Customer insight – hearing their stories, their complaints their way

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Customers (or clients or patients or…) are naturally full of stories about services that an organisation offers. And they regularly share them, particularly the stories from which we can find opportunities for improvement – complaint stories or call-centre phone calls.

These are actually more valuable than most focus groups or questionnaires – they reflect actual day-to-day usage and experience, rather than prompted specific examples. There are, however, two difficulties with them:

  1. Our natural tendency to re-interpret the story or to categorise the teller in terms of unhelpful stereotypes. (A few years ago, we collected video stories from a wide range of people that experienced a client’s range of services. Playing them back to senior execs turned out to be too basic – they slotted them into their pre-existing stereotypes: “he’s a whinger,” “that one’s a never-good-enough,” etc)
  2. There are too many of them and it’s difficult to see how they relate to each other except to divide them up into handy “buckets” – Inaccurate Sales, One-off Breakdown, Unrealistic Demand, Broken Product, After-Sales Service. (I use my own categories that seemed to fit the complaints 20 years ago when I worked with Canon on copiers, printers, fax machines, etc)

With a high volume of negative customer feedback, the learning opportunities are therefore lost.

But with minor modifications, it’s possible to get some highly valuable feedback from this, including:

  • Tracking of improvement/deterioration in customer perception of the organisation
  • Specific highlighting of key problems that repeat in different areas
  • Simple solution suggestions, derived from the complaints themselves
  • Identifying the “understanding gap” between customers and the organisation
  • Better product design and marketing decision-making

Ultimately, for an organisation suffering from a groundswell of complaints, it should be possible to see fast, low-cost potential interventions to turn around a declining perception.

Rather than just gathering the raw data on complaints, customers should be given the opportunity to signify their complaint – where does it sit in this triangle? Is it about product/service/support?

Signification – when done properly – means that it can’t be re-interpreted in the organisation. And also means that overall patterns can be built up – and then only significant stories reported and addressed, rather than having to deal with each complaint on an individual basis.

Equally, where there already exists a large volume of customer responses, a different approach could be taken:

  • Distribute subsets of the material (complaints, suggestions, responses to competitions) to willing participants in key groups of stakeholders
    • e.g. Marketing, Customer Services, Call Centre, Product Design, Sales force, Manufacturing
  • Have those groups signify the material they’ve received (making sure there’s overlap between the subsets so that some material is signified by everybody)
    • an additional twist might be to ask them to signify the material as they think the customer might have signified it. (Although that is more powerful with material that has been signified by the customer)
  • Analyse for overall patterns – again, often challenging the expected results from an emergent picture.
  • Analyse and compare patterns across stakeholders – when Call Centre sees problem X, Product Design sees Y and Marketing sees Z.

Often, from these emergent patterns and the qualitative information beneath come solutions that are substantially more straightforward and effective than traditional system-wide approaches. It is one of the perversities of working in complex rather than complicated problems – the answers can be simpler and cheaper to implement.

For instance, a batch of stories that address a fundamental misunderstanding of the product (perhaps due to over-enthusiastic advertising) might initially appear to be about a product defect. Spotting a correlation or cluster of stories of significance and then examining only the handful of stories at the centre (rather than having to trawl through the thousands that might come in from a global customer relations site) would provide context for how the product is perceived, along with qualitative information to show where the misunderstanding came from. And a discussion can then take place – it may be that, now they understand what customers expect of the product, designers can easily introduce new features that will meet that expectation; or it may be that an advertising campaign needs to be amended, or different responses needed in the call centre when customers call in.

Having real customer feedback that shows the problem from the customer’s point of view that is difficult to re-interpret or twist for internal politics and that includes context can therefore make for a faster, more responsive, more customer-focused organisation. The potential is huge – generating real and lasting competitive advantage from a pile of customer complaints!