ICMI is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


Getting Honest Feedback from Your Customers, Honestly

A few years ago, I bought a new car at a local dealership. At the conclusion of the purchasing process, as the car keys beckoned to me from just across the salesman's desk, he pulled out one last form and gave me a meaningful look.

"Now," he said, "I'm sure you know how important customer satisfaction is at [this car brand]. In fact, my own compensation is tied directly to your customer satisfaction, and I'd like to just ask you a couple of questions about your experience with us if you don’t mind."

Then he opened the form, readied his pen and said "Now, would you say, overall, that you were (wink wink) VERY satisfied with this sales process?"

Getting honest feedback from customers is an immensely powerful tactic for improving a company's sales and marketing success. Direct interaction is the best way to get a read on a customer's satisfaction, for instance, and as my own experience shows, sometimes the reliability of this data can be tainted by employees trying to game the system for their own purposes.

But in addition to finding out how satisfied customers are, by interacting directly with them you can also get a better understanding of their individual product specifications, needs and preferences. Remembering a customer’s address and phone number, retaining a credit card authorization, or knowing that the customer prefers family packs rather than individual sizes – these are helpful kinds of customer-specific information that can enable your company to provide an individual customer with much more personalized, convenient service. This assumes, of course, that the customer trusts you with the information in the first place.

Customers will only share information and feedback with companies they trust, so here are a few principles designed to help you earn that trust:

1. Use a Flexible Opt-In Policy. Many opt-in policies are all-or-nothing propositions, in which customers must elect either to allow a company to fire-hose them with offers and deals, or not communicate with them at all. A flexible opt-in policy accommodates different customer preferences, not just in terms of communication subject matter, formats and channels, but also timing and frequency. So, to the extent possible, give your customers a choice of how much communication to receive from you, when, and under what conditions.

2. Establish a Value Exchange Customers generally wouldn’t mind disclosing information if it were to result in more personalized communications or service, but experience has taught them not to be very optimistic about a company using their information in this way. Most companies view personal information from customers purely as a tool allowing them to sell more stuff. They see the data as a way to construct more compelling offers, deals, and sales solicitations. But the right approach is to begin with the question of what benefits you can provide a customer by relying on the customer's information. Can you make your product more relevant? More timely? Less expensive? If you start with this task in mind, you’ll make the customer happy, and you'll then sell more stuff.

3. Tread Cautiously with Targeted Web Ads Even though targeted online ads are popular with marketers, research shows that consumers are especially wary of sharing information when targeted web ads are the result. I'm not saying "don't do it." All I'm saying is, "don't pile on." In any case, for behavioral targeting to succeed, you have to have the customer’s informed consent.

4. Make it Clear and Simple. Have a clear, readable privacy policy for your customers to review. Procter and Gamble provides a splendid example. Instead of posting a lengthy document written in legalese, P&G presents a one-page, easy-to-understand set of highlights outlining the policy, with links to more detailed information. By contrast, one department store’s online privacy policy (cited in the book Blown to Bits) had a scroll box that could accommodate just 10 lines of text at a time and required 54 boxfuls just to get through the whole policy. Buried far into the policy was a provision that allowed the firm to install software on your computer that "monitors all of the Internet behavior that occurs on the computer…"

5. Create a Culture of Customer Trust. Emphasize the importance of privacy protection to everyone who handles personally identifiable customer information, from the CEO to customer reps. Line employees provide the customer experiences that matter, and employees determine whether your privacy policy becomes business practice or just a piece of paper. If your business culture is built around acting in the interest of customers at all times, then it will be second nature at your company to protect customers from irritating or superfluous uses of their personal information – things most consumers will regard as privacy breaches, whether they formally "agreed" to the data use or not.

And remember: You're responsible for your partners, too!

It should go without saying that whatever privacy protection you promise your customers, it has to be something your own sales and channel partners – as well as your suppliers and other vendors – have also agreed to, contractually. Anyone in your "ecosystem" who might handle your own customers’ personally identifiable information and feedback will have the capacity to ruin your own reputation. So take care not to let that happen!

Don Peppers is a Founding Partner, Peppers & Rogers Group.