You have a sneaking feeling that your customers aren't as happy as they once were. First, existing customers seem to be defecting to the competition almost as fast as you can get new ones. Second, your company has started to become the butt of bad jokes at conferences and in the press. So how do you set about measuring, and improving, your customers' satisfaction?
MARKET INTERNALLY. If your customer-satisfaction survey is seen as just another marketing-led initiative, it will be doomed from the outset. You need to get other parts of the company involved - finance, sales, production - and find out where they touch customers and which questions they think should be asked.
The more people have a sense of ownership at the outset, the more likely your colleagues will be to respond to the results.
SEE THINGS THROUGH CUSTOMERS' EYES. One way to do this, says Mark Ritson, professor of marketing at London Business School, is for managers to try out the service for themselves. Another is to watch customers using it.
A further option is to carry out some qualitative research with customers at this point. In either case, the objective is to identify the issues on which customers will form their judgment of your service, so you can frame your questions accordingly. The danger, says Ritson, is that you think you know all the questions - if not the answers - at the outset.
CALL A FRIEND. You may be tempted to do your own customer-satisfaction survey, but the arguments for bringing in an independent specialist are several, says David Bacon, chief executive of market research company Resource. 'An independent practitioner knows the processes involved and the questions to ask; they know how to ask so that the responses are not biased; and if you are going to use the results externally, they will have greater credibility.' Customers may also be more willing to take part if they are assured of anonymity.
CUT THE CLOTH TO SUIT. Telephone surveys generally work better in a business-to-business environment where you need to ensure you are talking to the key decision-maker, but a postal survey may make more economic sense if your customers are consumers. Buying habits may also shape the timing and frequency of your poll.
DARE TO COMPARE. 'Simply knowing that 95% of your customers are satisfied is meaningless,' says Ritson. 'You need to know how that compares with a year ago.' Beware of focusing on objective metrics, and remember that satisfaction is based on perception, he cautions. You may have cut your waiting times in half, but if customers expect a faster service still, they will be disappointed.
FAIL TO DELIVER AT YOUR PERIL. Don't embark on a customer-satisfaction exercise unless you are prepared to act on the results. If you ask people what they are unhappy about and then fail to do anything about it, you will leave them more disillusioned than ever.
AIM HIGH. If satisfaction simply means that your customers aren't cheesed off with your performance, that's of limited value.
If, on the other hand, you exceed their expectations, you can really differentiate yourself in the market.
IT'S A MOVING TARGET. Remember that today's satisfied customer is tomorrow's jaded one. A service level that hits the button today may be considered downright sloppy in six months' time, such is the pace of change.
DO SAY: 'Let's find out where our performance falls short of expectations, and then see what we can do about it.'
DON'T SAY: 'Our new product range is bloody fantastic. They should be grateful they've got the chance to buy it.'