While many companies mouth platitudes about keeping customers front and centre, few actually deliver on their promises.
A new book, Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, shows companies how they can actually walk the talk.
Authored by certified quality manager, Craig Cochran, the book describes how to build (or rebuild, as the case may be) a company that meets the needs and demands of its customers.
Cochran is a business consultant with Georgia Tech University's Economic Development Institute, a subsidiary that works with business and industry. The book is a distillation of practical advice based on Cochran's experiences and observations of what actually worked in his dealings with companies.
"Customer service is something that seems to get worse every day," he says, explaining the impetus for writing the book. "Many companies forget they have customers. The organization and its procedures serve itself instead of the customers [they] should serve."
Cochran says traditional multiple-choice customer surveys are not the best tools for capturing information about customer satisfaction. "But people are still in love with traditional surveys in spite of my repeated advice against them."
The reason customer surveys don't work, he says, is because they require that companies somehow magically identify the top 5-10 issues to ask about, which is often impossible. "People often don't know what's important to their customers, but you can't ask about 100 things because customers won't complete the survey." Instead, Cochran recommends soliciting open-ended feedback with questions such as: What have we done well? What have we not done well? What should we do differently in the future? This allows customers to play a pro-active role in identifying problem areas they actually perceive, instead of being restricted to issues the company guesses are important.
Another area that companies should consider is designing a feedback loop for informing customers that improvements have been made.
Often, companies will implement improvements in response to customer complaints -- but they don't relay this critical information back to the complaining customers to let them know they've acted on their feedback. "Unless a customer sees improvement, there is no improvement. It doesn't exist," says Cochran.
"Smart companies capture their customers' contact information at the front end of their complaint processes and take the time to follow up." For companies that get confusing or conflicting feedback from customers, a focus group may be a good solution, he says.
For example, one of his clients was a carpet company that received negative feedback, but it wasn't clear what aspects of their product's look and feel that customers disliked. To suss out the specifics, the company assembled a group of consumers and allowed them to touch, feel and react to their products. The interaction was valuable, says Cochran, as it allowed the company to take a deep dive into the issue and hear first-hand comments about their products. "The drawback is this ain't cheap," he says. "Focus groups are expensive.
Most companies need a specific reason, for example, a new product launch or a major problem, to justify the expense."