[First Person] Do You Know What Your Customers Are Thinking?

Features - Customer Service & Relations

Having an effective customer feedback system could spell the difference between success and failure for your company.

November 30, 2012
Donnie Shelton

So there I was...

It was July of 2011 and Triangle Pest Control was doing more work than we had ever done as a company. I had technicians working 12-hour shifts, our bed bug and termite teams were putting in long hours and the office staff were completely stressed out.

One of our new technicians was really struggling with his major numbers (utilization and customer service), but we thought that maybe he was having problems keeping pace with the operations during the summer. That’s when it happened. One of our customers submitted the following survey for the new technician:

“The technician didn’t bother to ask if I had any problems. I thought he was going to start outside and work his way inside the house; however once he finished outside he left. He did not spray the inside of my house which is the area that I really care about. Aside from removing a few cobwebs I’m not sure he did anything. He left without collecting my check (payment). He did however manage to leave me his card (from) [his personal company].

Wow! Well that explained a lot. As it turned out, the technician was struggling but not for the reasons I had thought. He was having problems working as a technician in our business and working as an owner of his business.

While he may have struggled in doing the work according to our standards, he had no problem in taking the liberty to market his company to our customers (a violation of company policy and of our non-compete agreement). While the review from our current customer was harsh, I was grateful to have gotten it. Why?

  1. I knew that there was something going on with the technician, but I could not figure out what. She validated that hunch and provided the answer that I was looking for. With her review, I knew what was happening in the field and on his route.

  2. Our customer feedback system worked! We sent the customer a request for feedback immediately after the service and that allowed direct communication with us. This gave us an opportunity to make things right before she cancelled and resulted in us keeping a great recurring customer.

  3. It showed me that our technicians were following service standards in the field. This particular customer had been a customer for over three years. If our service had been inconsistent, she would not have known that what he was doing was non-standard. Previous technicians that had serviced her home, followed our procedures and trained the customer on what to expect from our service. In this case, she recognized that our service protocol was not being followed.

In the end, we contacted the customer, apologized and scheduled a re-treatment. We also gave the technician an opportunity to develop his new business opportunity FULL TIME — good riddance.

Right Now. This story, while entertaining, does bring up a couple of critical questions:

  1. How well are you monitoring customer perceptions?
  2. Do you have effective customer feedback systems in place?

The answers to these questions are critical to grow and secure the long-term stability of your organization.

At Triangle Pest Control, we have worked hard to implement an effective customer feedback system that allows customers to communicate their perceptions of our company and our service. I am not going to tell you that every survey we get is “fair” or “wonderful,” but I will tell you that the feedback system has enabled a transformation in our company to be truly “customer focused.” With our customer feedback system, we have been able to:

  1. Strengthen customer relationships. When we send surveys we are able to communicate to the customer that we really do care about their level of satisfaction with the services that we provide. Even if they don’t participate, they know we care enough to at least ask.
  2. Address the cold hard facts. Like all companies, we are not perfect. In fact, I will say that we are far from it. We have problems and things that can be done better. The issue is priority. What we think is a priority and what our customers think should be a priority do not always match up. A good, raw and unfiltered slap in the face by a customer survey usually highlights the cold hard facts. From those reviews we are able to re-prioritize and hone our efforts to align with what is important to our customers.
  3. Avoid “Review Bombs.” You’ve seen them. You go online to buy a new product and just as you get ready to buy, you see a ton of negative reviews. Whether the review is for the product or the company, you decide not to buy because it appears others’ experiences are bad. Your customers are no different.

With our customer feedback system, we systematically collect feedback before the customer drops a “review bomb,” potentially costing us lost revenue in opportunity costs. The reality is that no one can please all customers but in those cases you can protect yourself by getting the feedback early and directly (instead of on a website where potential customers are looking for service).

Implementing a System.
So what are some elements of an effective customer feedback system? While I am sure that there is no perfect answer that fits every company in every situation, the system should have the following basic components:

  1. It should be automated. In North Carolina, the pest pressure slows during the winter months and we are not nearly as busy as we are during the summer. Over the years I have noticed a trend in myself to invent, create and implement great ideas only to forget about them when we get busy. The only systems that survive the busy season are those that are automated. Automating your customer feedback system ensures that you will get consistent feedback both in the slow times and in the busy times. Over the past couple of years, we have found the information we collect in the busy season to be a reliable indicator of operational effectiveness.
  2. It should offer incentive for participation. You have received emailed survey requests. You know, the one-sided kind that asks you to participate in a survey but offers nothing in return for your time. If you are like most people, that email is either ignored or deleted. One of the things we did at our company was offer a very small discount on the next service in exchange for feedback. When we did this, our customer participation went up more than 100 percent from the previous year.
  3. It should be simple. With our system, we ask only five questions. No one wants to sit around and write a dissertation about your company and you should not try to get them to. All you are really trying to do is make sure that the customer’s needs are being met and that there are no problems that need to be addressed.
  4. Act fast on the information. As obvious as this may sound, it is not as easy as you think. When we first put our customer perception system in place, I noticed that the office would just leave the “bad” surveys in the company inbox and do nothing with it. Bad surveys are like stinking fish. The longer they sit around, the worse the situation just stinks! We had built the system but forgot to assign customer follow-up responsibilities. Be sure that someone is responsible for contacting the customer immediately to address the situation. When you act with speed the customer is usually much more forgiving and you are more likely to avoid a cancellation.

Feedback as a Weapon?
Customer feedback is useful only if you communicate to everyone the results of the surveys and then use the data to make improvements in your organization. To solve a problem, you must first recognize that one exists.

With customer feedback you will get to see both the gems and the warts of your company. Believe me, our company has both. The problems and the warts never go away, but your organization will not be static. You will be ever improving, creating a stronger and more stable organization. So just how can you use customer feedback as a strategic weapon for your company?

Use feedback to focus your staff on the value of customer service. Each week in our branch, we have what we call our “Customer Service” meeting. This meeting is a mandatory meeting that everyone must attend and is focused on two things: sales and customer service. Typically, we will conduct some sort of customer service training, but the highlight of the meeting is the review of customer surveys submitted over the previous week.

We will literally review every customer survey for each team member in that branch over the course of the meeting. Doing so has a few critical advantages:

  1. We can recognize team members who are really taking care of our customers. I absolutely love it when we get to recognize team members who go the extra mile with our customers. Doing so provides a positive environment in which everyone sees that customer satisfaction is important.

  2. We are able identify and solve problems as a group. Providing customer service survey information to our front-line team members provides them with real-time feedback on how customers view them. The surveys also highlight what is really important to our customers. I’m not going to tell you all of these meetings are great, and that we don’t have “heated” discussions, but we are identifying the areas in which we are doing well and in which we can improve. Reviewing the surveys as a team allows the company to brainstorm ways to improve.
  3. We are building a culture that really is customer focused. When our team members see others being recognized for doing a great job it motivates them to want to do the same. We are establishing a culture where our team members understand that our customers’ perceptions are critical. This type of culture ensures that our team members will know how to respond to customer issues without having to be told.

Tie Performace to Pay.
If there is one thing that I have learned over and over again as a business owner it is that if you really want something to happen, you must reward it with pay. When we looked at what we rewarded with pay, it boiled down to just two things: production and sales. The cold hard fact was that while we said that customer service was important, we rewarded only the amount of production or sales our team members produced.

So, we changed it. Now at our company, everyone from myself down to the front line team member has a portion of their pay from customer feedback scores. This one change accomplished the following:

  1. It communicated to our team members that customer perception was extremely important to the company (and their pay).
  2. It focused our team on what is really important to our company — creating long-term customer relationships.
  3. It created a culture of putting customers first, thereby ensuring the long-term stability of our company.

Ramp up the intensity. How many times have you heard this line from a salesman: “I know that we are behind this week, but we can make it up next week.” Then the next week comes and then the mantra goes, “I know that we are behind this week but we can make it up next week,” and so on and so on until next week becomes next month which becomes next year.

I personally like a short cycle, which means that we are focused on what is happening this week. Not what happened last week, or what may happen next week. We are all about today. An effective customer feedback system collects data each week and rewards each week. That way, there is a direct relationship between what team members do each and every week to their rewards.

In the end, having an effective customer feedback system is nothing more than good business. Intense focus on what the customer thinks of your team will not only ensure that your company will survive over the long term, but will also ensure that the ride will be one that you and your customers enjoy.


The author is owner and president of Triangle Pest Control, Raleigh, N.C. To contact the author, write dshelton@giemedia.com.

Visit Triangle Pest Control’s website at www.trianglepest.com.