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Is it time to ditch the post-call survey?

One of the questions I’ve found myself asking customer service and customer experience leaders in recent years is whether they’re happy with the results they’re seeing from their post-call survey.

To be clear, I’m not asking about whether their key metrics are pointed in the right direction, I’m asking whether they’re happy with the survey itself as a means of collecting customer feedback, measuring the performance of their team and spotting opportunities for improvement. Almost universally, the answer I most frequently get back is along the lines of “not really…but I’m not sure what other options we have.”

Post-call surveys

Companies have a love-hate relationship with their post-call surveys—and it’s a relationship these days that is skewing much more negative than positive. As almost any CX or service leader will tell you, survey response rates are on a secular decline—in large part because companies over-rely on surveys to answer all manner of questions, resulting in customers experiencing survey fatigue and, ultimately, tuning them out. We hear from companies regularly that their response rates are plummeting—in some cases, dropping by half in just the past year.

In response to falling response rates, companies have taken the step of shortening their surveys—today, it’s not uncommon to see surveys with only one numerical question with an open-field text box asking for more color (e.g., “Why did you give us the score that you did?” or “What can we do to improve?”). While shorter surveys may temporarily stop the bleeding on response rates, they have the unintended effect of also diminishing the quality of the feedback that’s received—and this is to say nothing of the well-documented biases (e.g., recall bias and extreme response bias) that plague surveys as a VoC instrument.

These shortcomings are much more than just a nuisance to deal with—they create real problems for leaders. Low response rates make it hard to credibly use survey scores as a way to measure performance (especially rep-level performance). Low response rates and systemic response bias also raise hard questions about whether improvement opportunities surfaced through surveys are really that widespread and worth the time and investment to pursue. And when the verbatim collected in surveys is lacking, leaders don’t get the why behind the what—in other words, they may know the experience is falling short in the eyes of customers, but they don’t know what to do to fix it.

The irony, of course, is that the technology exists for companies today to not have to rely on surveys to answer many of the most important questions they have about the customer experience.

Recent advances in areas like automated speech recognition, natural language processing and machine learning have made it possible for companies to leverage data they already have—namely, recorded phone calls, chat interactions, etc.—to predict survey scores, obtain rich customer feedback and finally lower their reliance on surveys.

What if, instead of deploying surveys to customers after the fact, you could harness these technologies to understand all of your recorded conversations and predict the score a customer would have given on a survey without having to ask the customer to fill out the survey at all?

If you could do this, you’d have no more response rate challenges since you could assign a score to every call, not just the ten percent of customers (or fewer) who fill out the survey. You’d have no bias issues because you’d be working off of the raw conversational data (not a post-hoc interpretation of what happened). And, best of all, you’d have an incredibly rich, actionable data set to work with (i.e., no more trying to decipher what the customer meant by “You guys rock!” or “You guys are the worst!”).

A few years ago, this sort of thing might have felt like science fiction, but as I learned recently, it’s very real.

Our data science team at Tethr recently took this challenge on and we were pretty amazed by the results. To build our predictive model, our data science team first had to decide what the outcome metric was that we wanted to study. Since so much of what we do for care and CX leaders is help them identify and eliminate sources of customer effort (and because I was a co-author of from The Effortless Experience !), it seemed like a natural thing to do would be to see if we could predict Customer Effort Score.

Before we get into how we built our model, it might make sense to provide a bit of background on the Customer Effort Score for readers who may not be familiar with it.

In 2008, the research team I was leading at CEB (now, Gartner) discovered a new customer experience metric that we called the Customer Effort Score, or CES for short. We found that this measure proved to be more highly correlated with loyalty attitudes and behaviors like repurchase, share of wallet and advocacy than metrics like Net Promoter Score (NPS) or Customer Satisfaction (CSAT)—especially when applied in a transactional environment like customer service.

The original CES was a survey question that asked customers how much effort they had to put forth to get their issue resolved. Customers rated their experience on a 1-5 scale where 1 was low effort (i.e., good) and 5 was high effort (i.e., bad). By collecting CES scores from customers, companies would be able to zero in on those interactions and experiences that customers deemed to be “high effort,” thereby helping to surface improvement opportunities like training or coaching, QA scorecard changes, process fixes and website overhauls.

When we released the book, The Effortless Experience, in 2013, we unveiled a new version of the score which we called “CES 2.0.” We found that some companies felt the original question (“How much effort did you personally have to put forth to handle your request?”) could cause some customer confusion…and the term “effort” was hard to translate into certain languages. The new question asks the customer to respond on a 1-7 scale, from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree,” with the statement “The company made it easy for me to handle my issue.” Not only is the wording more straightforward for customers and easier to translate from the original English, but the 1-7 scale and the fact that a low score was now “bad” and a high score “good” is more in keeping with the way other survey questions (like CSAT or Net Promoter) are asked.

While this new version of the CES question improved on the original, it didn’t solve for what is a more fundamental problem: relying on surveys to ask a question that companies should already know the answer to.

To create our predictive Customer Effort model, our data science team took tens of thousands of completed post-call surveys (surveys in which the CES question was asked) from a wide range of companies and industries and then mapped those surveys to the actual calls that preceded them. In simple research terms, the CES score the customer gave was our “dependent” variable (i.e., the thing we were trying to predict) and everything that happened in the preceding call served as a set of “independent” variables (i.e., the things that might affect the dependent variable).

One of the cool things about using recorded conversational data is that it’s a far richer data set than what we had access to in the original Effort research, which was all based on survey data. In a survey, there’s a natural limit to how much you can ask before a respondent gets impatient and bails out. For instance, in the original Effort research, we asked about channel switching (i.e., did a customer first go to the company’s website, give up and then pick up the phone to call?). As much as we would have liked to ask dozens of questions about the actual website experience (e.g., was it a login issue, an unclear FAQ, confusing information in an expert community or something else that caused the customer to give up?), we also wanted people to fill out the survey so that we could do the analysis.

With conversational data, however, this isn’t an issue. On the phone, customers will go into incredible depth about exactly what went wrong in their experience. Customers won’t just tell you it was a Website issue, but will tell you it was a login issue and what the specific error message was that they received. They won’t just tell you they found the content on the Website confusing. They’ll tell you which specific FAQ was confusing to them and why. With all of this rich, contextual data, our team was able to generate a truly massive list of potential variables that we could measure.

So, using conversational data allowed us to cast a really broad net, in other words.

And casting a broad net is important because Effort, we’ve learned, isn’t something that can easily be reduced to a survey score. It’s nuanced—a condition that is comprised of many things with many flavors. Frustration is different from confusion. A transfer is different from a long hold. A rep hiding behind policy is different from a rep mis-setting expectations. Until we tapped into conversational data, we were never able to measure the additive effects of tonnage or intensity. Does it matter if a customer gets frustrated three times in a call, as opposed to just once? Where does it tip the scales from annoyance into actual churn risk? Without that field chalked, without that nuance in measuring, we’d never get that from any other method, survey or otherwise.

When all was said and done, the initial version of the our model, which we’ve called the “Tethr Effort Index” is based on more than 400 variables together representing thousands of discrete phrases and utterances that proved to be statistically significant in either increasing or reducing effort. As we’ve been taking it out for a spin, it has proven to be incredibly accurate in predicting the Customer Effort Score that a customer would have given on a post-interaction survey, but (of course) without having to ask the customer to fill out a survey.

Armed with a predictive Effort score on every customer call, a CX or contact center leader can now track Effort levels in real time, immediately drilling into those high-effort interactions that are likely to create disloyalty and churn. Plus, with all of the rich verbatim from actual customer interactions, leaders can quickly pinpoint, with tremendous precision, the biggest opportunities for improvement in the customer experience—whether it’s a change to a digital channel like the app or website, a product fix, a call handling process change or an opportunity to coach agents on new skills and behaviors. And, best of all, companies can finally ween themselves from the post-call survey.

It's a brave new world out there!

If you’re interested in learning more, please join us for a webinar on August 29 where we’ll go into more detail on the research and how we developed this predictive model.

(Photo ©  iiierlok_xolms - stock.adobe.com)

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