Under surveillance

Any company worth its salt invests in customer satisfaction research, but actually making use of the results is more difficult – it takes understanding from people at all levels of the business. By Pete Roythorne

Mick Jagger may have complained that he couldn’t get satisfaction back in the Sixties, but for modern businesses, the satisfaction problem is less straightforward. At least Jagger’s definition of satisfaction was (presumably) measurable. For many companies, despite the time, money and effort they invest in customer satisfaction surveys, the results are far from clear.

Quaestor Research & Marketing Strategists managing director Anne-Marie McDermott says: “While many companies are doing everything they can to manage and optimise their customer satisfaction programmes, all too often clients express disappointment or frustration that the information doesn’t tell them anything, that the results don’t really change and that they are not sure how to respond to changes.”

To get full value from customer satisfaction surveys, it is not enough for companies simply to ask questions. They need to ask the right questions, analyse the data correctly and take action on the findings. Ideally, a customer satisfaction survey should give a company direction. It should reflect its core competencies and act as a measure of how close the company is to where it wants to be.

A change in a satisfaction score is meaningless unless the reason for the change is known, allowing the company either to correct or to take advantage of the situation.

A jumble of numbers

Karen Drury of branding consultancy fe3 says: “Customer satisfaction is an important outcome for any organisation, but a lot of things go into that. It is pointless collecting data if you don’t know what the inputs were which led to the results. An increase of a couple of per cent in customer satisfaction is not very helpful unless you know why it has happened.”

Her opinion is echoed by Ivan Southall, commercial director of multi-channel consumer marketing data company IPT: “A shift in customer satisfaction levels is a sign that something has changed. If the business has changed its processes, the movement in the level of customer satisfaction is a measure of the success or failure of that change.”

Take the long view

Companies must also remember that findings are unlikely to be useful unless the data is collected over a reasonable period of time – people’s opinions and priorities change. Only long-term measurement of satisfaction ratings will provide a clear picture of what is going on in the market: overreacting to “blips” in the satisfaction score can be as dangerous as not listening to customers at all.

Companies that use satisfaction surveys to improve their business tend to follow a few golden rules, says McDermott: “Companies need to manage the ownership of the findings and the frequency of reporting, ensure the presentation of results is accessible and engaging in both content and format, and target the output so it is relevant to the many different internal audiences it must reach.”

Too much information, produced too often and given to too many people can damage interest in – and the momentum of – customer satisfaction surveys. It is important that the dissemination of information is done in a meaningful way, and that staff do not become jaded.

McDermott says: “Ideally, one central manager should control and guide the study and its outputs. Getting this wrong can devalue the findings. Ownership of data, however, is a much bigger issue. It needs to be much broader – across departments and levels. Ownership should be company-wide.

She says: “Customer satisfaction programmes are most successful when chief executives, managing directors or chairmen are in the audience. This demonstrates the company’s commitment to its customers.”

Lack of senior-level support can lead to the information failing to reach the relevant departments, which in turn can lead to satisfaction surveys being viewed with apathy or ambivalence.

The problem here is that, unless useful, effective data is forthcoming, senior-level interest may be hard to come by. “It’s a chicken and egg situation,” says McDermott.

Drury says that companies should view customer satisfaction data as a means to an end: “Presumably, customer satisfaction data will be indicative of other things – customer retention, increased profits, repeat purchases. If your company doesn’t know what comes before or after, customer satisfaction ratings are just a number and perhaps an expensive number at that.”

It’s what you do with it

This is echoed by National Australia Bank research marketing manager Dr Andrew Sharp: “Research into the reasons given for closing accounts identified the fact that fees and charges are major factors. A new current account has been designed with some charges reduced and some that were commonly cited as reasons for defection removed. Our recent work with an agency has changed the way in which we evaluate and take action on improving customer service within the Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank networks.”

No matter how good your strategy, it can only work if you have the budget to carry it through. Companies often find themselves trying to juggle budgets in order to deliver a robust customer satisfaction programme. In this situation, emphasis is often placed on optimising sample size and data accuracy. In reality, diagnostic or developmental qualitative research might more effectively allow an understanding of the figures.

A complaint means ‘too late’

Financial concerns are particularly relevant at the moment, says Southall: “With the change in the economic climate, prudence has driven many companies to cut costs – in particular costs that could not be seen to have an immediate effect on the bottom line. The effect is that companies measure customer satisfaction by the number of complaints they receive. Customer service and satisfaction surveys are seen as a luxury, and this situation is unlikely to change as long as businesses equate success with survival.”

Companies tempted to rely on complaints instead of other measures should note that most people – in particular, as Drury explains, buyers of consumer products and services – don’t bother to complain: they simply vote with their feet. Worse still, they tend to tell their friends.

So companies ignore the customer satisfaction survey at their peril. Not only does it keep them in touch with their markets but, when done properly, it can be used to motivate staff. McDermott points to several of her clients who use their customer satisfaction programmes in their employees’ appraisal systems and remuneration packages.

She says: “The challenge is to ensure that the customer satisfaction programme remains a motivational carrot and doesn’t turn into a stick. Our experience, however, is positive – companies use customer satisfaction results in an enlightened and supportive way.”

As long as there are companies dissatisfied with their customer satisfaction, agencies and clients will be able to work together to help companies create customer satisfaction programmes that will ultimately ensure their business always moves in a profitable direction.

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