Using every tool available

Editor's note: Troy Powell is vice president, statistical solutions, at Walker Information, an Indianapolis, Ind., customer intelligence firm.

Surveys have been around for a long time. I think the idea of a survey first started the moment the social group of interest expanded beyond its leader’s ability to personally talk to each member. I guess we had to wait until reading and writing were discovered for the paper-and-pencil version of the survey but the idea of having a method for gathering opinions from a large but somewhat disconnected group of people is an old concept – and a very important one.

Surveys have evolved from door-to-door (or hut-to-hut) surveys, mail surveys, phone surveys and Web surveys to mobile surveys but they have always served a valuable function to society, science and to marketing research, specifically. Surveys provided market researchers a scientific method to provide insight that is as free from bias as possible from a large group of people without having to talk to every single person. This is the core value of surveys.

However, the use of surveys has expanded far beyond their original purpose. They are often used indiscriminately to gather any kind of information with no thought about question design or sampling methods. I used to get frustrated about this fact until I decided to understand why it was happening (and, no, it’s not because of the failure of scientific education in our schools – at least not totally). I believe the underlying driver of this phenomenon is an insatiable demand for customer insight.   

As more and more data about customers’ experiences becomes available within our companies, more people have become focused on trying to understand what is going on and where they need to focus. At any point in time, a customer support call-center manager has a dozen different metrics being tracked and monitored. If five of them are going down, which one should be focused on? Those questions are happening throughout our companies every minute of the day and, in many cases, the customer can help provide the answer.

Putting the burden on customers

At the core of survey fatigue is the fact that companies are putting the burden on customers to provide direction on the best ways to serve them. But as the technology landscape has changed, customer expectations have grown. Among the findings in Walker Information’s recent Customers 2020 study, customers want a personalized experience and they expect companies to anticipate their current and future needs.

According the Customers 2020, “Companies must seize opportunities to make customer support more proactive. This can be accomplished in a multitude of ways, including implementing more efficient call routing based on a customer’s past support history, tailoring customer communications and using available information to anticipate customer needs.”

The ease with which surveys can be issued has caused a glut of them; surveys are everywhere and people have become less interested in sharing their opinion unless something really matters to them. Closely related, survey response rates are generally low and have been steadily declining, which means customer experience leaders are getting input from only a small portion of their customers. Also, because surveys have become so easy to develop, they have been misused by those who lack the know-how to construct one that will generate relevant insights.

We can no longer put the onus on customers to give us all the answers. Customer-focused leaders must find new ways to understand customers and optimize their experiences.

We must get smarter

Surveys will be a core tool of the customer experience research toolkit for the foreseeable future but we must get smarter about using surveys. They need to be shorter, more targeted and better designed to invite feedback that is truly relevant to your company and answer the questions that are important to you.

But the good news is that customer experience leaders do not need to rely solely on surveys. Other ways to gather insights, measure customer behaviors and monitor progress have evolved. In fact, we must to go beyond surveys and incorporate additional methods to get to provide the insight our companies need to stay competitive in today’s fast-paced, information-saturated markets. Fortunately, there are many methods to embrace – some new and some that have been around for decades.

First, it’s important to leverage information that already exists – your company’s internal metrics. It’s important to monitor behavioral data, purchase patterns, service records, quality metrics, etc., to learn how your customers interact with your company. When combined with voice of the customer (VoC) data, these internal metrics give companies a 360-degree view of the customer experience and allow companies to identify and monitor the most critical aspects of the experience for all customers at any time. This can help secure executive buy-in and support, help drive meaningful change within the organization and is instrumental in proving the ROI of optimizing customer experiences.

Customer experience professionals often focus on the difficulty of getting access to the right internal metrics, and it is often a difficult task in most companies, but I believe our problem usually lies in not having the right type of insight from our VoC data. Much of our VoC data come from surveys that ask about fairly high-level at-titudes and opinions – loyalty, NPS, overall satisfaction, etc. Data from these surveys are useful for strategic tracking and for identifying broad areas of customer concern but, at the end of the day, they deal in averages. They tell us what the average customer thinks about their experiences. But the demands of customers for a more personalized customer experience requires that companies have a much deeper and more holistic view of all their customers and all of their uniqueness.

Use all of the tools

To meet those needs customer experience professionals must go beyond surveys as our main source of customer feedback and use all of the tools at our disposal. Below are some tools and methods to do just that, and cases of how some companies have implemented these techniques into their customer experience strategy. (See “Using four different sources…” sidebar.)

Journey mapping is a collaborative exercise documenting customer touchpoints, strengths, weaknesses and key moments of truth. A session is typically conducted by gathering a cross-functional group within your company, systematically walking them through the journey(s) customers follow as they interact with you and identifying key customer experiences to leverage as well as those that require attention. A set of customers is also interviewed to ensure there is alignment between internal and external perspectives.

Journey mapping is a great way to obtain internal and external perspectives to develop key hypotheses about where the company should focus to improve the customer experience. Journey maps also serve to align internal stakeholders around the customer and provide a rallying point for true, customer-focused culture change. However, for it to be effective it is important to implement good follow-up activities to validate findings and take necessary action.

Social media can provide insights from conversations in the customer’s voice – what they want to say when they want to say it. When we refer to social media, we are talking about the more public sources where customers are talking – Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, etc. Social media monitoring is beneficial because it’s authentic and real and tools such as text analytics can make it practical and useful. However, it can be misleading because the context isn’t always clear and it may not be completely representative of your customer base.

By combining the structured voice-of-the-customer program with immediate feedback through social media, one company was able to understand how to better prioritize its online engagement with customers and direct resources more intelligently to improve its business performance. (See “Using social media…” sidebar.)

Online communities are company-specific spaces where customers can communicate with each other in a loosely moderated fashion. It’s a great way to tap into the conversations your customers are having as they discuss their needs and challenges. It is key to moderate their discussions carefully and review and interpret them often.

Information gathered from mining community discussion can provide great detail around known customer pain points in the customers’ own words. Monitoring these discussions can also alert the company when there is a sudden change in the prevalence of certain topics or issues within the community.

Online panels are a way to provide fast feedback on specific issues from engaged customers. Customers are recruited to be on a virtual panel and then asked for specific input over time. The customers who are asked and opt in are usually more engaged and can provide a great source of insights. Online panels are a quick way to cover a broad range of topics and can offer convincing input for internal stakeholders.

Customer advisory boards are topically-focused and, often, in-person customer meetings. The board is recruited and meets frequently to give their feedback and also given opportunity to co-create solutions for your company. Customer advisory boards help company management prioritize issues that matter most to customers.

Ethnographic research is a great way to see a customer in their real environment interact with a product or a problem. Observing what a customer is doing and why they are doing it can lead to unexpected discoveries. This is a popular method in user experience research but is not used as often in the CX space. However, it can be an incredibly powerful tool for understanding exactly what is causing customer pain and how to fix it.

We had a client that kept receiving complaints and poor scores around its invoicing. It wasn’t until the firm sat down with a group of customers and watched them try to understand, reconcile and pay their invoices that the client began to understand the problems.

Voice of the customer through employee (VOCE) involves getting feedback from the employees who are interacting with the customers the most. VOCE leverages the knowledge of your customer-facing colleagues, such as account managers and service representatives, and is a good way to get employees engaged and involved. It’s important to be aware, however, of employees who want to use this outlet as a sounding board for their own personal issues with the company.

One of the great advantages of survey data for customer experience research is the ease of analyzing and reporting it. We can turn messy customer thoughts and emotions into neat numbers on a rating scale that can be analyzed and reported in a fairly structured and efficient manner. Many of the sources mentioned above produce unstructured data. If volume is low, it is possible to synthesize the unstructured data into findings without much help. However, when the data volume expands (like with social media data), it requires some help to find the relevant insights.

Text analytics is the use of natural language processing technology to analyze unstructured text to understand the central themes and topics that exist. Text analytics is not perfect; it is not a magical tool that will reveal all the truths in your data and it is not as easy as pushing a button. However, it is an indispensable tool for turning large volumes of unstructured data into a set of structured codes that can be used to derive meaningful in-sights.

In our experience, purely exploratory text analytics projects have a low chance of success. If you turn over a mass of unstructured data to your text analytics team and say, “Find me something useful,” you will probably be disappointed. It is much better to come to a text analytics project with a specific hypothesis or purpose in mind and let that purpose determine both the data that is used and the design of project.

Implement a balanced, holistic approach

While it’s not necessary, or even advisable, to use all of these methods for every research project, it is more important than ever to implement a more balanced and holistic approach to gathering customer intelligence. As opposed to the early days of market research, companies these days are overwhelmed with data and information about their customers. Customer insights derived solely from a survey do not have the same impact when executives can easily find out that customers with a specific product in Malaysia are showing significant declines in usage.

As customer experience researchers, we need to create an adaptable and agile system of gathering customer perspectives whenever and wherever it is needed. And then we need the ability to synthesize and merge that data with existing company metrics to help our companies adapt and optimize the customer experience wherever there is a problem. Sounds like a tall order, right? Well, it is. But I don’t think there is any other choice if we want to add the value our companies need.


Using social media to combine solicited and unsolicited insights

For several years, a firm had been conducting voice-of-the-customer programs which provided a solid break-down of the financial benefits of creating loyal customers, detailed loyalty metrics, performance metrics and drivers of loyalty.

Separately, the marketing department created a social media team with responsibilities of collecting, measuring and monitoring millions of conversations about their brand, products and services and competition from a myriad of online sources.

They began by gathering data from the three most common social media sources: the company’s online community, the company’s Facebook fan pages and tweets from Twitter. The social media discussions were combined with the solicited feedback from their voice-of-the-customer programs.

Once the information was captured, a structured library of comments was created and organized to align with the way the firm makes decisions and supports its customers. Next, priority was given to those comments that fell into the categories known to influence customer loyalty and customer purchase decisions. Finally, statistical analysis was performed to better understand the relationships between the solicited and unsolicited feedback.

A look at customer comments from the community, Facebook and Twitter clearly revealed that product installation was a common topic mentioned online. In fact, installation made up almost one-third of all comments. Normally, this might reveal that installation was a problem demanding immediate attention. However, when looking at the structured customer feedback, ease of installation was found to have little influence on customer loyalty and customers generally provided favorable performance ratings.

Through this, the firm identified a specific area in which it needed to proactively engage in online discussions. In addition, it identified a product development initiative that focused on enhancing customer loyalty.

By combining the structured voice-of-the-customer program with immediate feedback through social media, the company was able to understand how to better prioritize its online engagement with customers and direct resources more intelligently to improve business performance.

Using four different sources of insights for customer change

A global food distribution company decided it needed to differentiate itself not only on the products and the price of the products it offers but also on the experience it was delivering to its customers. It wanted to be intentional on how it designed this experience, so it created a strategy to utilize four different sources of customer insights to create a differentiated customer experience.

Step 1: Journey mapping

It brought both employees and customers together to map out how the customer actually experienced the company from their perspective. Once they mapped out the experience, customers helped the firm isolate where it was effective and where it was weak as well as what were key moments of truth that either made or broke the relationship.

Armed with the knowledge it learned from journey mapping, it was able to focus on where it needed to modify the experience in order to improve it for the customers and also get more in line with how it intended the customer to experience it from day one until renewal.

Step 2: Ethnographic research

Next, it conducted a form of ethnographic research and rode along with its delivery drivers to understand firsthand how customers were experiencing certain aspects of its delivery service. Company representatives wanted to feel it and see it the same way customers did and to more deeply understand the expectations customers had at these key moments of truth.

Step 3: Survey

After the ethnographic research it had a fairly defined set of experiences to focus on and a very specific set of expectations it uncovered. It conducted a survey to validate with a broader sample of its customer population that the feelings and perceptions expressed by the select group in the journey map and the ethnographic research were also common among those in the marketplace the firm serves.

Step 4: Online communities

Next, with all of the insights learned from the previous steps, it leveraged its online communities to monitor and understand discussions customers were having about the revised processes it implemented. It was a way to actively get perceptions from customers on whether those changes were leading to the desired outcomes it had hoped for and whether there was real, perceptible change from customers as it deployed these actions.