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Obtaining Customer Feedback

Distributors share their methods for administering customer surveys.

One of the most commonly cited tenets of customer service is to do what the customer wants. But how do you find out what the customer wants? Ask them! Sounds easy, but it takes commitment and strategy to do it correctly. Below, two distributors who consistently do customer surveys tout the benefits, including stronger customer relationships and loyalty, but also warn of the expense and other pitfalls.

LiftOne Takes to the Phone
About six years ago, LiftOne (Charlotte, NC) started performing customer surveys as a way to build relationships with customers. For four years, company staff diligently performed all the associated development, delivery, collection and scoring tasks in-house, an expense that was cut when the economic downturn hit. In 2010, LiftOne restarted its survey program with the help of an outside firm that specializes in conducting survey.

Surveys are sent to service customers who spend $1,500 or more, all new rental customers and all brand new sales accounts. Also, any division can request a survey be sent to a particular account. Each customer is then called by the third-party company, who follows a LiftOne-approved script to find the answers to a series of questions. After a seven-minute telephone interview, a Customer Advocacy Score is calculated, and the customers are placed into one of three categories. “Advocates” would recommend LiftOne to another company, “detractors” would not, and “passives” would do neither.

For a manufacturer’s perspective on customer surveys, click here.

Every customer labeled a “detractor” gets a phone call from from a LiftOne executive within 24 hours. The executive apologizes and determines what can be done to rectify the problem. That same customer is then surveyed again two months later to check on the progress.

Once the surveys are conducted, the outside firm compiles the information and provides LiftOne with a summary of the conversations. LiftOne then takes that data and cross-references it with customer data, such as length of the customer relationship and sales volume, to collect additional metrics. The final step is to see how profitability with a particular company is impacted by the Customer Advocacy Scores. “Every business owner intuitively knows that conducting surveys is the right thing to do, but sometimes it’s hard to justify without a correlating growth in business or profits,” says LiftOne Vice President/General Manager Bill Ryan. “That’s why we’re now in the process of determining how our customer service scores impact profitability with a particular company.”

lift0ne

Marc Amos, market data analyst at Carolina Tractor, parent company of material handling distributor LiftOne, presents customer survey scores to Troy Garrison, LiftOne general sales manager.

Clearly, it’s a fairly involved process, but one that Ryan says is worth the trouble. “It’s important to find out how we’re doing, because statistics show that six out of ten upset customers won’t tell us. But if we ask the question and uncover something, then we have an opportunity to remedy the issue,” he says. “That customer sees us as a problem-solver, so we enhance our relationship with people when we proactively find out when they have problems.”

Conducting surveys is expensive, Ryan adds, but there is no question about their effectiveness. He points to a change in LiftOne’s billing and fee structure made as a result of customer feedback. Previously, LiftOne’s invoices had a handful of line items below the labor and parts that listed environmental fees and other miscellaneous charges. “We got a good dose of responses from customers who felt they were being nickel-and-dimed to death. They asked us to roll those fees into one charge to recover what we need to recover. We implemented a ‘Service Vehicle Recovery Fee’ to reduce about six line items down to one,” Ryan says.

The success of LiftOne’s customer survey program is a result of a commitment and follow-through from the top of the organization. “If the dealer principal doesn’t buy into the process, then it’s going to wane. Lead by example,” he says. “If you claim customer satisfaction is important, then you must be willing to pick up the phone, call customers and find out why they’re unhappy. Because if you’re not willing to do it, how are your people going to do it?”

Jefferds Corporation Shows Its Colors
President/CEO Richard Sinclair has been overseeing the customer survey process at Jefferds Corporation (St. Albans, WV) since the company first performed this function in 2001. The company sends out a different-color card to customers of the service, rentals, parts and sales departments. Each survey asks similar questions about the customer experience provided by the company in the areas of courtesy, responsiveness, timeliness, quality, price, value, employee appearance and more.

Customer Cards

Jefferds Corporation President/CEO Richard Sinclair uses a system of color-coded surveys to collect customer feedback about each department.

The questions vary according to each department, but the setup is the same. They are sent out at the end of each month, except in a couple of larger branches that dedicate six weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall to conducting surveys. Regardless of the procedure, cards are returned to Sinclair himself, who takes each one and enters the results into a computer. At the end of each survey period, the computer spits out a 12-month rolling average that Sinclair communicates to the rest of the organization. “We always know exactly whether or not we’re trending in the right direction for a given metric,” he says. “Quite candidly, the results are typically very good, so it presents a good opportunity for me to compliment our employees.”

For Sinclair, the surveys also serve a quality-control function. “We’re trying to measure the performance of our dealership for the only eyes that really count—the guy who pays the bills,” Sinclair says. That person may or may not be the person for whom the service was performed or equipment was delivered, a realization that led Jefferds to improve its invoice contents. “We weren’t doing a very good job of communicating to customers in the body of the invoice as to the nature of the work we had performed. It made sense to be more specific and spell out the tasks we performed to justify our rates,” Sinclair explains. In response, Jefferds restructured its computer program to allow for more information to be included on its invoices. “Once we put that into place, our survey scores began to get better almost immediately,” Sinclair adds.

After Sinclair tabulates the results, he sends the survey response cards to his eight branch managers to use as both recognition of good performance and as training in lacking areas.

Sinclair also stresses the importance of total commitment to the process. “Customer surveys take a true commitment. Getting the information is only the first step,” he says. “If you get feedback but don’t do anything with it, then you might as well have not asked for it in the first place. Because the second time you go back to the customer and nothing has changed, he’s just not going to pay any attention to it.”

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

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