OpinionLab CEO: Listen to the customer to improve business


By Rand Nickerson, Guest Columnist      


Rand Nickerson on listening to the customer
Rand Nickerson is CEO of OpinionLab; photo courtesy of OpinionLab

With consumers readily discussing their brand experiences on blogs, review sites, and social-media platforms, the voice of the customer has never been stronger than it is today. The word-of-mouth impact of one negative experience, communicated through a few clicks and keystrokes, can start a firestorm with far-reaching impact on the health of your brand.   In the travel industry alone, customer complaints are rising significantly. They were up 32 percent in 2010 from the prior year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

 Public discourse about brands is inevitable and difficult to control. But by preemptively engaging in an ongoing, open dialog with consumers, you can significantly affect their sentiments with results that go far beyond brand management. A major fashion brand recently previewed an updated logo online and pulled the plug on the change based on an outpouring of customer criticism on Facebook and Twitter. Customer feedback ultimately saved them from a costly and embarrassing rebranding roll-out mistake.    

What is the value of candid feedback?  

Using a method that enables consumers to share their candid feedback in their own words “ and not forcing them to choose from suggested responses “ will empower them to have a direct dialog with the brand anywhere and anytime. By being able to effectively engage, support, and understand customers, companies are better able to collect input that is valuable to product development, customer service, user-experience optimization, and brand loyalty as a whole. For instance, a major online travel client recently added a feedback mechanism on its mobile app. That simple acknowledgement from the brand shows that they are listening to their consumer “ and that goes a long way in terms of loyalty. As a result, the company has seen a significant spike in its app store rating.

 No business can afford to wait for the trailing indicators of customer opinion to determine if the time, resources, and energy invested in a product, service, or campaign resonate with audiences. To take back control, companies must become part of consumer conversations at the earliest possible opportunity.

Why  listening  creates goodwill

 The secret is getting back to the basics of simple, effective listening: Most unsatisfied customers will begin by looking for ways to share their experiences with you directly ”through your websites, stores, mobile apps, and other touch points in your brand backyard. If you re listening there, the customer desire to go elsewhere will be mitigated by that simple expression of goodwill. In that sense, an opt-in, open-ended feedback system is the best insurance policy you can hold.   Recently, a major housewares brand was able to quickly resolve a coupon code error message for their online shoppers.   Through online feedback tools, shoppers notified customer service of the issue directly, preventing more non-purchase incidents.  

Opening up a channel of continuous listening is basic to truly understanding your customers.  We see it time and again: Companies with preconceived notions of what their customers want to talk about begin collecting open-ended feedback and immediately start discovering things they never before knew ”insights that their list of survey questions could by no means have revealed.

Of course, managing all that feedback can be challenging. The right listening technologies will help you monitor, measure, and react to customer feedback. Here are some considerations to keep in mind:

 Deploy listening technologies:

At the very least, you need to listen to your customers at the touch points you control. The return on investment of streaming voice-of-customer is difficult to dispute: How much do you save by eliminating one call-center call? Now multiply that by tens or hundreds every day. How many bookings could you generate by pinpointing and repairing a glitch in your site reservation sequence within minutes rather than hours or days? How much revenue could you recover by instantly identifying the reasons for shopping-cart abandonment? The only question left is how to best collect, organize, and distribute data. The most effective way to capture real-time customer feedback is through opt-in, open-ended methodologies that can be customized for use for both digital and traditional touch points.

 Capture context:

Voice-of-customer feedback data provides the attitudinal insight necessary for a clear, complete picture of consumer behavior. But to make informed decisions, you need to capture the complete picture. Collect as much contextual data as possible, and plan on integrating feedback with behavioral data.

 Leverage text analytics:

Once you begin collecting and reading feedback, the benefits of automating content and sentiment interpretation will quickly become obvious. A variety of text-structuring engines now exist at various price points, including tools that structure and bucket comments according to various taxonomies. Regardless of which engine best supports your business requirements, the key is to select a system that operates in real time.

 Distribute business intelligence:

 By automating text analytics, you can deliver targeted customer insight to hundreds of stakeholders within your organization in real time. Based on sentiment, content, or volume, you can set automated alerts to ensure that appropriate parties receive feedback relevant to their department or role.

Act in real time:

Many customer comments warrant further investigation in order to size an opportunity or problem: When I add a sale item to my cart, all my other items disappear. But many comments you only need to hear once before investigating and correcting quickly: There are rats in the dumpster behind your store on Main Street. Automated systems allow you to instantly respond to known issues or opportunities, potentially saving hundreds or thousands of disgruntled customers from leaving. To effectively respond and protect the brand,  act on feedback while the customer is still engaged.  

 In short, provide your customers with an open-ended invitation to share feedback in their own words, on topics important to them, at anytime. And be ready to take action. You ll be astounded by what you hear, and by how easily voice-of-customer feedback can affect meaningful change within an organization.

Rand Nickerson is chief executive officer of OpinionLab, which helps companies listen, understand and act on the customer feedback they receive by interpreting and analyzing  voice-of-customer data.