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How to Ruin a Customer Feedback Survey in Just One Move

A recent article in Macleans described the frustration of Syrian refugee sponsors, waiting to hear back from the government about the status of their application. “It’s a little bit of a slap in the face,” says Renee Field of Halifax, who is part of a private group that applied to sponsor a husband, wife and their three-year-old son, only to be told it could now take up to eight months to process their paperwork in Turkey. “We were all floored,” she said. “The government asked us to rally. We rallied, we raised money, and then they shut us down. It is not acceptable.” It reminded me of the my own experiences in trying to create a customer feedback program for a client I'll call EverQuo. The customers rallied, we created great expectations and then - we were shut down.

I had been brought in to EverQuo to develop and roll out a continuous improvement program. I was struggling to get some members of the management team motivated - they just didn't see the need for change or improvement. So, I decided to let their customers do the convincing. Section 9.1.2. of ISO 9001:2015 states that "organizations shall monitor customers' perceptions of the degree to which their needs and expectation have been fulfilled. The organization shall determine the methods for obtaining, monitoring and reviewing this information." This feedback can take many forms, including surveys, meeting minutes, warranty claims, etc. To meet this section of the standard, and to provide some motivation for improvement, I launched a "Voice of the Customer" program, where I personally sat down with representatives from their top 10 customers and asked them a list of questions that had been agreed upon by the management team. The customers were more than happy to tell me all about EverQuo's flaws, and how they could be better than their competition.

I was excited to present the findings to the management team. There was good alignment among customers about the challenges of working with EverQuo, and how they could become easier to do business with. I had some powerful quotes from frustrated customers. The sales team, whom I had recruited to the program, were fired up about finally getting management to listen to what they had been saying for so many months. We went in to the presentation with high hopes - and left deflated. The same members of the management team who didn't see the need for improvement were quick to dismiss all of the customer's concerns as "legacy issues" and "they don't understand us". Ultimately, the management team was overpowered by this negativity and they decided to ignore the feedback.

What I didn't expect was for my phone to start ringing. My questions to EverQuo's customers had created an expectation of change. Customers were asking me what the outcome of the review was, and if they could see our plan for change. The sales team was also fielding these same questions. But nothing was going to change, and we knew it. The management was firm in their stance of apathy. Of course, we sent out a letter to the customers thanking them for their time, and detailing successes and improvements that had already been put in place - but it was mostly lip service and I'm sure the customers realized it.

When you ask people about their expectations, you in turn create an expectation: that you will listen, and - this is very important - respond. Like Renee Field, EverQuo's customers felt like they had been slapped in the face. Eventually, customers stopped calling about EverQuo's plans for improvement, which led to a different kind of problem. Perhaps EverQuo would have done well to taken section 10.1 of ISO 9001:2015 to heart: "The organization shall determine and select opportunities for improvement and implement any necessary actions to meet customer requirements and enhance customer satisfaction." It's not just about asking - it's about taking action to improve.

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