It’s a tale as old as the Internet. Essential basics of human interaction get lost in the flash and promise of technology. Time and again, we must take a step back, reconnect, and make sure the technology is serving us, and not the other way around.
I see it happening again with big data and customer analytics. We now have immense power to collect, correlate, and manipulate data to produce more precise customer profiles, marketing strategies, and sales trends. These capabilities are nascent in most companies; many are still figuring out which metrics will produce the most valuable insights.
But metrics and models will never give us all the answers we need to understand the voice of our customer. The most valuable messages can get lost in the deluge of data, and even the best analyses still require expert human interpretation before they can be put to practical use. Without true engagement, I see all those insights mined from surveys, customer tracking, and social media as gold nuggets piled high in carts but stuck below ground in the mine.
We have to finish the job by bringing them out into the light and using them to barter for real answers and actionable feedback.
Most companies fail to grasp their customers’ needs and opinions beyond a one-to-five rating scale. They may have mechanisms in place to collect information from customers, but they lack a repeatable way to build on it by getting to a deeper understanding and then acting on it in a reasonable timeframe. Survey results end up sitting around like those mine carts.
The Value of Feedback Loops
Those results may tell you what is wrong (or right) but they don’t tell you why and they don’t provide the next steps. Understanding the root causes behind your customers’ feedback is the key to rolling out successful initiatives, products, and services.
In feedback loops, the output of a system or process is used for new input, which then generates more output carrying those characteristics. High quality feedback (and deeper understanding) feeds more successful results. The reverse is also true—junk in, junk out.
One of the biggest errors managers make is not engaging the right employees in the customer feedback loop. Going through survey data with other company leaders should be seen as a mere starting point on the inbound loop.
The next step is to seek out the opinions and concerns of lower ranking employees, especially those who interact more directly with customers and customer-facing processes. This is how you begin to get at the heart of the pain points your current and potential customers experience. Employees that work with customers and their feedback on a daily basis are better positioned to translate and contextualize that feedback to managers, and to quantify urgency and prioritize which problems need to be addressed first.
Engaging employees is critical to completing the feedback loop not just because they can help the rest of the organization understand customers better. Involving them in problem solving and getting their buy-in on proposed solutions ensures that those fixes will be more effective. We’ve all seen what happens when managers make blind assumptions and forge ahead with implementing processes their employees can’t get behind. At best, such initiatives are a waste of resources and effort. At worst, they are toxic for both employees and customers and wind up damaging the brand, sales, productivity—or all of the above.
Imagine the actionable insights that could develop from consciously collaborating with employees and customers. Once you have survey results, online reviews, or transaction statistics, use them to craft deeper or more pointed questions, and provide a way for your employees to answer them honestly (i.e., anonymously).
Consider the potential outcomes: A recurring customer issue comes to your attention via a survey or social media analysis. You discuss it in a high level meeting, propose a solution, and send a memo to customer support employees telling them to implement the new process. Or, you identify the recurring customer issue and send an internal survey to front-line employees that says, “We understand that X is becoming an issue with our customers. If you were in charge, how would you address it?”
Which method is more likely to mirror the customers’ needs and reassure them that they have been heard? Which approach is most likely to yield a process that your employees will adopt widely and implement expeditiously?
Setting up internal feedback loops helps businesses monitor progress, identify problems, and improve performance on a continuous basis. Each success, large or small, reinforces the collaboration and deepens engagement. Once this virtuous cycle is established, it becomes easier to catch and remediate issues before they escalate. Feedback loops can be used to gauge employee and customer satisfaction, test out new concepts, assess vendors, plan events, and much more.
Connecting with Customers and Employees
At the same time that we become more isolated as we work, shop, and seek entertainment, we are being conditioned to expect immediate results: information searches, one-click purchases, texting, social media posts, etc. As work and commerce become increasingly virtualized, we have to be more diligent about staying in touch with internal and external customers.
Obviously, it’s a lot easier to know your customers—and convince them that you are paying attention—when they are physically present in your store or office. To retain employees and customers (much cheaper than constantly finding new ones), we have to be deliberate about letting them know we have heard them, acting on their input, and showing them the results.
A recent Gallup poll of millennial employees starkly highlighted workplace disengagement: only 19 percent of those surveyed routinely receive feedback, and even fewer say it is meaningful. Moreover, only 15 percent of millennial respondents regularly ask for feedback. Most employees meet with their managers less than once per month. As a result, less than a third of millennials are engaged at work (“emotionally and behaviorally connected to their job and company”).
Think carefully about what this means for your bottom line, your brand, and your future. Then consider the potential power in building whole feedback loops and making sure they run unbroken through employee hierarchies, out into the real world where your customers are buying and using your products and services, and back into your marketing organization—around and around, again and again.