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
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
- 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
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
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 amazon.com, or a discount on the company's
products or services.
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
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 BKatcher@DiscoverySurveys.com
or visit www.DiscoverySurveys.com
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