When we want to take stock of how our IT department is doing, we have all the old standbys of performance metrics to guide us: mean time to resolve, cost per incident, customer survey responses, etc. These are called key performance indicators for a reason; they quantify performance in a meaningful way and establish clearly defined goals to which your organization can aspire.
Yet these metrics often fail to reveal the simmering problems that lurk beneath the surface of the trend lines and data points: the hidden resentments of your internal customers, the process failures that stonewall efforts to get reliable service, the loss of productivity by key players in your organization when customer service fails. Getting substantive feedback directly from your customers that goes beyond the usual “yes or no” survey response will usually reveal often surprising positives and negatives regarding your department’s performance. To them, the numbers are largely irrelevant; it is their own day-to-day personal experience that matters.
I should clarify that I’m speaking about internal customer feedback, rather than external (paying) customers and/or clients. Almost any organization with even a modicum of competency knows about the importance of measuring external customer satisfaction, and the onslaught of survey requests we receive on a daily basis is testament to that. That is a topic I will leave to marketing experts.
I’ve had the opportunity to participate in the development of an internal customer feedback process that was far more robust than anything with which I’d ever been involved. Our aim was to dig deep into what our customers were thinking about the quality of our service, their confidence in our ability to resolve their problems, and our responsiveness. It was a daunting task for all of us, not the least because we had to construct a framework around this process without an established, successful example to serve as a model.
If some organizations don’t have as strong a process toward the goal of measuring internal customer satisfaction, it’s not because they don’t care about what their people think, but more likely that they are primarily focused on what paying customers feel about their performance while forgetting about how their own members would rate them. Yet, organizations stand or fall largely on the morale and confidence of their employees in their leadership. Failing to gauge these factors could cause you to fail to respond to important and urgent problems until it is too late.
Many organizations avoid this sort of direct internal customer feedback for a variety of reasons:
- It’s messy. People are far more difficult to deal with than key performance indicators. Their input is often impossible to quantify in any meaningful way. They can be angry, frustrated, or demanding; and they aren’t always able to articulate their comments in a way that technology and process-driven individuals can easily parse.
- It’s expensive. Maybe your organization is spread out across the country or even international borders. Getting face time with your internal customers might require flights to far-flung places or long road-trips, or pricey, high-maintenance video-conference systems.
- Things seem to be going fine! Since the problems lying in the hidden recesses of your organization are not obvious, it can be easy to become complacent and rely strictly on the numbers when they show that you’re operating at or above industry standards.
People are far more difficult to deal with than key performance indicators.
To these points, I offer the following counterpoints:
- It can be messy, but it doesn’t have to be. If you haven’t engaged so directly with your customers before, you may have to endure some pain the first couple of times you do because they are being allowed to voice concerns they have been storing up for ages. But most people want more than anything to be treated with respect, and few things convey respect more than being willing to sit down with someone and have a meaningful discussion about their concerns. I can guarantee that once you have displayed a willingness to do this, your customers will feel more secure, more empowered, and more confident about expressing themselves to you. They will be far more positive, regardless of what problems may be present, because they know you will do something about them.
- Expenses can be constrained and managed. If your organization is either unwilling or unable to absorb the expense of travel, there are more ways than ever to get in front of your customers. Make use of conference calls or web- or cloud-based videoconferencing services that you can operate from your computer. Chat services such as Microsoft Lync or Slack are options also. I would, however, avoid relying too heavily on email as a means of soliciting feedback as email has a way of driving us farther from the candid toward the politic due to its semi-permanent nature. It also may not be in anyone’s best interest for their raw, unfiltered feedback to be stored on your mail servers for someone else to come upon.
- If you’re intimidated by what will happen if you discover problems through customer engagement, think about how daunting it will be to overcome those challenges once they have snowballed to a massive size. What will happen if your call center is perceived by a few people to offer poor service and you do nothing because you don’t know about it? It’s very likely word will get around, and by the time the metrics reveal the reasons, you’ll be coming from behind the problem instead of getting out in front of it and staving off the negativity before it grows to unmanageable proportions. Do you want to have to explain to your upper management why you didn’t know about the problems happening at the ground level until they start hearing from their customers directly, or would you rather be presenting them meaningful responses to feedback you got through proactive engagement?
KPIs do serve a critical role in driving the daily operations of your organization. Without them, you’d be operating largely in the dark. But adding a layer of customer satisfaction management (CSM) on top of these powerful tools will raise their usefulness to a much greater degree.
KPIs do serve a critical role in driving the daily operations of your organization.
Martin Catania, Managing Director of Service Desk Operations at Keno Kozie, a provider of IT service and support solutions tailored for law firms, has seen this kind of process play out a number of times in his career. “My personal opinion is that it works very well with an engaged population because I think it does a couple of things,” he says. “…It gives people an opportunity to speak and to vent, which as we all know is just an important part of…telling people what is or isn't working. I think the larger issue, though is that it shows that someone is willing to listen.”
When our team started constructing our own feedback framework, we found that the pieces fell largely into place when we were focused on our goals for customer satisfaction management:
- Our members should feel they are respected.
- Our members should feel their comments and ideas are valued.
- Their feedback should be mined to identify problems, and our discoveries should lead to actionable steps to resolve them.
- The outcome should be one of continual service improvement as a department and as an organization at large.
To achieve our CSM goals, we worked through three main stages in this process: identify, solicit, and follow through. A successful CSM strategy will include getting to know your audience, acquiring meaningful feedback, and acting on the information.
It is important to identify from whom you will solicit feedback in your organization. This should come from as diverse a group as possible, but within the confines of the different roles within your company. For instance, our law firm consists of many roles, with the greatest number belonging to those of secretaries, attorneys, and paralegals. Therefore, we started by drawing from these groups.
However, feedback from a secretary will be distinct from the experiences of an attorney or paralegal and should be viewed in that context. We found it useful to solicit feedback from these groups separately rather than collectively. When it came to attorneys, it proved useful to focus on partners rather than associates, for two reasons: associates are often so busy they cannot take the time to talk, and partners serve as supervisors and mentors to associates and are going to be close to the issues that they face.
Catania counsels that this sort of targeted approach does a lot to ensure you're gathering the right information from the right people. “I think the...thing that has worked particularly well has been the breakdown of handling different sorts of people in different sorts of ways,” he says, “because not only are we finding a way to communicate with people that works for that peer group...but also to back up the sense of…how important you are to the organization, and that we understand how valuable your time is...and is sensitive to the business needs of the organization.”
In our specific case, we found it worked well to reach out to the office administrator in each of our offices ahead of a planned feedback session to coordinate on which people we should target and what would be the optimal schedule to follow. Make use of those resources who might know more about the groups you're targeting for feedback than you do.
How to solicit feedback is a critical question that you will have to consider carefully since this is where you will often see the greatest expense of resources. You will also have to take into account the role of those you are soliciting from. In our system, we made use of focus groups for secretaries, which allowed us to meet with a number of participants at one time and enjoy the dynamics of a table discussion. It also brought them into a safe, private space where they could voice their opinions openly. It would be hard to overstate the value of this type of input, and we learned about problems relating to our response to high priority requests and our issue escalation process that we had not been aware of previously.
Focus groups have a number of advantages:
- The ability to solicit feedback from multiple people at one time.
- A safe, closed session that can be kept anonymous and confidential, allowing for candid feedback without fear of reprisal.
- The dialogue will be between not just you and your customers but between your customers as well and can be more engaging and dynamic as a result.
You should keep an eye on the group dynamics of these sessions. Sometimes you will have one dominant personality with an eye to something they perceive to be the all-important issue, and you will have to mitigate their attempts to hijack the discussion. Be sure to engage everyone and make an effort to seek out and discuss multiple viewpoints. Ask if others are experiencing the same issue and what other issues they have observed. Be as inclusive as you can.
Focus groups may not work for every role in your organization. In a law firm like ours, it would be a stretch to think a partner is likely to take the time to attend such a session when they could be billing out hundreds of dollars an hour serving clients. For leadership roles like these, it is important to respect the limitations on time and optimize feedback efforts to obtain as much valuable input as possible in the smallest time. Short interviews, with prepared questions to help guide the discussion are one way to achieve this and allow the person being interviewed to speak to those issues of greatest importance to him or her. Leaders will usually have a bird’s eye view of the problems their internal customers face and can articulate these needs appropriately.
I cannot overstate how confidentiality must be respected when that is what has been communicated to your customers. If someone expecting to remain anonymous happens to be complaining about a specific group in your department that they come into contact every day and you let slip it was that person who did so, good luck ever getting constructive input from that individual ever again, and possibly from his or her colleagues as well once word gets around.
Anonymity is less critical for leadership roles such as partners and indeed could be counter-productive since you would want to leverage the necessary clout to push through positive change; however, any feedback you solicit should involve a clear understanding on the part of both you and the customer over whether or not his or her comments will be attributed.
Finally, make this a regular process in your organization. A one-time push to solicit feedback will only collect feedback that grows stale very quickly. We aim to visit a regional office once per quarter, but you should decide on what makes sense in your situation.
Catania agrees, “What's pretty common is that [an] IT organization only takes this seriously when it is clear they are having issues, and I think that is the wrong approach. This works best when you have that consistent ’rain or shine‘ effort because it gives people the confidence that you're checking the oil and kicking the tires. When you do it only in response to the perception of persistent problems or complaints, then it's a firefighting exercise and people come to those meetings with a different set of expectations.”
Our process involved traveling to the office in question and meeting with partners to collect their feedback in short sessions about 15 to 20 minutes long, as well as one or more focus groups for secretaries that would run about 90 minutes in length. We took careful notes and reviewed these together afterward.
All the feedback in the world is useless unless you make the effort to act on the issues raised. If someone speaks to a problem you can resolve, develop a plan to resolve it, execute it, and most importantly, communicate to those you heard from what you have done and what you intend to do to solve the problem. Your coworkers need to know you heard them, took their input to heart, and acted on it. Demonstrate in a powerful way that you’re in a partnership with them.
Don’t forget to report the problems you encountered up the chain of command (judiciously, of course) to ensure you get the backing you need to make things happen. Be concise and effective. Your job will be to tease out the critical points from the mass of information you have gathered into a coherent set of summarized topics. Done well, this should earn you the backing of your organization’s leadership as you drive your CSM process forward and refine it further. Don’t gloss over the negative feedback; these are the things that management needs to be aware of to make the big-picture decisions on service delivery.
Build an action plan using the information you’ve obtained. Identify the most important issues and don’t overlook the opportunity to pivot quickly on those matters you can resolve in short order. On one of our recent fact-finding missions, we discovered that the software we used for stripping metadata from our documents prior to sending over email was crashing frequently, and we were able to pull ticketing data to support this fact and present it to our engineering team to address. As a result, this long-standing issue that had been previously unknown to us was finally put to rest.
It is important to recognize that this process will not always be filled with sunshine and rainbows. If you’re just ramping it up for the first time, you may feel as though you just walked into a minefield. You could find yourself facing a room of people who have been waiting for months to tell you all the things they feel your support staff are doing wrong. It can be hard to take, especially when the benchmarks seem to tell a different story. When this happens, it is important to stay focused on why you’re doing this, namely, to dig deep into the inner workings of your organization and find out what the customer experience is really like.
It can be surprising how just making the effort to give your customers a voice can smooth over so much. After a focus group session on one of our recent fact-finding expeditions to an office on the West Coast, one of our managers was told by a participant, “I don’t even really care if you fix any of these problems we listed out here. It means so much that you just came out and listened to our concerns.”
Of course, the point is to fix problems as we learn about them, but the point is well-taken. Building these bridges to your customers fosters goodwill that is in the bank. It’s likely that the next time there is a serious outage or service failure, they will cut you more slack. Just don’t let that make you complacent. It is called continual service improvement, for a reason; you’re not doing your job if you improve once and stop there. Start hunting for the next problem to solve.
Hopefully, our experience will give you some ideas to chew on regarding how to implement customer satisfaction management within your own organization. We welcome your comments to this article so you can share your challenges and successes.
Joel Tanzi has worked in various roles in information technology for the past two decades in a variety of industries, ranging from technical support, knowledge management, analytics, quality assurance, service delivery, and development, always with a focus on and passion for customer service. He considers teamwork, continuous learning, and constant improvement to be hallmarks of a successful career and prides himself on delivering the highest quality customer experience possible.
Prisnel Dominque, Martin Catania, Ryan Rimkus, and Scott Pearce contributed to this article.