Unlocking the Feedback

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  February 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

The key to meeting customers’ needs and obtaining their loyalty and business both directly via sales from them and indirectly through referrals to others such as social media, is by listening to them and analyzing their comments, i.e. obtaining the voice of the customer, or VOC. The notches on the door that enable it to be opened on the insights within are carefully-crafted questions cut by enterprise feedback management (EFM) software, delivered by voice, e-mail or web and increasingly text-based surveys to customers and employees.

EFM tools capture customer-and employee-generated information, enable response and reporting analysis both speech and text (including unstructured responses such as those obtained from social media) and permit these insights to be blended and shared across the organizations. Automated alerting and case opening tools based on survey results launch immediate calls to action, such as agent coaching. Native case management environments rescue at-risk customers, optimize employee performance and identify new sales opportunities from a single, integrated solution.

EFM can deliver then a vital edge to those who ask the right questions at the best times and act immediately on the responses gathered. These tools therefore permit firms to “see customers through a common experience,” says Justin Schuster, vice president, enterprise products at MarketTools.

Listening to the respondents

EFM relies on by definition customer (and employee) response. The higher the response volumes and the more complete the answers, the more valid and valuable the results.

MarketTools’ Schuster is seeing more end-customers than ever before respond to surveys’ questions. And as the numbers of channels proliferate, the surveys follow–via e-mail, to mobile devices, callbacks to cell numbers, pop-up surveys on web sites and survey links on Tweets.

“There is a greater expected cultural norm to be asked and to give responses, which sets up a virtuous circle in that more firms are embracing the practice of surveying their customers through their channels of preference,” says Schuster.

Yet in the rush to gather customers’ insights and in deploying EFM solutions to obtain them, too many firms are inadvertently let accuracy go by the wayside, which risks leading to poor decisions and survey fatigue. Pawan Singh, CEO and chief science officer of PeriscopeIQ reports that companies are paying less attention to proper question design, data validity and minimizing errors. With the proliferation of inexpensive online survey tools, overall attention to survey quality has severely declined, he points out. Potential audiences are eschewing surveys or abandoning poor quality surveys very quickly.

”The survey process involves more than survey design itself; it also includes communications with respondents prior to and following completion of the surveys and giving confidence to the respondents that their feedback is valuable and will be acted upon,” explains Singh. “Our recommendation to clients to help increase response rates is to pay unyielding focus on the quality of the complete survey process, and to respect respondents’ time and opinions.”

Erick Brethenoux, predictive analytics strategist at IBM SPSS (News - Alert), points that out customers today, and especially going forward, appear to have less patience than in the past. They are also savvier as to inducements: the $1 or $2 in envelopes sent to households no longer impress them when they know their information is much more valuable than that.   To manage these issues requires obtaining insights into the customers themselves–what they care about as well as how and how best to reach them and when, along with what will get them to respond. He recommends applying predictive analytics tools to analyze customer data such as transactional (who purchased what and when), demographic (location and age) and attitudinal (likes and dislikes), obtained within an organizations’ database, or gathered from surveys and/or social media sources.

For example the analytics tools could reveal to an airline that a particular customer cares about their comfort, relies on text communications and that they fly fairly often but not enough for them to justify joining a rewards program. This knowledge could lead to a survey delivered by text with a free upgrade to business class if they fill it in.   “To have the right conversation you need to have the right context of the customer,” says Brethenoux. “What you are asking has to be relevant to the listener and offered at the time that is convenient for them, to get them to spare that time with you to provide you with the information you are seeking, on their terms.”

Schuster says firms should be mindful on survey length–they tend to be eight to 20 minutes in length for voice and text–and when to survey customers. “A well-designed survey will think a lot about the minimum number of questions that are absolutely necessary,” he points out.

Tapping the Agents

Contact center agents’ actions help determine customers’ satisfaction and retention as well as generate sales and revenues. To capture and enable action on that, MarketTools has developed Adaptive Role-Based Reporting, which supplies each employee with personalized metrics that show how they impact the overall customer experience. It also provides managers with objective data for coaching and rewarding employees.

More firms are also realizing that direct employee feedback, such as surveying agents on a periodic basis, can deliver unique and invaluable insights in a triangulated view of what customers are telling them are the most important issues. Contact center agents have a “catbird seat” to gain visibility into customers’ experiences.

“Just as your customers can tell you directly what some of the issues are that they encounter when facing your employees, employees also have insights into those issues, as well as some of the obstacles in serving the customers that exist in your organization that prevent them from doing a better job,” says Schuster.

There is another dividend–higher agent retention and lower churn, resulting in reduced costs while enabling higher performance through having more experienced staff interacting with customers. He points to a July 2008 Harvard Business Review article, “Putting the Service-Profit Chain to Work”, that points to a strong relationship between satisfied employees and satisfied customers. “The more engaged employees are, the better equipped they are to deliver stronger customer service,” says Schuster.

EFM and Social Media

The rapid rise of social media as a means by which customers freely express themselves has given rise to the question–if they do so, and free of charge to the enterprises, then is there a need to pay for EFM solutions? There is already a growing array of comment capturing, filtering and analysis tools for enterprises that many are already deploying.

Yet social media has key weaknesses as a feedback collecting means, among them widely varying volumes and topics that can fluctuate month to month, which have little relevance to corporate needs, MarketTools’ Schuster points out. Often individual posters’ identities are unknown, making it difficult to identify trends across segments. The data is often very “dirty” with irrelevant content. And since posts primarily take the form of unstructured text, analysis can be difficult and time consuming to perform.

In contrast, EFM-delivered surveys provide a structured, predictable, projectable approach to soliciting feedback data that drives a consistent set of operational metrics, Schuster explains. Firms know exactly who they are surveying and can control what questions to ask. A well-constructed survey can yield statistically significant data for driving process and policy improvements.  

“We see social media as a qualitative feedback source that can instead complement surveys in a variety of ways, like reaching broader audiences, expanding the ability to spot emerging issues and providing insight that should be further explored and quantified in surveys,” says Schuster.

IBM’s Brethenoux recommends that firms analyze social media comments to obtain insights that can go in the drafting of EFM-delivered questions to customers directly when they contact outfits or in outbound surveys.   “The beauty of social media for corporations is that it is a context-free/pressure-free environment where individuals can really express themselves without being prodded on what to say and where to go,” says Brethenoux. “At the same time there needs to be a systematic way to obtain and gather the feedback from surveys and social media which becomes the time to ask the questions that corporations care about the most.”

Making the data actionable

The question then becomes how best to utilize the information captured from customers via all channels to reach the underlying corporate goals of increasing customer loyalty, raising profits and cutting costs. 

Too often, businesses start gathering data but have a limited idea of what to do with it, or if they do, they don’t have the systems in place to take appropriate action in a reasonable period of time, reports Carolyn Hall, product marketing manager at Confirmit (News - Alert). This has led to a demand for effective ways of disseminating the feedback data through the business, reporting on it and assigning actions to the appropriate people.

The process is more complex than it seems on first glance. Issues raised in feedback may span multiple departments such as legal and shipping and it may require escalation to the C-Suite. Hall recommends create an alerting system that will send e-mails to the right person to follow up. Also consider which departments will benefit from insight into customer experiences—chances are, all of them. Then work with the representatives to understand what data needs to look like for them to be able to make decisions.

“The contact center is not always the appropriate medium for follow-up, particularly in non-standard situations,” explains Hall. “And a one-size-fits-all reporting method won’t work when, for example, you’ve got your CEO looking for immediate, global insight and a team of regional operations people who need to focus on ways to improve delivery lead times in Colorado.”

To fully hear the voice of the customer, VOC data captured via EFM-enabled surveys should be integrated with data from other sources, including customer interactions, CRM, enterprise resource planning and finances, and turned into automated actionable insights by business intelligence digging, spotting and analysis processes. Chris Cottle, executive vice president of marketing and products at Allegiance (News - Alert) calls this approach voice of the customer intelligence, or VOCi. The Allegiance Engage platform combines any VOC and operational data to create VOCi.VOC programs that rely solely on EFM risk failing because they provide just scores, basic survey date, or raw customer feedback data, Cottle points out. That is because they do not effectively deliver the ‘why’ behind customer reactions and views that managers need in their decision making.In contrast, the VOCi approach boasts many benefits, including greater awareness into issues and opportunities from all data sources, not just survey data. This includes the combination of EFM data with operational and other data sources, which leads to better decision making, more effective use of feedback, and better unity with key staff around the company. VOCi can lower survey fatigue, as more surveys and feedback data are not the answers for most businesses, stresses Cottle, but more insights and decisions are.“If you present your VOC results as a broader business story via VOCi, rather than just a VOC or customer satisfaction score, success will skyrocket,” says Cottle. “It is hard to do, and requires thinking big, being ready to tackle processes beyond your job scope, and thinking like an executive but it certainly is possible.”


Surveying by Text

With SMS/texting becoming the channel norm for the next generation of customers, it follows that EFM surveys utilize it too. Carolyn Hall, product marketing manager of Confirmit, is seeing increased use of SMS surveys especially in the leisure and retail industries to gather feedback from customers for whom they otherwise might not be able to easily reach in a timely manner. They can be invited to fill out the surveys by text by advertising the URLs on receipts and posters. Confirmit recently added SMS capabilities to its EFM solution.“If customers are on the move they probably would not be inclined to log onto their computers until several hours later when their experiences are no longer fresh,” Hall points out. “When a feedback request is clearly related to a recent purchase or experience, then it’s likely that the request will be much better received.”

There are challenges with SMS. They include the need for brevity; because each text message can incur service costs, survey question types are very limited, and there is a delay associated with each text transmission, reports Justin Schuster, vice president of enterprise product marketing at MarketTools.

To make SMS surveys work it is crucial that such programs are implemented specifically for the medium rather than being a “tweaked” version of an e-mail survey, Hall points out. Two or three short questions are a maximum, the response mechanism (rating scores for example) must work effectively across the media, regardless of the handset used.“Contacting consumers by text for what are perceived to be marketing purposes is still relatively new and can be badly received by them, much more so than sales messages received by e-mail,” explains Hall. “While this is beginning to change, it’s something that businesses must implement carefully if they’re not to alienate their target. This is particularly true given that younger people, who are likely to be the target of text-based feedback, are one of the hardest demographics to access for surveys already.”

Going mobile

As consumers go mobile for voice and web as well as text—including cutting the cables and wires in their homes—EFM solutions are following suit. For example Medallia created an Apple iPhone (News - Alert) app that allows its clients to access the Medallia system in the field so that they could monitor customer feedback in real time as surveys were filled out and submitted by their customers. It also created a survey for a client that was designed specifically for the iPhone.

One of the key mobile EFM benefits is immediate response to feedback. For example, if a hotel guest ranked their experience as poor, the hotel manager can be alerted and the manager can contact the customer immediately and offer any assistance, explains Dan Lee, senior director of product solutions at Medallia

Surveying customers through these devices is creating challenges though. There is more pressure on making questions and forms shorter and tighter because the on-the-go users have limited time and patience to fill out surveys.

“With the popularity of mobile devices, we're seeing a decrease in participant attention spans,” reports Lee Orr, director of web survey sales at Cvent (News - Alert). “Respondents want well crafted, short surveys and participants want shorter studies.” 

And given the platform and soft (onscreen) keyboards on many smartphones, any open ended replies will also be succinct.

These issues can be managed by asking just a few numeric score-based and open-ended questions by voice, text or web forms and then applying text analytics–Medallia has recently released such a tool that is mobile-optimized–to the responses. Cvent recommends making EFM surveys shorter but survey more frequently, and regularly.

“For example, rather than throwing all of the questions into one long survey, divide the feedback collection into several surveys, each with a specific goal,” advises Orr.


Medallia also ensures that its users see the exact same data regardless of whether they use the iPhone app or the regular Medallia system. The data is the same–it is the presentation of the data that is different and tailored to the platform.

There are also design issues. Lee reports from his firm’s experience with the iPhone app that the user interface, survey and feedback design requirements are very different from traditional landline-assuming applications. The user interface elements must be big enough to touch, as opposed to clicking with a mouse. Links tend to be more challenging to touch, but reasonably sized buttons work wonderfully he points out. 

Scrolling can create problems. Lee recommends avoid horizontal scrolling “try doing that for a while when reading on a smartphone and it will drive you crazy!” An example of this is in tackling numeric rating questions. For VOC applications, there is usually a 0-10 or 1-10 horizontal scale on a typical survey. For the mobile version, his firm rotates that scale 90 degrees so the scale runs vertically instead of horizontally.

Vertical scrolling must be minimized. For example, in some cases, a survey designed for a “regular” computer may have two or three questions on one page to fill the page. Medallia would probably limit that to one question per page on the mobile version, trading off less scrolling for a few more clicks or screen touches.

“These design elements are not hard to implement, but you have to take time to consider the user experience in order to create the optimal design,” says Lee. “The bottom line is to make it easy for the user and to increase the likelihood that they will provide you the feedback in a timely manner.”

The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:








Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi