Working as a Customer Sat professional

Working as a Customer Sat professional

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Much has been said about the importance of customer satisfaction or loyalty with some vague studies on how this discipline can lead to a company’s growth. But I wonder if Customer Satisfaction is a profession anyone will aspire to take up in climbing a corporate ladder, versus a more ‘sexier’ role such as business analyst, financial analyst, sales or business development.

I came from a Quality management background and eventually was introduced to customer satisfaction role of a large telecommunication giant in 1996. In 2002, I eventually led the Asia Pacific region in running the Quality and Customer Satisfaction as there was a renewed focus to instill greater emphasis onto customer satisfaction initiated by an energetic and assertive Vice President who came from outside to lead the division.  I would even call him the ‘father of customer surveys’ as he dedicated his entire career in that company on (re) building a resilient customer satisfaction program. Hence a large portion of this global division was to develop and manage customer surveys. From an internally developed customer survey system, we engaged a third party company to be our survey partner for all our customers who were largely telecom operators in various countries. From initial single Relationship survey, we expanded to Relationship (top down) and Transactional (bottom up) survey. The Relationship surveys were done quarterly with a sample of decision makers and key influencers while the Transactional surveys were done in about three or four specific line of business where an individual customer will be invited to complete the survey upon completion of a specific activity. Our survey partner offered web based, phone-in or face-to-face survey types. Since the web based survey was far less expensive than the other two, naturally close to 90% of the surveys were done via web based in multiple languages. 

We analyzed the results and put them into beautiful powerpoint slides to be presented during the monthly or quarterly business meeting with the leadership team. In Asia Pacific, it is no any different. Along with my team, we would first review the results with our peers from other regions in analyzing results by quantitatively and qualitatively along with identifying any general trends. We analyze by various segments such as country, sub region and different types of surveys as well as drill down by key accounts in the region by Relationship survey results and attempt to identify links with different line of business Transactional survey results.  We identified major issues and key drivers that had the strongest correlation to the main index. Based on the verbatim comments, we deduced common theme and recommendations for action plans along with a recommended action owner. 

In the meeting, as one would expect, the CFO will take the center stage and spend say 90% of the entire meeting talking about revenue, cost and projection, followed by NPI (new product intro), business development, human resources and finally customer satisfaction. And by that time, everyone would be too busy to leave the meeting for other ‘more urgent matters’. The few who stayed on would question everything about validity of the data but will leave out the critical question on ‘what to do differently’ to improve the results.  Some of the tai-chi* remarks that I could recall are: these questions are irrelevant to my customers, these are not the right customers, this is not a decision maker or he/she is deep in the organization (but it is the country leaders who gave the list of customers to be surveyed), the data is not statistically significant (you would be surprised how much interest they would have on statistics that is so dry a subject compared to real customer feedback), so on and on. At the end of the meeting, at best, someone would suggest that further analysis is required and suggest a separate meeting to review these results and usually that separate meeting will not happen as business leaders are usually busy chasing for sales targets. I am always out of the meeting frustrated that NO action would follow from that poor customers’ feedback who invested their time in participating in a lengthy 40+ question survey in the hope to see us improve.  On one occasion, seeing that no much focus on this customer satisfaction agenda, the Asia Pacific business leader decided that we put the customer satisfaction as the first agenda to be discussed. I was thrilled but I also knew that it may not make a big difference as the leader himself did not trust these customer satisfaction data.  Though discussed first in the meeting, as usual, everyone played down the importance of the feedback with all talks and no actions.

When Balanced Scorecard was introduced at the corporate level, the Customer Satisfaction index was made one of the key metrics as part of the customer perspective to be measured along with revenue, profit, cost, talent, NPI and so on. I did see ‘some’ focus from the leaders as it had a small impact on the yearly bonus. However, over time the organization learned the results and eventually ‘ensured’ that the results do meet the target every time.

When Netpromoter Score (NPS) was introduced in 2003, we didn’t want to miss the boat and we ‘measured’ NPS. This was accomplished by using the existing lengthy survey questionnaire that had a recommend question in it. During the early days of NPS, we saw NPS was climbing quarter over quarter but this was not in anyway reflected in our business performance even with any lag. I suggested that this could be because market share of telecommunication industry was shrinking at that time and therefore instead of measuring the absolute number such as revenue, we should measure a market relative value such as the market share of our company versus our competitors. There were some debate on this for sometime but this did not materialize as we had difficulties getting a reliable market share data.

As a netpromoter advocate then and now, sometime in 2005 I proposed that we do a simple survey by asking just two questions to only the relevant decision makers carefully selected by the business leaders and the results to be shared only within the regional leaders (and not the corporate).  I deliberated the value in doing so as this will give a clear view to the regional leaders on customers’ perception about the state of our business and what need to be done to change that perception to move forward. This was however turned down for reasons unknown to me. Perhaps the company was not ready to face the fact of why customers want or don’t want to re-purchase from us.

Where is the company today? It is no longer in existence today! Of course the energetic leader left long ago as the company did not see any value in a senior leader only focused on customer surveys. This company had the best network product in the world but with new entrant that was not anticipated is perhaps the one big reason for the company to lose out. On customer loyalty front (of course my view may be bias due to my background in this field), I think they could have been a little more focused in building true customer loyalty so that some of the major customers would  have continued to stick with the company instead of moving to the competitors. 

Looking back on why these company leaders were behaving in such a way, I could narrow it down to several factors.

  1. 1.Leaders did not trust the data. The respondents of the Relationship survey should only be the decision makers or key influencers. This is the very problem - anyone and everyone in an organization could be a key influencer and it all depends on how much a company wants that ‘nice’ feedback from that “key influencer”. You have the liberty to pick an individual customer who will give you good survey result. There is no independence in selecting individuals whose feedback may be important for the business but created bias practice of selecting ‘happy’ customers. Though it may be very difficult to isolate a decision maker in a business customer (B2B sector), but its not impossible. Usually there is no single decision maker but a group decision making with many influencers in large purchase decisions. Unless the business sincerely and objectively wants to understand that feedback and improve, there is no motivation to survey the right customer.

  2. 2. The long survey questionnaire was simply useless. In that survey, we had about 30 to 40 questions and continued adding up whenever some leaders thought that they want to know something specific. People just love to add more questions with the name of getting granular results to act. But more questions will only prove two things – the response rate will be lower (unless we give out an ipad for every response) and more probing questions from action owners to avoid taking actions (though may seem granular, the feedback will be down played with arguments that a particular customer did not know about an area that he/she has responded).

  3. 3.Census and not sample in B2B sector. Sampling may work well in a consumer business  (B2C sector) where every consumer is a decision maker, but not the case with B2B sector. It is best to get 100% responses from a group of decision makers and key influencers (ie. ONLY KEY influencers in that particular purchase decision that is being evaluated). The number of individual to be surveyed may be small and even it could be just one, say that one person is the decision maker than his/her feedback is all that matters. So if we had identified objectively who are the decision makers that usually sit in the tender evaluation and tender decision-making committee, we should have only surveyed these individuals and work on getting at least all of them to participate in the survey without influencing their survey feedback. This could be difficult as usually the management don’t want to hear bad news so a sales person may be more tempted to ask the respondent to give better feedback when approached to participate  in the survey. It would be easier to get better response rate if the survey questionnaire is short.

  4. 4.Get the fundamental right before tying to bonus. When compensation is impacted, one tends to ‘game’ the number if it is easy to do so. In this instance, each country provided the customer list to be surveyed, and when their bonus is impacted, they want a ‘happy customer’ than a ‘real customer’ to be surveyed. Their reasons is that they can always get the feedback they want to with the ‘real customer’ by talking to them instead of using the survey process which not only impact their bonus but will reveal the state of a customer satisfaction to the entire organization. When the customer satisfaction index was included in the Balanced Scorecard before the customer satisfaction discipline was internalized throughout the entire organization, we get people that want to find easy way to meet the targets instead of truly understanding the feedback and improve.

  5. 5.Finally, the customers were not informed of the actions that followed after their feedback. This was because there was really no any action plans! This stems out from the fact that the leaders don’t trust the date hence they don’t want to invest into improving the perception based on the survey feedback. The customers that continue to respond often get agitated that we continue to inundate them with lengthy surveys and do not go back and ‘close the loop’ with them. When actions (or no actions) are not communicated to customers, the leaders don’t carry the burden of developing any action plans from the customer feedback.

Could anything have been any different today if the company still existed? Maybe not as the business culture may take years to form and many more years to break. Many leaders of big companies usually get around by using confusing business jargons to stay in office for a long time until such a time that they run out of such jargons and everyone knows that they can’t deliver. Even then, they will find another less damaging role within the company from the many ‘friends’ they have earned while being there for years. It takes a special breed of leaders to hold the bull by its horns to make tough decisions in building real customer loyalty, not the superficial customer retention or whatever other names you may call. It is also my hopeful believe that it is not all that bad as I used to think before. Reading about some of the loyalty leaders such as Apple, Zappos, Amazon, Enterprise Rent-a-Car and Southwest gives me the hope that customer sat is not all dead in corporate world.

Next, I would explore why some companies have used NPS, yet failed.

  1. * Tai-Chi is a form of exercise originated by the Chinese. In the local scene tai-chi would mean avoidance and pushing the buck to another.

Satya Narayanan