I was reading a blog today about a company’s efforts to gather customer insight using a well-known research institution and it occurred to me that while gathering customer satisfaction scores is a good thing to do, many companies that I’ve worked with start their customer insight collection with massive surveys and end up wasting opportunities for strategic input to their overall customer strategy. In my experience at companies large and small as well as in interviews with scores of Chief Customer Officers (CCOs) for my upcoming book entitled, The Key to Customer Strategy: The Rise of the Chief Customer Officer, I’ve found that there must needs be a sequence of customer insight collection methods from coarse to granular, and expensive to economical. This approach may at first seem counterintuitive, but actually yields the most valuable results that drive profitable customer loyalty.
If you simply begin with satisfaction surveys as your primary view of the customer, you may well capture “dissatisfiers” or those things that are currently damaging customer relationships and must be fixed immediately. However, you miss the most valuable information, namely the real reason why your customers buy, what they value the most, whether they may be willing to pay more, and even more importantly, where your customers are going next and how you can lead them there.
To achieve this type of insight and more fully inform their customer strategy, the best companies have a hierarchy of customer insight collection methods:
1. Executive advisory council to understand strategic imperatives: This mechanism gets senior-most executives (the economic buyers) from critical customers together to understand their highest-level business challenges and directions. This input is critical in determining future directions your company must begin to consider because if your customers are heading in a direction that you aren’t, you’ll be left behind.
2. More tactical customer advisory boards: Companies may have customer advisory boards for each major product line or customer segment they are in. They are primarily comprised of product/service users and influencers. Broadly speaking, these groups provide a wonderful focus group in which customers can speak their mind, share their issues and problems and get help from their colleagues and the company, as well as react to forthcoming products/services and activities.
3. Direct interviews of key customers: Direct interviews are incredibly important to truly understand customer value drivers: ie. the critical reasons why your customers buy from you (see this blog post and this article published in CEO Refresher for more information on value drivers). Direct interviews are critical to uncover all the hidden issues, learn the context of problems, and even more importantly, discover new opportunities only exposed through direct, contextual interviews. These direct interviews will refine questions and inform the large-scale customer surveys.
4. Large-scale customer surveys: The surveys, by their very nature, need to be confirmatory–they need to validate the insights you’ve gained to date and confirm or otherwise assess the scope of the issues you are seeking insight into. It is extremely hard to get strategic insight if you simply start with surveys unless you follow up with interviews, which simply indicates the need to have started with interviews beforehand.
5. Focused working interviews: The large-scale surveys will invariable confirm issues that need to be addressed, and you’ll need to gather your cross-functional teams together to get to the root cause of the issue confirmed through the previous steps, propose solutions, and upon implementation, evaluate their success.
It may be tempting to simply send out a survey and call it good. In my experience, surveys can can be subject to many pitfalls that I’ve previously written about on my Customer Strategy Blog. Squash this temptation. Just like you don’t allow your sales people to go into a customer visit without preparing, you can’t allow your company to just send out a survey without fully informing the survey.
You only have so many silver bullets in your gun when it comes to your customers. Do your homework first and make sure that when you spend your silver bullet and ask your customers to help you out, that you get only the insight you really need to drive your business forward.