Editorial: Focus on Feedback

By Len Monheit
[email protected]

An early lesson in my customer service career occurred with that first call from an irate customer. The gentleman on the other end of the phone had just had his business shut down because our company had failed to deliver on a commitment, and wanted to know, once he finished his tirade, exactly what I was going to do about it. Green to company policy, new to the industry, I admitted I really didn’t know, but as I activated an emergency order, I let him know that I wanted to better understand his business so that I could serve him in the future.

This seemed to be the right thing to do, because for the next several minutes I received first hand insight into his operation, realizing in the process that our company had obtained less than ten percent of the account potential – and a fragile ten percent at that. It turned out that eighty percent of his orders were essentially standard, a few last minute emergency items were typically required, and he would be in good shape for the week. And as a small operation, he didn’t have a computer, an assistant or much office support, so time was very precious. The outcome of this call was the establishment of a standard order, emergency additions and exception criteria, meaning that unless he indicated he didn’t want something, it shipped to him. This may not seem like a profound solution but it established two things, firstly, that he had gone through his tirade and felt he had made his point, was heard and created action. Secondly, the relationship advanced to a new level. The lesson was imprinted upon me a few years later when I asked a small business owner (15 employees) , how customer service was managed, and the response was, everyone does it – all 15 of us.

I never forgot that lesson and remembered it earlier this week when a colleague mentioned to me the challenges, in this technology-driven, often impersonal world, of obtaining and responding to feedback from customers whether the feedback is positive or negative.

I personally subscribe to the belief that feedback of any type is good, in that it creates a new type of interaction, one that is guaranteed to be a learning experience. Sure, there are challenges to be faced if the communication vehicle is through e-mail, and you lose voice tone, body language and the subtle communication tools we rely on so much.

We’ve all reached voice-mail and general inboxes where we have absolutely no confidence that our comments will reach proper authorities, or whether those authorities will hide behind their systems, failing to acknowledge us. In fact, we’ve probably conditioned ourselves to expect no more. Yet every so often, we’re pleasantly surprised when we get a response, whether it’s an actual voice on the other end of the line, or even an e-mail response, personal or general.

And here lies the great opportunity. With expectations so low and depersonalization so high, you, as a business professional, have the opportunity to open up and engage in a dialogue that is almost guaranteed to have a positive outcome. Feedback is good; it lets you know what people are thinking and feeling – companies pay for it in focus groups, and you get it for free and can turn it into opportunity!

Each interaction you have has a range of outcomes, and therefore a range of possible returns. While it is true that some comments and complaints represent no direct business value, indirect benefits (word of mouth etc.) can be significant. And the process of responding, in human, dollar and technology terms, does not have to be expensive. For instance, even if you have a generic e-mail response to a certain type of feedback, adding a comment specific to the situation often helps, doesn’t take much time, and can have significant impact. Or maybe the call you take or return may allow you to expand your relationship with clients and widen your offering.

I realize that in some cases, its impractical, if not impossible to receive and respond to all feedback. But in these days of increased competition, frequent disillusionment and a perception that customer service has been abandoned in favor of more lucrative business, making it a higher priority to interact can help you differentiate both your company and your culture.

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