Listening, and being responsive, to customer feedback is an integral part of any business. That is not a surprise (or if it is, there are other things you should be reading before this blog). However, what isn’t talked about very often is which customers should not always have their advice heeded. Business leaders need to be careful which customers they listen to. The squeaky wheel gets the grease… The silent wheel writes online reviews. *
Now, I’m not saying you should completely discard the vocal minority of customers you hear from regularly. Rather, you need to make a conscious effort to survey the silent majority on a regular basis. This goes against years of best practices that taught the loudest complainers would have the biggest impact on future customer acquisition. The silent majority is where you make or break the loyalty loop of the Consumer Decision Journey. The silent majority is no longer silent. They just aren’t complaining to you.
Historically, a customer (or employee) who had a negative experience with a business had limited outlets to express their displeasure. They could complain to the business, maybe contact the BBB, and tell their small circle of friends about their negative experience. Now, Yelp for customers and Glassdoor for employees give those malcontents a pulpit from which to publically publish their pessimism. The audience of the customer or employee who complains to you is just you. The audience of the silently unsatisfied stakeholder is massive. By the time they take to the internet, it is usually too late to do anything but post one of those cookie cutter “I’m sorry you had a bad experience. We do our best to…” apologies that almost no one reads. Considering some insane percentage of customers and candidates reference internet reviews before making a final purchasing/offer determination, you cannot afford to let company reviews spin negatively out of control.
So, what do you do? The short answer is “Make an effort to listen and course correct when appropriate.” If that is all you need, stop reading now. For everyone else, the long answer is below.
When I am perusing Glassdoor reviews, one of the most common complaints is that management doesn’t listen. I personally don’t believe that management isn’t listening. Rather, what the poster is trying to say is that management gives the impression that they don’t care about employee/customer opinions. Now is the time when you say, “I can’t be blamed for an unfounded impression.” That is incorrect. Put yourself in their shoes. You write their reviews, you determine their eligibility for promotions, you pay their salary. Can they be blamed for not telling you they think something isn’t being done correctly or that they are unhappy? I don’t think so. Leaders need to make a conscious effort to take the temperature of employees on everything from personal fulfillment in their jobs to what they think the company can do better for employees and customers. Don’t wait for them to come to you with issues. Most of them won’t. The first time you know they were unhappy will be when you read the one star Glassdoor review. The company needs to put in the effort to solicit feedback and to show the feedback makes a difference. (For more on how to empower your team, check out "Increase Innovation by Empowering Employees.")
For customers, the answer is a little more difficult and is highly dependent on the type of business. One thing I can say for sure is don’t rely on “Go here to take a survey” written on the bottom of a receipt (even for a coupon) or an optional post-service poll administered via email. You are going to get the same squeaky wheels. The business needs to make the effort. The feedback process should be effortless for the customer.
If you offer a service, have someone call the customer immediately after the service is performed to ask about performance. It could be every customer or a randomly selected subset. Either way, reach out to them ask them how the service went in very broad terms. No one wants to go through a detailed list of questions. Use the NPS question (“How likely are you to recommend this brand to someone else?”). Ask them if they are happy, how they feel about the service, or better yet, ask them what they would suggest for making the service better even if they say they are happy. Get the question out there. If you are a subscription business, monitor churn. Use service desk software to track customer complaints and reach out to those customers who cancel with no previous support contact. The company has to do the work.
For products, it may be more difficult because you may not have a direct connection to each customer. I would highly suggest reaching out any negative reviewers in a more meaningful way than “I’m sorry… We try…” See if you can get them to talk to you about what you can do to rectify the situation and, more importantly, ask them how you can make it easier for them to express their frustrations to the company directly in the future. How you proactively poll satisfaction is going to be different depending on the product, service, and business model. However, one thing will always be true: You need to make the effort and make it effortless for the customer.
Long story short, when dealing with any stakeholder (customers, employees, board members, etc.) the business needs to make an effort to be a proactive gatherer of feedback and not just a passive consumer of complaints. The squeaky wheel gets the grease… The silent wheel writes online reviews.
If you have a proactive stakeholder feedback process and want to evaluate its maturity, check out the "How a Product of 1980's Bureaucracy Can Keep Your Business Agile" for an overview of the Capability Maturity Model and how it can be used evaluate any part of a business.
* The original quote that inspired this post was from @Raj Echambadi. He said, “Be careful what type of customer you listen to. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” The image at the top is my original note from his class and is still on my office monitor to this day.