Harvard Business Review

Customer Surveys Are No Substitute for Actually Talking to Customers

Summary.   Surveys are a pain to complete and, as a result, most people don’t invest much thought in filling them in, which means the information they give is low-quality and unlikely to provide strategic insight.  Talking to customers and asking open-ended questions yields better results and in most cases your managers will not need to conduct much more than a dozen such interviews to gain a complete picture of customer needs and preferences.

I’ll never forget the questionnaire handed to me midway through a flight from Los Angeles to Sydney. It was massive. Page after page of detailed tick-the-box or circle-the-response questions – it seemed to me it would take the full 13-hour flight to complete. I started, but it was too much work and I abandoned it halfway through. I thought to myself: does management really believe they get valid and reliable data from these surveys?

For many organizations, surveys like this qualify as “talking to the customer.” They’re ubiquitous – appearing in hotel rooms, after online purchases, and in hospital emergency departments. But do they really qualify as customer consultation? Or are they a symptom of an isolated management just putting on a show of interest? What can be done instead?

The obvious answer is to talk with customers directly. But executives are often put off by the idea of interviewing customers individually, believing that it involves many hours and massive expense. Instead they get together in a group and guess what the customer — or any stakeholder — wants, with only the flimsy, half-hearted responses of customer surveys to guide them. It usually results in the wrong answers and the wrong strategies.

If only they knew just how simple and straightforward a customer interview process can be, and how rich the rewards, if you know how to ask the right questions.

At the beginning of my public workshops on strategic planning I conduct an exercise which has a profound impact on my audience. I choose a convenience store as my business example, since everyone has been a customer of one, and I ask what seems like a benign question: “How do you decide to shop at one convenience store versus another?”

This is my audience’s first step on the path to strategic thinking and strategic planning.

Read full article here…

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