Customer Feedback: Yet Another Myth?

It seems like we’re drowning in customer feedback requests:

“Please stay on the line after your call to enter a customer survey.” 

“Can you rate your sock-buying experience from 1-10?”

“Could you take 60 seconds to tell us how you like using our website?”

“I call it an epidemic of feedback requests, really,” CX expert and author John Sills tells us.

One of the themes of 2023’s customer service trends is an increased desire for customer data and feedback, especially voice of the customer. But is all this survey begging for naught?

“It kind of makes logical sense. If you say, ‘As a company, we want to know more about what matters to our customers. So we’re going to ask them and the more we ask them, the more we know.’ That’s not it’s not an illogical argument. It kind of makes sense. But it’s only when it becomes reality you realize it really doesn’t make sense for a few reasons,” Sills says.

“You’re ruining the customer experience,” Sills tells us.

“The end of the customer experience is a major part of what people remember. And what we all remember now is being harassed for feedback,” Sills adds.

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Why customer feedback is a “myth”

In The Human Experience, Sills calls customer feedback the third myth of the customer experience. He illustrates the point with Trinity Mirror’s disastrous 2016 launch of The New Day, a print newspaper.

You may wonder why Trinity Mirror launched a print newspaper in 2016. Two words: customer feedback. “This paper has been created as a result of customer insight and is the first newspaper designed for people’s modern lifestyles,” said editor Alison Philips at The New Day’s launch.

The New Day launched in February and it folded by May. Why?

“I think because, at the end of the day, what consumers told us they would do, and what they actually did, were different things,” Trinity Mirror CEO Simon Fox told City A.M.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that customer feedback is completely useless. The problem is that companies make too many assumptions and don’t ask the right questions.

Customer feedback reality vs. fantasy

The idea of a newspaper is an attractive one. Imagine a sunny morning with a leisurely breakfast and reading the newspaper.

Now, consider how your morning actually went. Maybe you woke up late, scrambled in and out of the shower, and ran out the door with a cup of coffee so you could get to work on time. Or maybe you had to walk the dog first. Or you had to wrangle your kids into their school clothes.

And even if you had a peaceful morning, it’s just a lot easier to read the news on your phone. Or turn on the TV.

This is true with all sorts of things. How many buy a boat and never take it to the water? Or have an exercise bike collecting dust in a corner? Entire companies are dedicated to getting people out of timeshare contracts because it seemed like a great idea at the time.

If someone asks you if you’d love to own a castle in the Scottish highlands, you’d probably say “yes.” That doesn’t mean you’re going to run out and buy one, especially after seeing the price.

All too often, companies ask questions about themselves without getting to know the customer, and that leads to asking the wrong things and receiving misleading answers.

“You’re asking people very specifically about their opinions on your service, not about what matters to them in their lives. So you’re really getting these increasing amounts of information just about you and your business. But if you want to be really useful to customers, you need to understand their lives, and then design within that and call it the thick and the thin end of the wedge,” Sills tells us.

The customer feedback “wedge”

To help you get smarter feedback, John Sills has developed what he calls the customer feedback wedge. Think of it like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for customer feedback. From the thick end to the thin end:

  1. Their real world and real life
  2. Their family and home
  3. Their hopes and ambitions
  4. The things that get in the way
  5. The services they use to help
  6. Their perfect solution
  7. Your organization’s role

Sills says that the problem is that companies often start at the thinnest end of the wedge. With Trinity Mirror above, they could have started by asking, “How much spare time do you have in the morning?”

As Sills puts it in The Human Experience:

“Rarely do companies just speak to customers about them and their lives, without some kind of pre-defined script or agenda. Rarely do companies take the time to understand and uncover the deeper psychological stresses and strains impacting customers’ lives. Rarely do companies listen to people’s real-life experiences and behaviours, seeing them as humans instead of a sanitized and aggregated collection of thoughts based on a hypothetical situation or a specific product a company produces.”

It’s easy to put out a quick NPS or CSAT survey and pat yourself on the back for collecting customer feedback, but you’re not truly getting to know your customers that way. To do that requires some deeper digging.

And oftentimes, that research can and should be more targeted. Because the problem now is that organizations are drowning in deep pools of data.

Drowning in noise

“It really just creates this onslaught of data in organizations. It’s almost too big to deal with,” Sills says. It’s what analyst Nate Silver calls “the signal and the noise.”

“There’s so much noise. It’s so much noise because you’re asking people about every single thing all the time,” Sills adds.

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Sills argues that many organizations would be better off having a conversation with 10 customers per week than surveying 200,000. Organizations would receive a fuller, more human set of data without as much noise.

He also points out the irony of organizations sending out email surveys from “do not reply” email addresses.

“Let people email you instead, they’ll have a better experience and you’ll get more direct feedback,” Sills says.

Customers don’t always know what they want

As Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” and Apple founder Steve Jobs often parroted that quote.

And for good reason. Nearly every one of Apple’s hit products was mocked when first introduced:

Of course, it’s hard to imagine a horseless carriage or an iPhone if you’ve never seen one before. In the case of the iPod, it was late to the MP3 player market, but early observers didn’t factor in that it was much easier and more pleasant to use than existing models.

What it really boiled down to is that people weren’t sitting around thinking about what they could do with a touchscreen phone. Many people didn’t know they wanted it because they hadn’t spent any time thinking about it. But, of course, that changed over time, especially when potential buyers saw the potential of apps.

“If you went to ask a customer in 2009 about what they might want, they were never going to say an iPad, because they didn’t know it was possible,” Sills says.

Likewise, when you go to buy socks from an online retailer, you’re probably not thinking about your experience unless it’s extraordinarily terrible. You just… buy socks and go on with your day.

“It’s your job in an organization to understand what matters in your customers’ lives. But then combine that with your knowledge of what’s possible, both in your industry and other industries. And it’s the combination of those two things that creates great ideas,” Sills says.

“More and more organizations are pushing that responsibility onto customers, and they shouldn’t. It’s the responsibility of organizations to understand their customers,” Sills says.

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