By Brad Linville, Walker

When people think of getting customer feedback, they’re almost always thinking of surveys. That’s a big part of information gathering, but it’s just one of six components that make up a successful customer insights initiative. On top of merely collecting feedback, it needs to be (1) tied to relevance and strategy, (2) it has to be well resourced, (3) the feedback needs to be communicated both internally and externally, (4) there has to be validation and confirmation of the feedback, (5) and then it has to drive action throughout the company.

Five common mistakes companies make with their customer-feedback initiatives:

Mistake #1. Not talking to the right people. Common reasons include inconsistent, fragmented systems and technologies. Sometimes different people are collecting feedback, but they’re using different systems, and the systems don’t talk to each other. Sometimes companies get only the information that’s easiest to get and don’t go deep or wide enough. It’s so critical to talk to THE RIGHT people at the account. Make sure you have a strong, high-quality list of who you want to talk to and how you’re going to access them. Try to go wide. And if you don’t get it right the first time, drill down and go broader and deeper.

Mistake #2. Not collecting the right information to obtain relevant insights. What are you asking? If you’re not getting relevant insights, maybe you need to refresh, talk to experts across functions to know if you’re surveying the right things. For relevant insights, you need to make sure the right information is being collected.

Mistake #3. Insights are never delivered. This isn’t just about “gathering” insights. It’s also about communication, planning and dissemination. You can’t just put together a great customer-listening technology; if you’re not leveraging it and no one inside your company knows about it, it won’t be effective. The key is to put the relevant information where people are already going (e.g., Salesforce, your existing CRM, etc.)

Mistake #4. Insights don’t make sense. If account teams are getting insights back that don’t resonate, that can abort the whole process. You have to ensure your design is robust enough that you’re hearing from the right people, because if the feedback doesn’t match what people are hearing on the ground and in person, it won’t be acted on. Customer feedback has to be both relevant and representative of authentic customer opinions.

Mistake #5. Insights don’t promote action. Method and collection are important, but action is the ultimate goal. At Walker, we have a hierarchy of engagement. First: Strategic account teams need to be aware that information exists. Second: They have to understand it. (You need to have a communication plan tailored for delivery to and consumption by account teams.) Third: The strategic account team must be able to validate and confirm the information. Is it believable? Does the feedback resonate? Only if these three factors are in place will account team members engage in action. So how do we recommend you drive action? Through consistent, global workshops; frameworks and quarterly business reviews (QBRs) focused on creating and maintaining value; and through consistent communication.

Case study #1: A telecom manufacturing firm

This company’s business model relies on a large amount of revenue coming from a small number of accounts, so the challenge is to talk DEEP to each account (including at the executive level) and utilize feedback in a very intimate way to leverage insights and create value.
The goal: to use feedback to be better prepared for QBRs and to engage in meaningful, data-driven conversations. Also to gain insights that can be turned into action.
The plan: engage in a series of conversations at all levels of the customer company, with different goals for each type of conversation. The company focused on acquiring operational feedback from the engineers. Moving up the pyramid, they engaged with middle and senior managers on topics like functional alignment, relationship health, etc., to better understand the broad interactions across the whole of the supplier-customer relationship. And at the top of the pyramid, they engineered annual, in-person interviews between their top executives and their counterparts at the customer.
The result, at just one strategic account: After overcoming initial reluctance through commitment to the process (especially the executive-level process), they achieved buy-in from their customer. After seeing the actions generated by the feedback process, it ignited a new level of intimacy across the relationship, resulting in greater partnership (especially at the top). As a result, the two companies successfully weathered a major acquisition, and the supplier won a new program valued at more than $100 million and is expecting 200 percent revenue growth in the next 6 to 12 months.

Case study #2: A global packaging firm who is the dominant player in its industry

This firm’s challenge wasn’t that they needed to go deep but that they needed to go broad. So they wanted a process that was consistent, easy and efficient for their account teams to reproduce across the business.
To kick off the customer-listening program, they sent out to all account teams company-wide a launch package that talked about the purpose of the initiative and offered practical advice on contacting customers for feedback, sending reminders, thanking them after the fact, etc.

The challenge: Who are the right people to talk to? How do you make sure you’re getting both decision makers’ and users’ feedback? Ultimately, they identified their targets by both function type (decision maker vs. end user) and job title, to ensure a broad representation inside the customer.

How did they foster engagement inside their own organization?

  1. Executive buy-in. This was the critical success factor. Executives understood the value of the initiative and helped drive it through the entire organization.
  2. Group education and training
  3. Monitoring response rate through good technology
  4. Use of mobile apps for ease of use/monitoring
  5. Access to reports on- and off-line

How did they foster engagement with their customers?

  1. You have to explain that the ultimate product is not insights, it’s action.
  2. The SAM plays an active role — sending out the invitation, follow-up, etc. This lends credibility to the outreach.
  3. The invitation is personalized for the customer according to a template provided to the SAM as part of the launch package.
  4. There is automated timing of a thank you to make sure participants feel appreciated.
  5. Six weeks after the survey, the SAM is required to report back to the customer an action plan born from the feedback.

Actions to engage customers

  1. You need everyone to understand the benefit, i.e., “the why.” From the outset, you need to stress that you’re not just collecting information. The end result is action.
  2. The SAM is expected to play an explicit role here. It’s his or her personally sending out invitations to participate in the surveys.
  3. As part of the launch package, the SAM is given very specific examples (templates) of what communications should look like.
  4. There is an automated thank you for when a participant completes a survey. It may sound like a small thing, but it lets them know it’s appreciated.
  5. It’s critical to let the customer know what’s being done with the information collected. Within six weeks of completion of the survey, the SAM is expected to communicate a plan back to the customer.

Trends to embrace

  1. The “Amazon” effect. Since we’re all consumers, our B2C customer experiences inform our expectations in our work lives. This has three main pillars:
    • Personalization. Customers have more information than they’ve ever had, and so they expect their strategic suppliers to know their needs and buying behaviors in advance, and to track them. That means leveraging customer relationship management (CRM) systems to track problems, preferences, general intimacies and more.
    • Proactivity. Customers don’t want you to wait for a problem to arise to solve it; they want you to tell them about the problem before it happens. It’s the idea of support vs. alerts.
    •  Seamlessness. Traditionally, offline vs. online presence is disjointed; same goes for selling activities vs. service activities. Increasingly, customers expect a comparable experience regardless of whether it’s online or offline, service- or sales-related.
  2. Going beyond surveys. The traditional pulse check and executive-to-executive relationship check are great. But you increasingly will need to go beyond those to get a deeper, fuller perspective on the relationship. Social media, customer advisory boards, ethnographic research and more will become critical to better understanding your customers.
  3. Journey mapping. This is a qualitative technique we use to gain a better understanding of the end-to-end customer experience. It’s a great way to set the foundation for what matters most (the relationship “moments of truth”), identify strengths and pinpoint weaknesses and areas for improvement.