Whether your business is still in an economic slump or your sales have been skyrocketing, you know things can change in an instant. That's why you need to regularly check the pulse of your business and find out if your employees and customers are truly happy. If they're not, then it's time to make some changes to create the happy, loyal, and long-term employees and customers that are the key to your company's success.

The best way to evaluate how your business is doing is to gather feedback from your customers and employees. You can do this several ways, from asking questions verbally to completing surveys. The following are some pointers that will help you get the feedback you need to improve your business.

Matthew Hoffman

Customer Feedback

If you had to choose one group, customers are by far the most important source of feedback. After all, if it weren't for them, your business wouldn't exist. The only way to know if your customers are really happy is to listen to what they say. This requires your employees to actively listen to your customers and directly ask their opinions regarding different aspects of your business.

One of the simplest ways to gather feedback from your customers is to simply have your employees ask them, "Is there anything else I can help you with?" or "Is there any way in which we are failing to meet your needs?" Pay attention to what your customers say and record it to analyze later. Another way to gather customer feedback is to have them complete a questionnaire with such questions as: "How did we meet your expectations?" and "Were you satisfied with the service you received?"

While you certainly need to listen to the words your customers say, also read between the lines. Even though a customer may say she's happy, does her tone of voice really reflect that sentiment? Most communication is nonverbal, and if you're talking with someone over the phone, you cannot read the expression on the person's face or their body language. But you may be able to pick up on subtle reactions they have, like a sigh.

You can also pay attention to the questions a customer asks. For example, if a customer asks, "What about that great offer you had a month ago; whatever happened to that?" After the employee gives a standard response, the customer may respond with: "Oh, okay." You may just write it off as a passing comment, but maybe it isn't. Track how many customers ask that same question. If you know that question always leads to three more questions, you can manage their expectations (and perhaps prevent disappointment) by developing a response that answers the initial question but also answers the next three questions in advance. Anticipating your customer's needs makes them happy and shows them that you "know" them. This helps build relationships.

Written surveys are also good tools to collect information from customers. They can either be done by phone by a representative or through interactive voice response (IVR), over the Internet, or through direct mail. Remember to respect your customers' time by keeping the survey quick and easy. Importantly though, make sure you include at least one question on the survey that allows customers the opportunity to give specific feedback (both good and bad) using free-form text.

How to Use Customer Feedback to Your Advantage

Now that you have this feedback, what do you do with it? The first step is to evaluate what you have. Develop a database tailored to the information you want to track (i.e., pricing structure, quality, service, etc.). Then look at the percentage of your top two positive responses to get a good representative sample. Don't count the neutrals. If you want to do some service recovery, look at the two lowest responses too. Once you have a representative negative response, you can research why people are disappointed and find a way to remedy it.

Just as it is important to turn unhappy customers around, it is also important to reward people who already think you're good. Keep your loyal people happy. If you follow up with a customer about their feedback, they may think, "Hey, those people actually paid attention to me and my voice is important. I'm going to keep going back to them."

Finally, you can use customer feedback as a tool to evaluate employee performance. To do that, ask specific questions about the employees, such as, "Was the person who helped you knowledgeable, polite, and friendly?" With specific information about employees, you'll know who needs more training and who is performing well.

Frontline Feedback

Too often we ignore information from our frontline employees dismissing it as "complaining." However, next to direct contact with your customers, they're the resource for providing customer feedback since they are the ones who actually interact with the customers. They can be an invaluable source of information by giving you both general and specific observations (for instance, that customers have mentioned they liked the quality of one product but have not been happy with the quality of another). Your employees are on the frontline taking care of the customers, so you need to keep them as happy as possible. Therefore, listen to any input they offer; it makes them feel appreciated.

One way to do this is to have a monthly focus group with different employees in order to keep on top of any new issues. Focus groups allow employees to vent and voice their opinions about the many issues that affect their jobs - whether they are customer related or not. Additionally, many employees feel more empowered to speak as a group and feed off of the group dynamic and, in some cases, may say more than if you asked them individually. Also, it is a nice motivation tool to follow up with the same group when you have acted on any of their suggestions - it shows you value their insight and makes them feel like an actionable part of the team.

Another way to solicit feedback about internal policies, procedures, and tools is by offering the opportunity to complete a survey. Be aware that sometimes employees are reluctant to participate in surveys and you may not get the feedback you need. In this case, offer an incentive. One effective incentive could be a raffle. When employees drop off their anonymous surveys into the box, they get to take a ticket. The ticket stubs go into a raffle with the winner receiving a prize. Or, if your survey is not one that needs to be anonymous, offer employees a dollar, or a company-paid lunch, or movie tickets. Obviously this is not something you want to do if you think you'll receive biased results. But if you're just looking for information, you're more likely to get accurate responses and better employee cooperation if you offer an incentive.

You probably won't need to twist any arms if you are asking employees to talk about what they do and ideas on how to make their jobs better. But if you want to ask about internal policies that affect them, such as attendance policies or dress codes, it may be a little harder to get cooperation from them unless they feel that it's anonymous and safe. Try an online survey for anonymity or even hire a third party to conduct the survey for you. This way you'll avoid biased opinions and be more likely to get honest results. Use the information gathered from these surveys to make changes within your organization that benefit employees and management.

Survey employees on any policies that affect them directly (the attendance policy, for example), on how much they feel the company values them, and on how they feel they fit in with the company. You can do this with a survey, much like you would use with customers, or it could even be by an anonymous suggestion box. Even if you are not able to change a policy employees don't like, at least you will learn what issues bother them and you can explain why certain policies are in place. Sometimes people just like to know that their voice is heard.

Institute A Feedback Policy Today

This isn't a time for guesses. The only way to know what your employees and customers want and need is to ask them. Decide what information you need and develop a plan for gathering feedback. Analyze the data you receive and put it to good use. Only then will you have the inside information you need to keep your company strong and profitable for years to come.

Matthew Hoffman is a consultant and quality assurance manager at Kowal Associates Inc., a customer service consulting firm located in Boston. The firm focuses on customer service strategy, quality monitoring, interactive voice response (IVR), security, and speech recognition technology implementation. For more information, visit www.kowalassociates.com or call 617-892-9000.

Publication date: 09/20/2004