Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Not Another Survey!

by William J. Kalmar

As customers, we have all come to understand the importance of customer surveys. Customers are the lifeblood of any organization and to achieve a certain level of success, the needs, wants, and expectations of customers must be understood. Role-model companies exceed the expectations of customers.

My take on the subject of customer surveys is fairly simple: No new product or service should be launched without first involving customers in a review process. Failure to do so could result in a process that is shunned by your clients or, worse yet, in customers flocking to another company.

The Checkbook Debacle
Let me give you an example of just such a scenario. When I worked for a large national bank, we prided ourselves in having an extensive training program modeled after the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. The goal was to introduce every employee in the organization to the Baldrige criteria for performance excellence. The training went on for years, and we emphasized the concept of being in lock step with customers.

Somewhere along the line, we lost sight of this very important concept when it came to something as mundane as new checkbook orders. Our demand deposit department, in meeting with a vendor, learned that by eliminating one style of check reorders, the bank could save $500,000 a year. It meant that instead of offering side- or top-stub tear offs, we would only be offering checks that were attached to the stub across the top. Now $500,000 is nothing to take lightly, so it was full steam ahead to implement this new process.

Well, guess what? When customers began to reorder checks and discovered that their favorite way of tearing checks from the folder had been eliminated, there was an uproar. The branch offices were filled with irate customers, and phone lines in the customer service areas were swamped with customers threatening to move their funds to banks that offered both features.

Someone in management asked for the customer survey that was done before we made this change--of course, there wasn’t one. The bank quickly retrenched and again began offering both features for check reorders. The upside was that we used this as an example of what happens when customers are not brought into the brainstorming process. Weighing the loss of many customers and good will against a savings of $500,000 was a no-brainer.

Health care Focus Group:
As a follow-up to this concept of customer involvement, I recently participated in a focus group staged by a major health care company. The organization was exploring the introduction of some new products that would supplement Medicare. There were ten of us in the group--people who had just signed up for Medicare and others in the throes of reviewing their various options. I have participated in many focus groups over the years, and this one stood out: It was well organized, it kept on point, and it paid each of us $75 at the conclusion of the two-hour session. (Expediting the payment for our involvement was key in my accepting a role in the focus group, which I will expand on.)

As I participated in the roundtable discussion, my thoughts wandered off to this article on customer surveys. As a result, I concluded that more organizations should avail themselves of this technique before launching any new product or service. The participants represented a cross-section of the target audience, and the participants were allowed to voice opinions on subjects not originally outlined in the instructions. The health care organization came away from this with a clear understanding of the expectations of its customers.

Various Paths to Information
Other organizations have approaches to surveying customers as varied as the organizations themselves. In addition, we as consumers often look to the results of survey recommendations before we buy a particular product or service. How many of us have viewed a movie only because it was given “two thumbs up” by a certain pair of reviewers? How often have we eaten at a particular restaurant or stayed at a resort because a survey has designated it four stars? As consumers, we seem to depend on survey results to guide us to the best establishments. Let’s examine for a moment how some of these establishments entice us to participate in their surveys.

I mentioned earlier that the focus group I was involved with provided us with payment, as promised, at the conclusion of the session. In fact, being the cynical person that I am, my participation hinged on their paying me for my time and doing so at the end of the session. As a retiree I no longer offer advice pro bono.

Many companies conduct customer surveys on their receipts. Here is just a small sampling:

OfficeMax--”Tell us about your shopping experience and enter to win one of five prizes.”

Walgreens--”How are we doing? Enter our monthly cash sweepstakes. This month the prize is $3,000 cash.”

Panera Bread (Saint Louis Bread Co.) --”Tell us how we are doing and you may win $2,000.”

Montana ’s Cookhouse -- ”Please tell us about our serv ice and you could win $1,000.”

Caribou Coffee Co. --”Tell us how we are doing. We would like to hear about your Caribou experience. Enter our monthly sweepstakes. Ten $100 Caribou Coffee gift cards awarded monthly.”

Romano’s Macaroni Grill --”Win $1,000--a winner every week.”

Meijer--”How are we doing? Rate your shopping experience and you may win a $1,000 gift card.”

Are you seeing a pattern here? These companies want our opinions, and if we participate, we may win a prize. Candidly, I am not inclined to assist them, because, as I mentioned earlier, I am somewhat mercenary: I want instant gratification. When I complete the survey, I want a coupon that I can download for a free coffee at Caribou, or a complimentary donut at Panera Bread, or a $5 coupon at a department store.

Here’s my quandary: While at each of these establishments, I have queried the employees about these surveys and information on any of the winners, and to date no one has been able to share with me the names of winners, or details of any payouts. Do I think that these promotions are bogus? Well, until someone comes forward to contradict it, my answer is yes! Therefore, don’t expect me to spend my time commenting on my veal piccata at the Macaroni Grill unless there’s a complimentary cannoli in it for me.

Some companies that have survey information on their receipt and promise nothing--Kohl’s, Macy’s, and On The Border, to name just a few--are saying, “We want your opinion and feedback, but unlike other companies who promise you a chance at a prize but may not deliver, we are being straightforward in telling you that there is no prize. The prize will be better customer service if you participate.”

These are what I would call after-the-fact surveys. I think a more effective way of exploring the needs, wants, and expectations of customers is to survey them while they are involved in the service or sampling the product. I call this method on-site, live surveys. A company that does it best in my estimation is the two-time winner of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award--The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. Let me give you a recent example of this methodology.

It’s no secret that the “Ladies and Gentlemen” (as the staff are called) of the Ritz-Carlton constantly update a guest database that contains each guest’s special preferences. For instance, if a staff member notices that a guest prefers a specific wine, that information is entered into the database so that upon a return visit, a similar bottle of wine will be in the room upon check in. Permit me to provide you with a couple of personal examples.

While dining at our local Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, Michigan, I opted for an appetizer of scallops. Our waitress overheard me remark to my wife, Mary, that “these are the best scallops I have ever eaten.” Evidently that information became part of the on-site, live survey information that was entered into the database, because every time we dine at a Ritz-Carlton establishment, I receive a complimentary scallop appetizer.

Then there’s the incident that occurred about a year ago that to this day still resonates with me. Mary and I periodically enjoy high tea at the Ritz-Carlton. It’s decadent, very soothing, and relaxing. On one occasion I requested extra finger sandwiches. Our waitress, a lovely lady named Anoushka, smiled and kept bringing me the sandwiches, much to my delight. Moving the calendar up two months found Mary and me enjoying another high tea. As we sat down, our waitress came up to us and said, “Anoushka is on vacation in Florida, but she called moments ago to make sure we provided you with extra finger sandwiches.” Now that’s service and an example of taking survey information to the next level. Is it any wonder that the Ritz-Carlton regularly ranks at the top of surveys when it comes to meeting and exceeding guests’ expectations?

Rather than survey guests at the conclusion of their stay, this hotel conducts surveys on an ongoing basis. This is a methodology that other companies should implement because it demonstrates to current customers that they are valued. The hotel also provides survey cards in each room.

Besides surveying customers about their services, many organizations hire mystery shoppers to conduct on-site reviews. I am one of those mystery shoppers. My responsibilities include visiting restaurants, fast-food chains, national department stores, and even a national transportation company. What I have been most impressed with is that clients take it as a given that their food is going to be delectable or that their products will be care-free, so the emphasis is on customer service. Naturally I review the food and the products, but the bulk of my report is about interacting with the employees. Absent great service, it doesn’t matter how good the food is or how sound the products. If employee service is mediocre, customers don’t return.

It is critical to be in lock step with your customers, and there are myriad ways to do so. Each organization needs to establish a pipeline of information from its customers and then make sure that those needs are met or exceeded so that the company will attain legendary status. Don’t get caught up in some money-saving gimmick without first surveying your customers.

Also, please don’t provide me with a receipt and a chance at a cash prize. If you want my opinion or feedback, I prefer a reward on the spot--a coupon for a free dessert or a free coffee would make my day.

Well, time to go. I have to complete a survey from the local hospital where I was a patient recently. They are offering a drawing for a free lobotomy. Who knows, it might just be on the level. If I win, it would be an opportunity to somehow put this dreadful, frigid, Michigan winter out of my mind.

About the Author:
William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, for which he served as director. He has been a member of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Board of Overseers and a Baldrige examiner. He’s also been named quality professional of the year by the Detroit Chapter of ASQ. Now semi-retired, he’s a freelance writer for the Detroit News and other national newspapers; serves on the USA Today vacation panel; writes a monthly column for Mature Advisor newspaper; writes a monthly column titled “Hammock Thoughts” for Quality Digest’s e-newsletter QualityInsider ; is a mystery shopper for several companies; is a frequent presenter and lecturer; does radio voice-overs; and competes in duathlons.