Customers Don’t Really Tell You What They Mean
Every marketing-driven company cares about how they are meeting the needs of customers. Some have formal programs to ask and assess how they are doing in the minds of their customers. But often the feed back does not match reality. This can be due to poorly phrased questions, poor recording of data or less than vigorous examination of the responses. It can also be because customers don’t necessarily tell the truth.
Large businesses can afford to out-source major studies of customer attitudes and satisfaction levels, but most small and medium sized businesses don’t have the budget to buy comprehensive professional statistical services. Today, with powerful databases and spreadsheet analysis tools, smaller businesses can gather information about customers, but it’s easy to miss important information.
One example of this situation is a small company that has consistently done surveys over the years. These surveys usually point out small variations in its expected (and admired) service. Recently customer turnover has increased slightly, representing increased costs in customer acquisition. The recent data from surveys did not indicate any change in the way customers viewed service or quality. So the data was reviewed with new data about the length of time a customer was with the company. Because the product is a weekly delivery service, on-going customers who “stop” are easy to measure.
Questions which asked for a rating between 1 and 7 (Don’t Agree to Strongly Agree) on issues of overall attitudes about the company were very strong, in the 5, 6 and 7 range. A deeper analysis of the data compared a slight variation in these questions with questions having to do with “superior value.” Two questions of this type had a small number of responses in the 3, 4 and 5 range. Because the value questions also had mostly 6 and 7 answers, only a side by side comparison of charts showed the small variation. (Careful statistical models would have also revealed this, but few businesses have this level of sophistication.) When the lower answers were broken out of the total group, it was revealed that in-fact there was a direct correspondence with the length of the relationship and the range of agreement with “superior value” question. In other words, those that strongly agreed that the company provided superior value, were customers longer than those that only moderately agreed.
For the first time it was discovered that the perception of value had a direct relationship to how long a person stayed a customer. Keep in mind that these same people agreed with the total group that the company was great in every other way! Only the value questions smoked out the real action of the customers. Customers were dropping the service while telling the company they were great! In fact they should have said, “You’re great, but not worth the cost.” Customers rarely lie, but the questions can be miss-understood. And sometimes customers really don’t understand their own motivations.
This is a common problem for measuring attitudes about product quality and service performance. It may be part of the reason large companies try to measure specific characteristics of a product rather than customer attitudes. It is also the reason market researchers have long attempted to use psychographic data along with demographic data to determine why people buy. But most smaller sized companies don’t need this level of “market brain surgery” to learn more about how they are doing. They do need to start by asking the question and valuing the truth.
My family is constantly embarrassed by my truthful comments at restaurants and with service personnel. I rarely mention an issue out of anger, but rather out of respect for the company’s difficulty in attaining the truth. I always ask to have my comments carried to the customer service supervisor, but wonder how many times they record them or care about the comment. In 20 years of doing this, only one company supervisor thought it would be a good idea to find out more!
Quality companies that want the truth from customers must be ready to pry it from them. Don’t assume that because they tell you things are fine, that they really are. A little extra effort can yield the small differences that keep your business sharp.