Don't Measure Customer Satisfaction – Ask For Actionable Feedback Instead

As far as I am concerned achieving a high satisfaction score doesn’t have any meaning for an organization.

As a business owner, I prefer to think that all customers are potentially unsatisfied. Even if they are presently satisfied with our product, once we’ve improved it they will be unsatisfied with the earlier version.

I consider this is an optimistic view. It means there will always be something to improve. If I ran out of things to improve I’d be very frightened about the future of my company.

Also, I have an issue with the word “satisfaction”. Since when is being “satisfied” a good thing? It’s a mediocre achievement.

I want ecstatically happy customers, evangelists and zealots that tell me everything they love and hate about our product. I want passion – not satisfaction. As a company that relies 100% on word of mouth marketing — I don’t want “satisfied” customers.

Here’s my thoughts on satisfaction and why we are moving away from it at light speed.

Does Customer Satisfaction Drive Change? No.

Without exception, surveys and feedback systems should be based on a desire to change or take action.

If you set out to measure customer satisfaction what action are you trying to take?

As far as I can tell a customer satisfaction score has no action that can be taken (at least not directly). It’s just a number without a story.

Most companies will not like their score and then brainstorm internally on how to improve it (or worse they’ll like it and do nothing). Those brainstorm ideas will not be qualified with research, they’ll just be put into action, and the company will run another satisfaction score in a year to see if anything changed.

(BTW: If you work in an organization that needs survey results to tell them they need to improve then I suggest you jump ship as soon as you can. Sometime soon, an innovative company that focuses on continuous improvement will enter your market and knock your current employer down.)

You should be trying to find ways to improve your services to increase brand loyalty, global happiness, word of mouth marketing and drive the customer to buy more. Focus your metrics directly on those initiatives.

A high satisfaction score might make you feel good, but you just lost an opportunity. You used that respondent’s time on a metric that you can’t act on.

If you want to innovate and grow, ask for actionable feedback and ask for it as frequently as possible.

Ask the Right Questions for Your Goals

Like all business we have limited resources (and we think that’s a good thing for a business). With limited resources we need to focus the company’s resources to work where they will do the most good. That’s ultimately what this is all about.

Here are questions that I consider more useful than scale questions about satisfaction. We use questions like these every day, not just in surveys, but on the phone, in email and through automated feedback systems we’ve built on top of SurveyGizmo. These questions help us decide how to iterate our service, business and management.

  1. How would you improve our product/service?
  2. How can we improve?
  3. If you could change one thing about our service what would it be? Why?
  4. What was one thing you love about our service? Why?
  5. How does our product compare to competitors?
  6. What are a few words you’d use to describe our product or service?
  7. In what way is our product weak compared to competitors?

All of these are asked as essay or open-ended questions. That gives you maximum chance for discovery and actionable feedback. Plus it makes it easier to say “thank you” without sounding like a robot.

Ask Often & Act Often

Many companies only run a satisfaction survey once per year. For many this is their only survey they do.

It boggles my mind.

Imagine if we had evolved so we could only open your eyes once per year for a week. We’d have earned a Darwin Award pretty quickly.

Why should our organizations and products be any different? They’re also an organism trying to grow and survive; and companies that spend more time with their eyes open are going to win.

Stop sending out annual or quarterly satisfaction surveys. Instead create feedback systems (often using survey software) that provide continuous feedback to your organization.

You also need to act on the feedback you get. Create a culture that loves it and acts on it every day, every week. Create a system for organizing your feedback (so you don’t go into overload) and acting on it in small rapid iterations.

There’s a whole new business movement out there right now developing around Agile and Lean practices.

The idea is that by making continuous small and rapid improvements even a larger organization can stay nimble and act on feedback rapidly. It also helps mitigate the risk of change by keeping all changes small and back-stepping when you need to without guilt or blame.

I recommend looking into the O’Reily “Lean Series” of books if you want to learn more.

Net Promoter Score

If you have one of those personalities that absolutely needs to keep score on feedback then I recommend a technique called Net Promoter Score.

Here’s the format:

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with this method. The benefit of this question is that it tries to answer a meaningful question for a business: “Will the customer recommend us?”

Just remember that it’s entirely subjective and only belongs in a feedback system, not in the middle of a quantitative survey (where I see them most often). Don’t mix this with statistically valid qualitative questions.

Also, it’s next to useless without the “why” component — which is where most of the value comes from.

Say “Thank You”!

Customers have been trained not to give us feedback. We’ve taught them through years of abuse that giving us feedback is a thankless, emotional task that has no real reward for them. They are never thanked. They rarely see change based on their feedback.

Heck, most of the time customers assume their feedback is never read!

We can change that with one simple step, and improve our customer relationships at the same time.

Just say thank you. Reply, personally to every piece of feedback you receive. You don’t need to offer them anything. Just say thank you.

Your customers took time out of their day to provide feedback to you. They are providing you with information that will drive your organization to better growth, more profitability and save you costly mistakes.

Contact them and thank them for their feedback (particularly for negative feedback).

You’ll be surprised how this little thing will increase your response rate and delight your customers.

Discussion

Please feel free to use the commenting section below to discuss this idea with me and among yourselves. I will reply!

Join the Conversation
  • Christian

    One of our employees did point out that we still use scale questions at SurveyGizmo like this. But we did have a discussion about it and they might stop. The scale, again, isn’t meaningful (and it’s contributing to survey burning out).

  • Christian

    One of our employees did point out that we still use scale questions at SurveyGizmo like this. But we did have a discussion about it and they might stop. The scale, again, isn’t meaningful (and it’s contributing to survey burning out).

  • Emily Woods

    I love your take on the word ‘satisfaction’ and I totally agree. Mere satisfaction should not be the goal. I also like the various stages you’ve discussed, especially saying Thank You. I did a thorough research for an online survey software that included all these aspects and finally zeroed down on SoGoSurvey. You should give it a try too!

  • http://www.sogosurvey.com/ Emily Woods

    I love your take on the word ‘satisfaction’ and I totally agree. Mere satisfaction should not be the goal. I also like the various stages you’ve discussed, especially saying Thank You.

    [Note: This comment was edited to remove advertising.]

  • Kim

    Interesting article. I like the approach, but wonder how you manage to sift through all that qualitative feedback quickly enough to take action. Do you use coding software?

    • http://twitter.com/cvanek Christian Vanek

      Hi Kim!

      Actually, we route all feedback responses into our ticketing system and we treat them like customer service tickets. That way we can act on immediate one-off issues and thank them for their feedback personally.

      As you suggested, we also use Text Bucketing to summarize the feedback on a weekly basis for weekly action and trend analysis over time. That’s usually where “major” initiatives come from.

      Great question!

  • Kim

    Interesting article. I like the approach, but wonder how you manage to sift through all that qualitative feedback quickly enough to take action. Do you use coding software?

    • Christian Vanek

      Hi Kim!

      Actually, we route all feedback responses into our ticketing system and we treat them like customer service tickets. That way we can act on immediate one-off issues and thank them for their feedback personally.

      As you suggested, we also use Text Bucketing to summarize the feedback on a weekly basis for weekly action and trend analysis over time. That’s usually where “major” initiatives come from.

      Great question!

  • greg

    Shouldn’t improvements be based on what the majority of your customers want? That involves a fair sample over a certain period of time. I don’t think it’s wise to change something just b/c one customer brought up a good idea for an improvement. Now if several customers brought up the same idea over a period of time, then go for it.

    • http://twitter.com/cvanek Christian Vanek

      Greg,

      Yes, that’s true.

      We don’t necessarily *do* everything they ask for. We used to — but we have so much feedback every day we can’t do it anymore. :)

      We bucket them and attach them to user stories (we’re a lean/agile shop) if they are development oriented or bring them up in weekly huddles if they are business focused.

      That said, every customer who supplies you with feedback should have a personal thank you and acknowledgement (more than a canned auto-responder).

      We have 248,000 users and get about 50 to 150 feedback items per work day. We haven’t found it difficult to keep up even with our small staff.

      Really my suggestion with this article is to avoid “scoring” satisfaction and get qualitative data you can act on instead. You might have spend some time aggregating it but it provides a much richer platform of data when you do decide to change something.

      Plus some really surprised customers when they get a note back!

      -Christian

      • Eva Losey Grossman

        I just wanted to give a shout out to your staff for not just acknowledging and thanking me (a customer) for my feedback, but for seeking it out and making me feel valued, heard and cared about! Your small team has had a big impact on me, and I would trust anything you had to say on the subject of Customer Satisfaction. Even though I may not be able to have every single wish or request fulfilled, I am way beyond satisfied, and am borderline obsessed with how awesome my SurveyGizmo experience has been!

        • http://twitter.com/cvanek Christian Vanek

          Thanks Eva! Glad to hear it! I’ll share with with staff :)

      • CCMIS

        Greg asks “Shouldn’t improvements be based on what the majority of your customers want?”. I would say not necessarily! Certainly you don’t want to do what the majority doesn’t want, but wants are not always mutually exclusive.

        Especially in a closed group, club, association, staff group, etc. the majority may well be satisfied with the status quo and resist change good or bad just because it is different. In this case you need to look to the suggestions of a smaller number of innovators for positive improvement.

        Sometimes the minority that are not satisfied have the desire necessary to initiate change. The tension for change they create drives improvement. It seems to me that discounting opinions in any community just because they are not main stream is usually a recipe for mediocrity.

    • Robert Bacal

      Of course sampling properly is important, but as a former social science researcher, I’d suggest it’s a holy grail because customer choose to participate or not and that always biases the results. But that’s not so terrible. One thing is that even a single comment or two from well known customers can be exceedingly valuable, because it SUGGESTS areas to look into. For example, even if you hear one or two customers complain about having to wait on the phone for an hour, you can then go to see if those events ARE happening via internal data. And fix them. Or not. Depending on the org. priorities.

  • greg

    Shouldn’t improvements be based on what the majority of your customers want? That involves a fair sample over a certain period of time. I don’t think it’s wise to change something just b/c one customer brought up a good idea for an improvement. Now if several customers brought up the same idea over a period of time, then go for it.

    • Christian Vanek

      Greg,

      Yes, that’s true.

      We don’t necessarily *do* everything they ask for. We used to — but we have so much feedback every day we can’t do it anymore. :)

      We bucket them and attach them to user stories (we’re a lean/agile shop) if they are development oriented or bring them up in weekly huddles if they are business focused.

      That said, every customer who supplies you with feedback should have a personal thank you and acknowledgement (more than a canned auto-responder).

      We have 248,000 users and get about 50 to 150 feedback items per work day. We haven’t found it difficult to keep up even with our small staff.

      Really my suggestion with this article is to avoid “scoring” satisfaction and get qualitative data you can act on instead. You might have spend some time aggregating it but it provides a much richer platform of data when you do decide to change something.

      Plus some really surprised customers when they get a note back!

      -Christian

      • Eva Losey Grossman

        I just wanted to give a shout out to your staff for not just acknowledging and thanking me (a customer) for my feedback, but for seeking it out and making me feel valued, heard and cared about! Your small team has had a big impact on me, and I would trust anything you had to say on the subject of Customer Satisfaction. Even though I may not be able to have every single wish or request fulfilled, I am way beyond satisfied, and am borderline obsessed with how awesome my SurveyGizmo experience has been!

        • Christian Vanek

          Thanks Eva! Glad to hear it! I’ll share with with staff :)

      • CCMIS

        Greg asks “Shouldn’t improvements be based on what the majority of your customers want?”. I would say not necessarily! Certainly you don’t want to do what the majority doesn’t want, but wants are not always mutually exclusive.

        Especially in a closed group, club, association, staff group, etc. the majority may well be satisfied with the status quo and resist change good or bad just because it is different. In this case you need to look to the suggestions of a smaller number of innovators for positive improvement.

        Sometimes the minority that are not satisfied have the desire necessary to initiate change. The tension for change they create drives improvement. It seems to me that discounting opinions in any community just because they are not main stream is usually a recipe for mediocrity.

    • http://work911.com/ Robert Bacal

      Of course sampling properly is important, but as a former social science researcher, I’d suggest it’s a holy grail because customer choose to participate or not and that always biases the results. But that’s not so terrible. One thing is that even a single comment or two from well known customers can be exceedingly valuable, because it SUGGESTS areas to look into. For example, even if you hear one or two customers complain about having to wait on the phone for an hour, you can then go to see if those events ARE happening via internal data. And fix them. Or not. Depending on the org. priorities.

  • Ed Halteman

    Christian,

    Interesting article. You make a lot of excellent points like; “Without exception, surveys and feedback systems should be based on a desire to change or take action.” The way I’ve worded that many times is, “the only reason to do a survey is to make a decision or take action.” And, “Reply personally to every piece of feedback you receive. You don’t need to offer them anything. Just say thank you.” You are right this little effort goes a long way toward increasing your survey response rates and building valuable relationships with your customers. And “Ask the right questions for your goals. . . . With limited resources we need to focus the company’s resources to work where they will do the most good.” This is right on and it is one of the reasons to do a customer satisfaction survey that you seem to want to move away from.

    Your take on the term “satisfaction” seems like semantics to me. I would look at “How satisfied . . .?” and “How happy . . .?” as the same thing. I think you are reacting to the many, many who misuse customer satisfaction measurement (as you’ve alluded to) and thus want to distance yourself from it by changing the vocabulary. This is actually a great tactic, one I’ve used myself. (Years ago I felt surveys were so badly misused – didn’t drive action – that I would never use the “S” word, instead I would say “feedback questionnaire” or “customer input.”) I applaud your intentions but would warn against throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    You ask, “If you set out to measure customer satisfaction what action are you trying to take?” How about learning whether the approach we are taking with our customers is creating a “happier/more satisfied” customer base year over year? Or how about learning what drives happiness/satisfaction in our customers (service, price, features, etc.) so we can focus our continual improvement attention and limited resources on those areas first. Clearly, as Greg points out in his comment below, your approach has the inherent danger of acting on minority opinion. How many customers does SurveyGizmo have? I’d bet the number is in the thousands or maybe tens of thousands. How many responses do you get from customers that address the same issue when you use only your open-ended-questions approach? 10? 15? Even with Text Bucketing I imagine 30 in the same bucket would be a huge number.

    The truth is you have great instincts for providing quality service and you have a lean organization, but what you describe is not data-based decision making and it certainly cannot work for all organizations. You are using your teams’ expertise and yours and theirs “gut feel” to take action based on a constant flow of feedback from a clear minority of your customers. You are taking a risk that the majority of your customers are not getting “happier” from all the action you are taking. Or, at a minimum, that action is not efficient.

    As a customer I am very satisfied (happy) with the product you provide but I have also noticed features I really valued dissolve away for no apparent reason, which momentarily, at least, chips away at my satisfaction (happiness).

    I really admire your passion for serving your customers and for your desire to institute continual improvement in your processes and products but the method the method you describe in this article seems haphazard and could be catastrophic for larger, less lean, entities especially those with high-priced, long cycle time products.

    • http://twitter.com/cvanek Christian Vanek

      Thanks for the feedback, Ed.

      You’re right, I’m taking the philosophical stance that lean and agile decision making is preferable over older and more traditional R&D and waterfall business methods.

      I would absolutely not suggest you launch large (expensive) risky projects off directional data. Surveys and traditional research are still vital for those decisions and quantifying the benefits and likely outcomes is vital. We still use those methods as well.

      Actually, the point of lean is that you try not to make huge decisions — but focus on iterative improvements.

      You’re point is well taken though. In this article I am more talking about feedback systems — not customer research surveys. These systems are designed for constant iterative improvement (usually for business services).

      We also use a similar iterative system for product development, but I suspect we are an outlier in that regard.

      I should have mentioned the difference in this article and made it a bit clearer.

      Thanks for pointing it out, Ed!

      -Christian

  • Ed Halteman

    Christian,

    Interesting article. You make a lot of excellent points like; “Without exception, surveys and feedback systems should be based on a desire to change or take action.” The way I’ve worded that many times is, “the only reason to do a survey is to make a decision or take action.” And, “Reply personally to every piece of feedback you receive. You don’t need to offer them anything. Just say thank you.” You are right this little effort goes a long way toward increasing your survey response rates and building valuable relationships with your customers. And “Ask the right questions for your goals. . . . With limited resources we need to focus the company’s resources to work where they will do the most good.” This is right on and it is one of the reasons to do a customer satisfaction survey that you seem to want to move away from.

    Your take on the term “satisfaction” seems like semantics to me. I would look at “How satisfied . . .?” and “How happy . . .?” as the same thing. I think you are reacting to the many, many who misuse customer satisfaction measurement (as you’ve alluded to) and thus want to distance yourself from it by changing the vocabulary. This is actually a great tactic, one I’ve used myself. (Years ago I felt surveys were so badly misused – didn’t drive action – that I would never use the “S” word, instead I would say “feedback questionnaire” or “customer input.”) I applaud your intentions but would warn against throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    You ask, “If you set out to measure customer satisfaction what action are you trying to take?” How about learning whether the approach we are taking with our customers is creating a “happier/more satisfied” customer base year over year? Or how about learning what drives happiness/satisfaction in our customers (service, price, features, etc.) so we can focus our continual improvement attention and limited resources on those areas first. Clearly, as Greg points out in his comment below, your approach has the inherent danger of acting on minority opinion. How many customers does SurveyGizmo have? I’d bet the number is in the thousands or maybe tens of thousands. How many responses do you get from customers that address the same issue when you use only your open-ended-questions approach? 10? 15? Even with Text Bucketing I imagine 30 in the same bucket would be a huge number.

    The truth is you have great instincts for providing quality service and you have a lean organization, but what you describe is not data-based decision making and it certainly cannot work for all organizations. You are using your teams’ expertise and yours and theirs “gut feel” to take action based on a constant flow of feedback from a clear minority of your customers. You are taking a risk that the majority of your customers are not getting “happier” from all the action you are taking. Or, at a minimum, that action is not efficient.

    As a customer I am very satisfied (happy) with the product you provide but I have also noticed features I really valued dissolve away for no apparent reason, which momentarily, at least, chips away at my satisfaction (happiness).

    I really admire your passion for serving your customers and for your desire to institute continual improvement in your processes and products but the method the method you describe in this article seems haphazard and could be catastrophic for larger, less lean, entities especially those with high-priced, long cycle time products.

    • Christian Vanek

      Thanks for the feedback, Ed.

      You’re right, I’m taking the philosophical stance that lean and agile decision making is preferable over older and more traditional R&D and waterfall business methods.

      I would absolutely not suggest you launch large (expensive) risky projects off directional data. Surveys and traditional research are still vital for those decisions and quantifying the benefits and likely outcomes is vital. We still use those methods as well.

      Actually, the point of lean is that you try not to make huge decisions — but focus on iterative improvements.

      You’re point is well taken though. In this article I am more talking about feedback systems — not customer research surveys. These systems are designed for constant iterative improvement (usually for business services).

      We also use a similar iterative system for product development, but I suspect we are an outlier in that regard.

      I should have mentioned the difference in this article and made it a bit clearer.

      Thanks for pointing it out, Ed!

      -Christian

  • http://twitter.com/AdrianaGalue Adriana Galue

    Great discussion.Thank you both Christian and Ed for your valuable points. With regards to obtaining a more qualitative type of feedback, I would emphasize the need to take into account context. Contexts are key to meaning, given that meaning can be conveyed ‘correctly’ only if context is also understood. The answer to “how can we improve” question depends on who is using your service/product and how the service/product is contextually being utilized. Having said that, I completely agree with the futility of the “are you satisfied” question.

  • http://twitter.com/AdrianaGalue Adriana Galue

    Great discussion.Thank you both Christian and Ed for your valuable points. With regards to obtaining a more qualitative type of feedback, I would emphasize the need to take into account context. Contexts are key to meaning, given that meaning can be conveyed ‘correctly’ only if context is also understood. The answer to “how can we improve” question depends on who is using your service/product and how the service/product is contextually being utilized. Having said that, I completely agree with the futility of the “are you satisfied” question.

  • Robert Bacal

    Great stuff. Again, I’m loving the indepth posts on surveygizmo, because they are NOT the usual soundbyte stuff on these topics. Actionable information IS the key. We’re so into collecting data, just because we can, and the problem, as you point out is that either you can’t take action on it, or you can’t interpret it for meaning. Data is just…well, data.

    Customer Service Zone
    http://customerservicezone.com

  • http://work911.com/ Robert Bacal

    Great stuff. Again, I’m loving the indepth posts on surveygizmo, because they are NOT the usual soundbyte stuff on these topics. Actionable information IS the key. We’re so into collecting data, just because we can, and the problem, as you point out is that either you can’t take action on it, or you can’t interpret it for meaning. Data is just…well, data.

    Customer Service Zone

  • Raymond Tumusiime

    I really liked the bit about wanting “ecstatically happy” versus “satisfied customers”. I am really curious about your thoughts on the sort of feedback mechanisms you can use. In this day and age most people see a survey and run for the hills. How do you change that initial perception? Actually getting them to accept you and be willing to answer the questions?

  • Raymond Tumusiime

    I really liked the bit about wanting “ecstatically happy” versus “satisfied customers”. I am really curious about your thoughts on the sort of feedback mechanisms you can use. In this day and age most people see a survey and run for the hills. How do you change that initial perception? Actually getting them to accept you and be willing to answer the questions?

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