastic molding and assembly, and they also distribute imported products produced by companies in the Far East. They have about 150 employees and are by far the biggest employer in Hopeulikit.
B&C was a perfect place to learn about managing and quality. Every day presented a new lesson. Usually the lessons were hard-learned, and those are the ones that really stick with you. B&C was gracious enough to allow me to interview their personnel about things that came up during my time there. Here is an interesting lesson: Don’t rely on traditional customer surveys. The scenario is described by the people who actually lived it.

—Kim Kimber, customer service supervisor
“I’ll be very relieved when the customer survey process is completed. It has been a massive project, much larger than I expected. I figured customer feedback was simply a matter of asking our customers what they thought about us and our products. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but the work will all be worthwhile in the end.

“My personal involvement in the process has been mainly logistical. I assembled the list of customers and contact names, profiled each one for their purchase history and confirmed all the addresses. Then I sent out e-mails letting everyone know the survey would be coming, along with instructions on how to respond. The survey itself then went out, via postal mail or e-mail, depending on the customer’s preferences. As the responses have been returning, my team and I have tabulated these into a database for analysis. Finally, just a couple of days ago we sent out a reminder e-mail asking the customer to please complete the survey if they hadn’t already. I’m telling you, this has been a time-consuming process.

“I haven’t seen the response trends yet, but we should be getting some terrific data. Our survey asked about nearly every aspect of the customer experience, from getting information to ordering, and from product performance to billing. It left no stone unturned, which is one of the strengths of a survey like this. Another strength is that we can track our performance over time. I’m not looking forward to doing this again next year, but I can see how the company would benefit. I think doing this again might kill me.

“The funny thing about the survey is that I’ve had to tell some customers who have called and e-mailed not to provide their feedback. When I speak to them, I say, ‘Just wait a week or two. You’ll be getting a survey from us. Please use that to provide us with your feedback.’ Most customers have had no problem with that approach, but it seems a little strange to tell people something like this. We need validated, statistical feedback, though. At least that’s what the consultants told me.”

—J. T. Ryan, president
“The consultants from the university have been very helpful in opening our eyes. That’s the great thing about working with university folks—they force you to look at things in new ways. They completely changed my notions of customer feedback. In the past, we would get feedback and take action on what seemed to be the biggest opportunities. It was a very simple process and the feedback was always qualitative, usually just comments and off-hand suggestions. There was no way for us to know how we were doing over the long term. Yes, we made a lot of improvements this way, but it was a loose, unstructured approach to something that’s pretty darned important.

“Our approach is far from loose and unstructured now. We’ve spent the last couple of months developing, writing and distributing this survey, and now we’re starting to get some results. I really like the fact that we’re getting data from each question. The only thing I don’t like is the fact that it’s a little hard to know what to do about the data. For instance, our average rating for product reliability is 4.22. This is a little better than “good” on our 5-point scale. So, what are we supposed to do about a 4.22? Should we redesign our product, or do nothing at all? I’m not certain. In the past, when we had simple open-ended feedback, it was relatively easy to know what actions to take. When we heard five customers say, “Hey, it would be great if you’d put our purchase order number on your invoices,” the improvement action was very clear. The improvement action for numerical feedback is much less obvious. Overall, I’m very satisfied with our survey process we’ve implemented. We’ve already begun charting the preliminary results. Our overall satisfaction score is 4.26, and I think that’s something we can all be proud of.”

—Leo Corley, president of Corley Corp., B&C’s largest customer
“Yes, I’ve seen that survey that B&C Specialty Products sent out. God have mercy! The thing was enormous. I didn’t think people actually sent out surveys like that anymore. It asked about everything under the sun, things I had never even thought about. If they had wanted to know what to improve upon, they should have just asked me. They didn’t need to ask 65 questions. If the survey had come from anybody else, we would have tossed it in the recycling bin. But because I have a personal relationship with JT, I took the time to compete it. I almost went blind from filling in all the little circles.

“What really bugged me about B&C’s survey was not the length. It was that they didn’t want to receive any feedback that wasn’t put onto their nice little form. Our purchasing manager tried calling them with a suggestion about one of their products. He was told, and I quote, ‘Please hold that comment. Write it on the survey when it arrives.’ First of all, there was no place on the survey for writing open-ended feedback. Secondly, why would you discourage somebody who’s trying to help you? I just can’t imagine telling a customer who had valuable feedback to hold it until the survey came. That’s insane. You don’t get a gift like that all the time and you’d better be prepared to deal with it when it arrives.”

—Paolo Ferrari, manager of quality and logistics
“You want charts? We got charts! The walls of our conference room are covered with them. They’re full-color charts, too, not those crude black-and-white ones. I can gaze for hours at their wondrous beauty. Then I feel like throwing up.

“We’ve been working on this survey with the consultants for around three months. It seems like a lifetime. The consultants are finishing up their work, and as far as I can tell the only thing we’ve done is make charts. I cornered one of the consultants yesterday and asked him, ‘What are we going to do about the customer feedback?’ He looked at me like I was a rabid dog. ‘We guide the organization through the implementation of the survey and the interpretation of its results,’ he said. ‘We generally don’t suggest courses of action.’ Okay, I said, interpret the results for me so I can take action. That’s when he launched into a bunch of statistical double-talk about split-half reliabilities and Cronbach’s alpha estimate. The bottom line was that he wasn’t sure what the results indicated, except that we weren’t perfect. Meanwhile, this process has just about run out of gas, and the pretty charts of data will probably represent the final product. No improvements, only charts. Can you believe that? This survey process has been the biggest waste of time and money in our company’s history.”

When gathering customer feedback, remember:

  • Traditional customer surveys consume a lot of time and energy.
  • Quantitative feedback can be difficult to take action on.
  • Open-ended feedback often provides the clearest path for improvement, and it’s the easiest to obtain.
  • The final product of any customer feedback process should be improvement, not charts and graphs.
  • Be prepared to capture feedback when it’s convenient for your customers, not when it’s convenient for you.
  • Make capturing customer feedback something that happens all the time, not just once a year.

Discuss

About The Author

Craig Cochran’s picture

Craig Cochran

Craig Cochran is a project manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Cochran is the author of The Seven Lessons: Management Tools for Success; Problem Solving in Plain English; ISO 9001 in Plain English; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line; and Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, all available from Paton Professional. His most recent book is ISO 9001:2015 in Plain English, also available from Paton Professional.