There used to be a sofa in Microsoft’s telephone customer support center called “the Mail Merge couch”—named for a feature in Microsoft’s word-processing program that lets users customize form letters. The early version of Mail Merge was so complicated that whenever a customer called for help, Microsoft’s representative would lie down on the couch, knowing the conversation was likely to take a long time.
Clearly, something was wrong with that feature. Microsoft fixed the problem in the next generation of Word (and eliminated the need for the couch), but the story illustrates just how important customer feedback can be.
Most business managers understand that using customer feedback to guide the development and improvement of products and services is critical to success. However, some companies and individual managers are better than others are at collecting feedback and using it to make strategy decisions.
Nine Customer Feedback Rules for Managers
Managers who want to help their companies be customer-driven might observe the following nine rules.
- Create a system for effectively soliciting customer feedback, and then put that system to work. Boeing uses extensive customer involvement when developing new jetliner models. United Airlines influenced the design of both the 767 and the 777, and British Airways and Eastern Airlines participated in developing of the 757. As a result, the airlines were able to tailor the planes to their specific needs and preferences.
- Make sure your feedback system provides reliable information from a cross-section of customers. When a company has thousands or millions of customers, it can’t involve many of them in the product design, but it can involve a representative sample of customers.
- Make it easy for customers to provide feedback. Some companies offer a customer-feedback phone number. Surveys are another system for gathering feedback, but many people, including me, are not willing to spend much time answering them. Observing customers while they are using existing products and services is habitually the only way to identify hidden frustrations that they may not even be deliberately conscious of.
- Send e-mail surveys to customers and offer incentives to fill them out and return them. The incentive may be a little digital money or coupons to buy products at a discount. The electronic survey will be immensely efficient for the company, because the survey results will be in electronic form, making results easier to compile and analyze. Some companies already use the Internet in this way. Encyclopedia Britannica recently e-mailed people who had accepted a free seven-day trial of the company’s online reference, offering another free week to those willing to fill out an online survey about their reactions to the product and its price.
- Use focus group and customer councils. Getting a few customers together to discuss their reactions to current and new products or services is another good way to collect customer feedback, although these groups and councils, too, have their limitations.
- Go beyond what market research tells you. The transition to graphical computing is an example of an instance where Microsoft needed to go beyond what Microsoft’s market research was telling us. Most software customers who were surveyed did not know they would prefer graphical computing because they had not tried it. Microsoft believed that customers would prefer the new way of interacting with their computers, even though Microsoft’s market research was not very positive. Microsoft’s gamble proved right.
- Log and evaluate all service requests, customer suggestions, and product complaints. Microsoft logs and evaluates hundreds of thousands of calls made to Microsoft’s support technicians every year. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Observe them using products and watch for frustrations they may not even notice.
- Require that the software engineers who develop products spend some time listening to calls from customers. These engineers need to get firsthand feedback. To get the attention of Microsoft’s group managers, Microsoft charges their departments for the cost of providing technical support to customers who use their products.
- Request, receive, and act on input from your salespeople. Microsoft seeks and use input for the people who are out in the field with customers. In this industry, customers are eager to share their ideas, frustrations, and enthusiasm. Microsoft is also lucky to be in an industry where products are so adaptable. Whereas it might take an automobile company five years to retool a car model to adapt to customer preferences, software companies can—and do—update their products constantly in response to customer input.
Beyond Customer Feedback
No system of market research is foolproof, of course. Even companies that do a good job of listening to customers can make mistakes. Business partners are relying on questionable information to make customer-related decisions. Our new understanding of customer-related decision making should be the starting point for a research approach that has impact on a greater proportion of high-value customer-related decisions.
I am a strong believer that heeding customer feedback is critical to success in any business, especially a dynamic, fast-moving industry such as ours. Despite Microsoft’s willingness to look beyond customer input, 80 percent of the improvements in products like Windows result from customer feedback. Experience has taught us that it is also important to trust your instincts, to take risks, and to provide leadership, even when the customer is not demanding that you do so.
Apply these rules to your business and use the feedback to make improvements. Companies often make the blunder of organizing customer feedback systems around one structure—say lines of business or channel—and employee feedback systems around another—say geography or function. In the end, well-designed feedback loops facilitate employees to be more empowered and companies to be more approachable, creating the competitive edge companies need to adapt and thrive.