Most businesses are wide awake to the benefits of customer feedback and the internet gives them great tools to make it quick and easy to gather. Unfortunately, it is not always appreciated.
When I used to eat in a big staff restaurant every day, I once emailed a complaint to the catering manager. I usually love brussel sprouts, but these were rock-hard. I said that if we ever found ourselves at war, we could either feed his sprouts to the enemy, or use them as ammunition: either way, they would be sure to surrender. Perhaps I could have been more tactful. The prompt reply invited me to meet with the head chef. I had a vision of Giant Haystacks in chef’s whites, with a florid complexion and gritted teeth; a rolling pin in one hand and meat cleaver in the other, so I politely declined.
More recently, I bought a pair of shoes from a national chain and the receipt included the URL of an online feedback form. This was clearly designed to measure the performance of the shop staff: did they give a smile and warm greeting; did they introduce themselves by name; how many pairs of shoes did they show me; did they offer to place an order and so on. I gave high scores on every count, but the lowest possible to the question of how likely I would be to recommend the stores to a friend. The problem was that they didn’t give me the opportunity to point out how disappointed I was by the tiny selection in my size, that the one style that appealed was out of stock and how unsatisfactory it was to buy shoes that they couldn’t supply spare laces for. The form has subsequently disappeared from their website, so it appears to have been a temporary arrangement.
Then I wrote to the breakfast cereal company. Their sachets are designed to measure the milk you need to add but I knew something had gone wrong when my porridge was swimming in it. We discovered the sachets in our box were the wrong size for some reason, so I let the company know about it and they asked for some of the offending examples, which I posted to them. When I opened their reply a couple of weeks later, it simply apologised for the dust-like appearance and texture of the cereal and included some vouchers. I phoned them, thinking they had sent me someone else’s correspondence in error, but they assured me that was not the case. They had dismissed my questions about the sachet sizes and did not address them at all.
My latest experience of giving customer feedback was when I answered a telephone poll about the London Mayor’s activities. Was I aware of his efforts to make Londoners more active? Of his work on the Olympic legacy? Of his financial backing for town centres? Of his support for the establishment of free schools? My options for these and many other questions ranged from 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much). I was left with the impression that their objective was merely to find out how effective their communications are, otherwise I might have had an opportunity to tell them what I think of BoJo or some of his policies.
My experience leaves me with the impression that many organisations are not as sincere about learning from their customers as I had hoped. If they were, their efforts would be constant, prominent and invite comment on any part of their operation. The retailer might get more useful information from people who walk out of the shop empty-handed. The breakfast cereal manufacturers should let their customers tell them what the problems are, rather than vice-versa.
In short, your company must not only ask the right people the right questions, but let them say whatever else they want to about your business, product or service. In addition to all the routine data about day-to-day operations, I wouldn’t be surprised if the most interesting feedback was the most unexpected. Your customers might not only point out some problems you were unaware of but have some constructive suggestions, too. Why pay a consultant a king’s ransom for bright ideas when you can get them for nothing?