Companies increasingly cite relationships with their customers as the key to business success. So it is not surprising that many organisations attempt to measure what their customers think of them through customer satisfaction surveys, for example. But how useful are these and can they in fact be bad for business? Management consultancy Cape Consulting claims that, nine times out of 10, such research is futile and that customers can actually resent giving up their time when they perceive little or no change to the subsequent product or service that they are given. 'The vast majority of such surveys are a waste of money because the findings do not lead to any appreciable improvement in service delivery,' explains Sionade Robinson, a director of Cape.
The art is to ensure that you are measuring the right thing and that you then act upon your findings, affirms Alan Forbes, general manager for customer service at Standard Life.
Employee involvement can also be crucial to the success of customer satisfaction surveys, claims Mike Folly, head of personal sector service development at Barclays Bank. He argues that, 'ideally, staff that deliver the service should do their own measurement'. But he is not in favour of every method of customer satisfaction measurement. He believes that the trend for mystery shoppers is unreliable, for example. 'They can report on whether they got served with a smile and a personal greeting but, in the end, you don't learn much. It all depends on how a particular individual was feeling on one day.'
Independent research can certainly be more objective. 'Lots of companies measure customer satisfaction without comparing it with anything,' says Zaiba Nanji, head of the telecoms marketing team at JD Power, which compiles annual customer satisfaction league tables for cars and mobile phones.
This type of research is invaluable for mature market sectors, says Nanji.
'During the high-growth phase, people don't pay so much attention to customer satisfaction surveys but, once a market becomes more competitive, companies have to find ways to differentiate themselves,' he says. 'This is when customer service becomes more important.'
Katrina Stephens, UK support services manager at Hewlett-Packard, is well aware of this. Her department competes against outside companies to provide HP with services such as cafes, cars, reception and security staff. But it makes the distinction in its regular customer research between loyalty and satisfaction. 'We know that even if a customer is satisfied, it doesn't mean they will buy again,' she says. Instead, the department tracks customer confidence in its ability to understand their issues and make a difference. So now, when the team sets up staff restaurants, for example, it canvasses managers as to whether they are cost-effective, and staff as to menus and decor.
The good news for those on the receiving end of market research is that questions should become more relevant and concise and genuine improvements to the services that they receive should be more attainable.