Responding to Survey Cries for Help

Summary: Surveys, especially transactional surveys, identify customers in need of a service recovery act. The worst thing you can do is ignore screams for help. Better to just forget doing the survey. This article discusses this most important communication element in a survey program.

In another article I discussed the need to communicate the findings from a survey project back to our group of interest. The goal of this communication is to close the loop. You asked the respondent to give you feedback. Now show the customer that you really do read the survey submissions and you really do take action on it. Such actions will likely lead to greater, long-term participation in the survey program with more meaningful information.

While some may not see the need for this — really, some see surveys as one-way communication — I also mentioned there’s another type of communication with our respondents that I do not consider optional: responding to cries for help.

Whenever we survey a group with whom we have an ongoing relationship, be it customers, employees, suppliers, or members, some survey submissions are going to voice complaints, perhaps very loud complaints. This is actually good! If we don’t know that people are upset, how can fix the issues? In fact, one of the major reasons we conduct surveys is to flesh out those who have serious issues that need to be addressed.

Customers who are not happy with your product or service can do one of two things. They can complain to you or they can just go away silently. (Technically, there’s a third choice.  They could yet keep buying from you because the switching cost is too steep to change, but you can be sure these are customer relationships that will be vexing.) If their compliant gets voiced, then you can address the issue and hopefully retain the customer.

In fact, fixing customer issues can be the best path to stronger customer loyalty. Research has shown that customers who have had a complaint resolved quickly and fairly are more loyal customers — far more loyal — than customers who have had no complaints. Isn’t that just common sense? Think about your own consumer interactions.  f you voice a complaint and the company ignores you, puts up a wall denying there is a problem, or grudgingly responds, how likely are you to buy from them again? On the other hand, what if the company takes ownership of the problem and fixes it, wouldn’t you feel more confident about buying from them again in the future? By fixing the problem, the company is also “fixing” the customer relationship.

the-screamNotice I wrote, “If their complaint gets voiced.” Most people won’t bother to complain. In some cultures, people are more or less likely to voice a complaint. Regardless of the culture, most complaints will go unvoiced. Here’s where surveying — and other customer feedback channels, including social media — come into play. Part of the goal of a survey is to give voice to complaints. This is particularly true of surveying at the close of a transaction, but it also holds true for periodic surveys, such as annual surveys. The survey invitation is in essence an invitation to tell what’s wrong (if anything).

Okay. So we get a survey returned and someone gave us very low scores and may have written some critical comments in a text box field. What do we do? We invoke our service recovery procedures, of course! Don’t tell me you don’t have service recovery procedures. (“Service recovery” is a glass-half-full alternative phrasing to “complaint handling.” Would you rather work in a complaint department or a service recovery department?)

I am jesting here a little, but I am always surprised at the number of companies that have no procedures in place to handle complaints. Here is the most critical take-away from this article. Before you hit the “send” button on your survey invitations, you must have a procedure in place to respond to complaints. Those procedures must include who responds and the type of response, including any compensation, that should be offered depending upon the nature of the problem — and the importance of the customer.

Companies that are caught flat-footed by complaints in survey responses are multiplying the problem. If a customer is upset, that’s one thing. But if a customer complains and you’re slow to respond — or worse, you ignore them — then they’re even madder! It’s throwing gasoline on a fire. I will humbly suggest that the goal of the survey program is not to increase customer angst! Yet I have personally experienced being ignored after voicing strong complaints in a survey from Sears, a major US retailer.

You might be thinking, “But we do our survey anonymously in order to get more truthful responses. What now?” You’re right. While anonymity may have benefits in the quality of the information garnered from the survey, you now face the conundrum of having an unknown, upset customer whose problem you can’t fix. For this reason many companies chose to not have anonymous surveys. This is especially true for business-to-business transactional surveying programs.

In an anonymous survey, you should include this question, “If you have some unresolved issue, please contact us at XXX or enter your contact information below. We will respond within 24 hours.” Many people won’t enter their contact information. C’est la vie. But at least you gave them the chance to have their issue resolved.

Notice I said “respond within 24 hours.” Speed of response is vital, even if it’s just acknowledgement of the receipt of the issue promising a more detailed response within another day. Operationally, this presents a requirement for your survey program. The survey responses must be reviewed at least daily to identify those customers with complaints that need to be addressed. This is sometimes referred to as creating a “hot sheet.” If you are contracting out your surveying effort, “hot sheeting” must be a key requirement of the vendor.

One company I know launched an initial survey project and a customer included a handwritten, two-page letter detailing issues. (This was a postal mail survey.) The company did not have procedures to review the incoming surveys, and it was many days before a manager saw this. I’m glad I wasn’t the one placing the call to the customer!

On non-anonymous surveys it is also common practice to include that question asking if the customer wants a follow-up contact on some issue. Here’s a real dilemma. The customer voices issues, but then checks “No” indicating they don’t want to be contacted. You want to fix their issue, but if you do call them, you’re violating their specific request.

Here’s a cute way of handling this. Pose the question, “Do you want someone to contact you?” but only give a “yes” response option. That gives the customer the opportunity to emphatically say “contact me” but doesn’t give them an opt-out ability.

Great. You have procedures in place to flag upset customers and respond to their issues. Done. Right? Wrong. You have remedied the problem and fixed the customer, but has the underlying process that caused the problem been resolved? The surveying program provides information to initiate root cause identification and resolution. If your company has some quality initiative in place, the survey program can be a key component of it. In fact, that is how you may get funding for the survey program.

I have been talking about communication to our external customer, but I’ll end here with a 180-degree turn to communication with our internal customers. If you are running a survey program, you should also be communicating your findings to the “process owners” of the processes that have caused the problems. These communication channels can be highly problematic, especially if the survey is done by the service organization but hears issues about the product sold to the customer. In fact, that strategic role for after-sales service was the topic of my doctoral dissertation.