'Listening' to Your Customers

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  July 01, 2010

Originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of Customer Inter@ction Solutions

To succeed in business, whether for-profit or non-profit, you must deliver what customers want to buy with the right mix of features and pricing plus high quality in the offerings and the service, sold in more-than-sufficient volumes. To meet this prime objective you must find out from and “listen” (hearing and reading) to your customers and analyze in a very timely manner what they have said for insights that will guide you in developing and improving your products and services.

One means of doing so is gathering, analyzing and drawing inferences from operational data such as first contact resolution and repeat calls and e-mails i.e. customers would not be happy with companies if they had many interactions on the same matters. Yet you do not hear or read what they are saying, good or bad. Call recordings and chat and e-mail captures are one such set of tools to obtain these “voices of the customers (VOCs).” The information they provide, obtained via speech and text analytics is limited though by what is there; if you wanted to find out what customers thought of your product or would they recommend your firm to someone they knew you have to ask this.

Customer surveys, launched at or shortly after their exchanges, provide direct insight by eliciting meaningful insights with well-drafted questions. However, there may be other departments that customers also interact with that wish to survey them too. With individuals’ time and patience limited, your entire organization runs the risk of annoying them with too many inquiries and forms.

Enter EFM

Enter enterprise feedback management (EFM), which is a sophisticated set of software that centrally manages survey creation, deployment and analysis that is available to multiple corporate users. With EFM, departments can collaborate in creating questions that can generate rich insights that could help each of them: Engineering/service design, distribution, marketing/sales and customer service and support create more profitable offerings.

EFM tools are deployed via the Web and increasingly through IVR and SMS.  They are becoming optimized for mobile access as more consumers rely on wireless than on landlines. Most EFM solutions are hosted as opposed to licensed and premise-installed software. There are also EFM applications built into contact center routing and workforce optimization (WFO) packages.

According to Jim Davies, research director of Gartner (News - Alert), EFM tools have three key benefits. First, they are cost-effective compared with running numerous siloed survey tools across organizations. Second, they permit correlations between different surveys from which companies can see patterns such as the correlation between contact center agent satisfaction and customer satisfaction with the same firm. Third, the coordination feature avoids bombarding customers with surveys.

Companies are applying EFM solutions to capture feedback that can be used for operational and strategic benefit. Gary Schwartz, senior vice president, marketing, Confirmit (News - Alert) explains the difference. Consider this strategic example: survey data is aggregated across an entire customer base or filtered to view individual segments, i.e. “why do my highest value customers fail to recommend my business to their friends and family?” Operational feedback is driven by individual customer responses to any question in a survey. This allows agents to contact those customers again to address their specific problems.

“Historically companies would rely on annual relationships surveys to take a periodic, often generalized, pulse of their customer base taken from a small, but hopefully representative, sample of customers yet this type of study took a long time to report results into the business and therefore was not always actionable,” explains Schwartz. “We now see a trend of increased desire to run relationship surveys alongside transaction-specific surveys. The EFM solutions now enable surveys to be conducted cost-effectively over a larger sample size and more frequently with immediate and actionable results, with both strategic and operational benefit.”

Justin Schuster, vice president, enterprise products for MarketTools is seeing greater demand for and utilizing EFM to obtain more in-depth and actionable results. Companies want to find out what is driving NPS (net promoter score, a key loyalty metric) rather than tracking NPS. MarketTools is helping its clients use feedback to identify which performance aspects such as time to resolution, agent knowledge and courtesy that have the greatest impact on satisfaction levels.  There is also more interest in running EFM programs to reach out to customers globally, which he says “introduces interesting nuances, such as translation requirements and the need to normalize data to account for cultural bias.” 

Managers are also seeking guidance to address key service issues. Mindshare’s new Mindshare Coach provides just that with specific “where” and “how” recommendations. The technology, which uses data mining and statistical analytics examines the customer experience elements, prioritizes them, and suggests improvements which will have the greatest impact on customer satisfaction and loyalty.“Managers don’t have hours each day to dig through customer feedback and then determine the best course of action, and they aren’t generally trained in statistical analysis,” said Richard Hanks, president of Mindshare.

EFM Challenges and Solutions

There are challenges in employing and obtaining senior management approval for EFM solutions

A longstanding obstacle with customer surveys both individual applications and EFM is achieving sufficiently high response rates to generate valid impressions of customer attitudes, reactions and sentiments. Customers have often been reluctant to fill out surveys: the exceptions being those who are very annoyed with firms or rarer still have had exceptionally great experiences.

Suppliers, along with professional services partners have been working with enterprises to increase response rates, reports Davies, by finding means to “create a sense of connectivity with participants and organizations.” Examples include personalized e-mails, Web forms or IVR scripts with customer information to prompt them to listen or open the communications. Also, questions are being shortened with the right phrasing to minimize the time they spend on providing the answers. The surveys are increasingly and, where appropriate, fun to answer such as with audio or cartoons compared with checking off boxes.“If a survey looks like a generic e-mail or sounds like a standard IVR pitch they are going to get ignored,” says Davies. “If it looks or sounds personal and it will not take a lot of time to fill out and interesting your customers more likely to respond.”

Customers are actually increasingly interested in expressing opinions and interacting with companies, however their tolerance for being researched is dwindling, reports Amy Pressman, president and co-founder of Medallia. Her firm advises her clients to build surveys that feel more like a dialogue than an interrogation.  Surveys should be shorter and more focused on what the customer wants to communicate rather than what researchers want to know.

“The objection is often that shorter surveys make it harder to detect trends at an actionable level,” explains Pressman. “To overcome this obstacle we introduced text analytics capabilities into the application.  This year these will be significantly enhanced. This capability allows companies to detect emerging issues and topics without having to specifically ask detailed and structured questions.” 

Equally if not more importantly EFM firms, services firms and companies should look at informing customers in their survey scripts that their previous responses have had impact, observes and recommends Davies. That can include as examples sending the agent whose service they had problems with on a training course or redesigning the button on the oven they had bought and called about to make it easier to use.“By letting customers know it was worth their time to complete that survey because they have been listened and action was taken on what they’ve said, the next time they get a survey they will be even more willing to fill it out because they know their voices are being listened to,” says Davies.

As customers shift from landlines to wireless for voice and text-based channels this is posing new challenges in attracting them to and enabling their responses to surveys. Mobile devices use a wide array of platforms that applications must mesh with. Their small screens and keyboards, both tactual and virtual make survey replying difficult to accomplish.EFM suppliers are responding by adding support for BlackBerrys, iPhones and smart devices, reports Davies. The solutions now permit wireless users to surveys such as by pushing buttons on iPhone (News - Alert) screens as opposed to having them clicking off on e-mail links that go to Web sites. Down the road are speech-recognition-based solutions that collect responses off responses to directed-dialogue interactions, converting speech to text.

Confirmit’s Confirmit Contact Center solution, consisting of a questionnaire and reports, captures transactional data quickly via IVR and Web channels. Its Horizons V15 release includes Confirmit Flex, a methodology that permits both it and its clients to add features and functionality as they are created instead of waiting for the next release. Confirmit has also released a Flex application that allows feedback capture directly on the iPhone, using the iPhone’s native user interface so that it looks like the customer is interacting directly with the iPhone, not a browser on the device. That makes responding to surveys easier, faster, more intuitive and more likely to happen.

Erich Dietz, senior sales director of Mindshare, cautions firms about overusing SMS surveys. If they are too aggressive they will quickly oversaturate the channel and drive up increased privacy concerns among consumers.

“Given how frustrated consumers are with spam we believe they will be even quicker to pull back from SMS if they perceive companies are abusing the channel,” says Dietz.

One of the key characteristics of text messages and the social channel is that customer feedback data from them is unstructured, unlike formal surveys. Mindshare’s new Mindshare Reveal, a robust text analytics platform allows extracting structured information value from unstructured opinion-based customer comments. It turns this feedback into actionable information using custom rule sets adaptable to corporate culture, products and services.

The rapid rise of social media is accelerating this issue to the point where companies are risking missing large chunks of information that will impact on their ability to effectively respond to customers’ needs; they are not fully hearing the VOCs because they have only been capturing solicited feedback through surveys. Chris Cottle, vice president, marketing Allegiance (News - Alert), calculates that in some cases, up to 50 percent of all customer feedback is unsolicited. While often businesses do a decent job of answering those questions, they are unable to get that feedback into a database that is reflective of all those conversations so that management can see and analyze and learn about critical issues.

Allegiance has come out with Engage7, which is a multi-channel, integrated VOC platform that gathers unstructured and structured customer plus employee feedback into a centralized system for analysis and action. It includes social media and mobile/SMS feedback management, ad-hoc and transactional surveys and reporting capabilities. It also includes advanced text analytics based on natural language processing to automatically read open-ended feedback. Companies can gain actionable insights instantly without manually reviewing or classifying each comment.

“Businesses are realizing they need to combine the two worlds of solicited and unsolicited feedback to really understand their customers,” says Cottle.

As customers turn to social media as a comment and feedback channel, companies need to integrate this mode with EFM to provide, along with call recordings and screen captures, and operational data complete holistic views of their messages. Davies is seeing some EFM suppliers create social community platforms so that clients can engage with their customers such as through blogs, chats and forums. At the same time they can capture comments and interject their own surveys in that environment.MarketTools’ new Community Manager enables rapid creation and deployment of online customer communities that permit organizations engage in real-time conversations with their current or target customers to gain deeper, more comprehensive customer insights. It is equipped with forums and discussions, stories and articles, blogs, image and video galleries and text analysis. It is fully integrated with MarketTools Survey Manager, MarketTools Panel Manager and MarketTools CustomerSat, making it easy for market research and customer satisfaction professionals to apply a comprehensive blend of tools and techniques to gain customer insights.

“The volume of feedback on the social Web has reached a point where customer loyalty professionals are realizing they [also] need to be listening to this feedback source as well,” reports Schuster. “Adding social media to an EFM program can yield a number of benefits, including extending the capability of an organization to identify issues early and providing additional mechanisms for engaging customers in a timely manner.” 

One key hurdle in enabling EFM solutions to meet these evolving needs and environments is senior management. Pawan Singh, CEO and chief science officer, PeriscopeIQ, says his firm seeks buy-in at a high enough level to create a cross business-unit (BU) agenda of using EFM in a concerted way. When such “C-level support” is achieved, each BU’s EFM efforts are united under a single strategy. Another more common way is to demonstrate results in one BU so that others begin to take interest. 

“When we’ve been successful [with our solution], organizations experience tremendous results and it has given them competitive advantages over their peers,” says Singh.

The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:



Interactive Intelligence





SPSS (an IBM (News - Alert) company)


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