How to Make Strategic Use of Customer Surveys
by Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D.

Does this sound familiar to you? Late one evening, the CEO of a manufacturer of packaging machinery sat down at his desk to review the findings of his firm's recent customer satisfaction survey. He was excited because the company was at the end of the first year of a 3-year plan to improve their sales by 35 percent. Yet, much to his dismay, the survey provided him with little insight.

He had hoped that the results would help him learn what customers wanted to buy, but the customer service staff had asked only about satisfaction with the day-to-day services they provide. It might be interesting but it did him little good to know that 95 percent of customers were satisfied with the telephone system. He needed to know what features customers liked best about their current products, and what types of product customers would need next year.

This is a common problem. Conducted properly, customer satisfaction surveys can provide a wealth of information directly related to the strategic plan of an organization. Improperly conducted, such surveys do little more than provide interesting, but not very useful, information.

Guidelines for Success

Here are some general guidelines to help you establish a useful customer satisfaction survey program, one that will provide meaningful input to your strategic plans.

1) Start by Developing an Action Plan Implementation Process

The key to the success of any customer satisfaction survey program is what happens after the data is collected. Yet many organizations spend a tremendous amount of time honing the appropriate questions but precious little time on how the results will be acted upon. A plan that outlines who will review the results and who will be responsible for acting on them should be put in place at the very start of the program. Here are four basic approaches that can be effective.

  • The "Senior Management Team Do it All" Approach

    This approach is recommended for organizations in which the CEO believes that delegating action planning to department heads or to an employee team would not be effective.

    The senior management team (SMT) reviews the results in light of the study's objectives. They assess the implications of the results for the strategic plan. They then outline 3-5 specific areas targeted for improvement. Each member of the team then volunteers to be responsible for developing and implementing one of the action plans according to a timetable defined by the CEO. Implementing the action plans becomes part of the goals and objectives of each SMT member.

  • The "Delegate Through the Hierarchy" Approach

    This approach is effective when the CEO believes that department heads can be entrusted to successfully implement important action plans.

    The SMT reviews the results and identifies 3 to 5 specific areas for improvement. They then delegate the responsibility for implementing these plans to the appropriate departments (e.g. operations, customer service, marketing, and sales). The heads of each department are held accountable for implementation.

  • The "Establish a Committee" Approach

    Use this approach in relatively flat organizations when employee involvement and buy-in is needed to really make things happen. This approach helps to empower employees and is ideal when grassroots problem solving is needed.

    The SMT reviews the results, identifies 3-5 specific areas targeted for improvement, and then delegates implementation to a "Customer Satisfaction Team." The team, comprised of key members of each department, is charged with developing and carrying out the action plans. Ideally, the CEO or a key member of the SMT serves as the facilitator of the group and provides the clout that may be needed throughout the organization to make certain the action plans are implemented.

  • The "Use a Consultant" Approach

    Use this approach when you believe that the credibility and expertise of an outside third party will increase the probability that action plans will actually be implemented.

    The SMT reviews the results with an experienced outside consultant. The results are discussed in light of the study's objectives and the strategic plan. Three or four specific areas are targeted for improvement. The consultant is then empowered to work with key department heads to implement the action plans. Typically, the consultant works with employee teams within each department.

2) Establish Clear, Quantifiable Objectives

Conducting an exploratory customer satisfaction survey to find out what your customers think about your organization's products and services typically does not serve any useful strategic purpose. The survey should be developed with specific objectives in mind. Consider the following examples.

  • Objective of a mid-sized adhesives manufacturer - Increase the gross revenue from our B-customers by 40 percent within the next two years.

    1) Conduct a customer satisfaction survey that will identify the specific needs of B-customers.
    2) Use the survey to identify how the needs of these B-customers differ from those of "A" and "C" customers.
    3) Reconfigure the product and service offerings provided to "B" customers by the end of this fiscal year.

  • Objective of a mid-sized retirement services organization - Reduce customer turnover from 10 percent to 5 percent within the first year and then from 5 percent to less than 2 percent by the end of the second year.

    1) Conduct a customer satisfaction survey twice per year that will quickly identify those customers who are considering taking their business elsewhere.
    2) Implement a customer retention program that will include personal quarterly visits by senior management to these customer sites.

3) Involve Senior Management

Delegating the implementation of a customer satisfaction survey program to middle management is fine, however, if senior management does not embrace the process, little good will result. Success of the program is possible only if senior management is involved in setting the program's objectives, monitoring the data gathering process, interpreting the results, and actively implementing the solutions.

4) Do Everything Possible to Encourage Customers to Respond

If you do not receive a good response rate senior management will spend their time focusing on the credibility of the data rather than on what actions should be taken to improve customer satisfaction. A survey professional can help you determine an adequate sample size. Here are some things that can be done to increase the response rate.

  • Use multiple methods

    Some customers prefer to respond to mail surveys and others may be more inclined to use the web. Offer both methods. For more exploratory investigations, telephone interviewing is the more appropriate approach.

  • Provide an incentive

    Incentives that can be used successfully include entry to a raffle for a vacation for two, a contribution to a charity for every completed survey returned, a gift certificate to, or a discount on the company's products or services.

  • Over-communicate

    Send personalized letters to customers in advance of the survey and conduct several follow-up reminders via mail, telephone and email.

  • Personalize the survey

    Customers don't like to wade through a lot of irrelevant questions until they find the questions relevant to them. Develop personalized surveys that ask only those questions relevant for the customer.

  • Make it easy for customers to respond

    Consider providing postage-paid, pre-addressed reply envelopes or offering a toll free telephone number to provide their comments verbally.

5) Communicate the Results Widely

The results of the survey, as well as the actions that will be taken should be communicated to three major audiences: all customers, concerned customers, and all of your employees.

6) Make the Survey Process Ongoing Rather than a One-time Event

Surveying your customers should become part of how you conduct your business, not an isolated event. Surveying on a regular annual basis will enable you to track trends and assess the effects of changes you have made in response to prior surveys. It will also enable you to continue to assess the viability of your strategic plans.

A properly conducted Customer Satisfaction Survey Program can be an extremely valuable tool for assessing the effectiveness of strategic plans and fine tuning those plans.

Bruce Katcher is an Industrial/Organizational psychologist and President of The Discovery Group, a Sharon-MA based consulting firm that specializes in conducting customer satisfaction and employee opinion surveys. Contact him at or visit .

Many more articles in Customer Relationship Management in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2003 by Bruce Katcher. All rights reserved.

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