How to Get Honest and Substantive Feedback from Your Customers

Businesses can’t improve operations without honest and substantive feedback. Customers can be reluctant to provide it, for several reasons. Companies can try to overcome this by focusing feedback requests on improvement (not employee assessment), focusing on customer actions instead of words, and approaching the gathering of feedback as a habit rather than an occasional effort.

“How’s everything so far?”

“Fine, thank you.”

In restaurants around the world, the “check-in dance” between servers and customers is pervasive. Servers ask how things are after customers receive their meal, and nearly all patrons reflexively respond with an automatic “fine, thanks.”

On the surface, it seems like the start of a feedback loop, but real feedback rarely materializes. Chances are the server isn’t seeking a detailed critique, like whether the fish skin was crispy enough or the vegetables were over-seasoned. They’re ensuring the meal is acceptable so that the dining process moves forward. Similarly, the diner often sidesteps genuine, constructive feedback, opting to maintain social etiquette and avoid a long interaction.

Both sides lose in this dance of niceties. The restaurant loses the opportunity to identify operational shortcomings, improve its product, and grow its reputation and customer base. The diner loses the opportunity to feel thrilled with the experience they receive and even — potentially — to be emotionally invested in the business.

Recently, one of us (Steve) and his wife, Michelle, were met with a different version of the dance at an upscale Brooklyn pop-up. The chef personally introduced a dish with the intention of combining several “luxury” ingredients. The dish just didn’t work — at all. Michelle and Steve picked at it politely. But the dance departed from the typical choreography when instead of a server stopping by, the chef came out and asked a more pointed question, making it clear that he wasn’t looking for politeness. “I’ve been tinkering with that dish for a while and know it has a lot of elements, but does it come together for you? I can’t get better if I don’t hear honest feedback.” The sincerity and sense of safety that the chef brought to the conversation allowed the diners to share that the dish just didn’t work for them. It also made Steve and Michelle more engaged and interested in the restaurant’s success, and they returned several weeks later to see that the dish had been adjusted and improved.

Many businesses have lost sight of this foundational operating principle and treat their customer feedback machine as a necessary evil to be fulfilled in the least-costly and least-awkward way possible. Smaller companies, which tend to be pressed for resources, may put little effort into trying to get customer feedback. Managers at small and medium-sized companies may feel like a robust customer feedback mechanism is a luxury that must wait until the company is larger.

That’s short-sighted, because true operational effectiveness comes from tweaking things that need to be changed from a customer’s vantage point. While obtaining feedback is crucial, it is only valuable if it’s authentic. The challenge is that customers often shy away from such conversations, and businesses, unfortunately, tend to reinforce this reluctance in their approach to seeking feedback. The whole system has become so encumbered and obfuscated from its original purpose that in most circumstances it has become a useless ritual — one that may even destroy value.

Fixing the Problem

The fault with this dysfunctional feedback loop lies with both companies and customers. Companies have designed feedback systems aimed primarily for ease of customer input and quantification, leading to the innumerable requests we get to “please stay on the line to take a short survey after this call.” The last thing most customers want to do after phoning in to customer service is spend more time on the phone. On the rare occasions when customers try to provide honest feedback in person, they are often met with defensive postures from staff members who are trained to “defuse” the situation instead of digging deeper for actionable feedback. In fact, often the best way to defuse the situation is to show a legitimate interest in hearing about the feedback!

Customers also contribute to this problem. Humans are risk and conflict averse, so we generally try to avoid “high-stakes” interactions. The first step to fixing feedback systems is to understand why customers perceive them this way:

  • Honest feedback feels like a cognitive burden. Most of us avoid difficult and emotional conversations because they are, well, difficult. Chris Argyris, the late founder of the body of work called productive interactions, noted that there are three strategies people can use in situations of conflict: (1) Bypass avoid discussing the issue and move on; (2) Name — note the problem, but don’t discuss it; and (3) Engage — actually discuss the problem. The risk to the relationship is higher as you move up that scale, so people tend to employ bypass in most situations. In the case of customer feedback, bypassing is saying things are fine, even if they are not.
  • The consequences of feedback feel unnecessarily high. This is especially true when the forum is one of many online public review sites. One of us (Elizabeth) recently found herself debating whether she wanted to write an honest review of a small business — one she was rooting for to succeed. It had a great product, but sub-par service. But an honest review would have the unintended effect of publicizing the service problems, so she just passed.
  • Fear of retaliation. Some customers refrain from feedback for fear of retaliation. To continue the restaurant analogy, this might entail the dreaded image of kitchen staff tainting food in some way. Indeed, we often hear stories from customers who are repeatedly disappointed in some small way by a business, but don’t want to give feedback for fear that it would impact the relationship. In effect, the customer seems to value the relationship with the business more than the service or product it provides.
  • Feedback requests have become like white noise. Every business asks for feedback in every interaction, creating a situation similar to an inversion of the tragedy of the commons. Instead of an individual consuming a resource at the expense of the collective, the collective is ignoring a request at the expense of the business.

Some might ask whether this is a problem worth solving. Don’t we get enough hints at issues from today’s feedback system? We would argue no. The issue is that unhappy customers often just quit. They don’t give warning — they just don’t come back. So the real problem to be solved is that your “formal” feedback mechanisms might be saying that everything’s fine, but you might have a service issue brewing. This can result in fast downward spirals and reputation issues that are hard to recover from. Like most health issues, prevention and/or early detection are far preferable to stronger interventions once the situation has become worse.

We offer several thoughts on how to improve:

Make improvement your goal, not assessment.

Because companies use customer feedback to assess employee performance, many of us have experienced the plea from a customer service rep to rate them a “5 out of 5,” possibly taking a positive experience and ending it in an awkward (if not downright negative) way. It’s not the employee’s fault — it’s the system that’s in use.

We suggest reframing feedback questions to make it clear that the organization is seeking to improve — not to be told it’s doing well. Instead of asking “how did I do?” ask “what’s one thing could I do to have served you better today?” Invite the customer to join you in a journey for a better experience. You might need to teach your people to ask good second and third questions to solicit better feedback, because a broad-based initial question may not be sufficient for some customers to generate ideas. Training them to do this will be worth the effort.

Disproportionally focus on what customers do, not what they say.

As noted above, customers are not inclined to share their thoughts or feelings unless things are either really bad or if the interaction is framed in the right way. So instead of tracking “sentiment,” which can be misleading, track and observe customer behavior. How often are customers repeating purchases? How frequently do they come to your store or site? What do they do when they’re there? In the case of a restaurant, which entrees come back half-eaten and which inspire clean plates?

Systematically capturing this behavioral feedback requires a combination of data analysis to track large groups of customers to see patterns, but also, non-statistically significant observations by your frontline employees. Is there something they’re noticing customers doing that indicates dissatisfaction? For instance, employees of a coffee stand might observe customers wrapping their cups in napkins; perhaps it means that the cup is too hot to hold? By combining data on customer behavior with the power of observation, businesses can generate hypotheses on how they can continually improve the quality of their operations.

Make this a habit, not a periodic intervention.

As noted above, service issues can fester over time, causing customers to quit without warning. Prevention in this case is curative. So switch up that bi-annual or quarterly survey instrument in favor of mechanisms that are continual and part of your culture.

Finally, if you want to take it to the next level, consider pairing experimentation with your feedback efforts. Make a small change and ask for feedback. Or make a more significant change in a small area of your business and see how customers respond. Pairing experimentation with an eye to observing customers and seeking honest input is a mechanism to continually improve your operations — as is seeing feedback as both a gift and an imperative.

By welcoming feedback as both a precious insight and a mandate, organizations can foster a vibrant and adaptive business environment that is responsive to customer needs and preferences. Establishing a genuine and meaningful feedback loop has the potential to elevate a business’s operational standards considerably. Creating a culture that encourages feedback and sees customers not as sources of approval or disapproval, but as partners who can contribute to the betterment of a company’s offering, is an important way to rethink the typical, unhelpful feedback dance that exists today.

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