woman with headphones on looking up

How many times do you find your mind wandering in the middle of a conversation? Whether you’re talking to a friend, a colleague or a customer, it’s easy to tune out — and miss potentially relevant information in the process.

In the case of conversations between businesses and their customers, failures often result from poorly designed efforts to listen. That includes:

  1. Sending too many surveys: Relentlessly hounding your customers for feedback is more likely to stall conversation than encourage it.
  2. Making your surveys too long: Long surveys are exhausting, so your customers will either refuse to take them at all, bail part way through the survey, or avoid future surveys.
  3. Crafting biased questions: Writing leading or biased questions will skew your data, misrepresenting the experience of your customers.
  4. Ignoring customer comments: If you fail to consider the verbatim comments from your customers, your business is throwing away crucial insights — and failing to analyze why your customers feel the way they do.

Defining ‘Real’ Customer Listening

Customer Listening is a research-driven process that seeks to uncover insights — insights that can improve your customer relationships and the experiences you provide. It’s a discipline that centers on exploring both customer expectations and perceptions, and calculates the difference between the two.

Moreover, it’s a discipline that asks:

  • What opportunities are we missing?
  • Are there small changes we could make for big impact?
  • Are there bold initiatives we must take to satisfy our customers now, next year and five years from now?

Above all, customer listening is a state of mind. It defines a business that’s open, nimble, curious, scientific and committed to exceptional, data-driven customer experience.

Related Article: Drawing a Line Between VoC, Customer Experience and Customer Analytics

Listen Objectively

Businesses that listen to their customers objectively have an open mind. They approach customer listening with no preconceived notions about what their findings will be (or what they hope they’ll be).

Objectivity implies the presence of curiosity and the absence of bias. This is essential because if data is biased, it won’t capture what’s really going on. That doesn’t provide useful insights and simply wastes time, money and effort.

You’re listening objectively if:

  1. The questions you ask, your customer service criteria, and your listening process have all been vetted to eliminate traces of bias such as leading words, phrases and questions, improper scales and double-barreled questions. All of these can skew your resultant data.
  2. Your results can be reproduced. Multiple analysts should be able to repeat your methods and reach the same findings.
  3. You have an accurate sample. Your sample needs to be random, statistically valid and representative of your customer base. If not, your findings won’t reflect the actual experiences of your customers. 

Related Article: B2B Customer Experience Fundamentals: Listening

To Survey or Not to Survey …

It would be great if surveys could tell you everything you need to know about the customer experience, but they can’t. Surveys are a great tool when used appropriately, but other methods are available and it’s crucial to recognize what’s best for the job.  

When to Survey

Surveys can answer questions that you already know to ask. They’re inexpensive and easy to implement, but survey fatigue is also a big issue.

  • Comprehensive surveys cover a 360-degree view of your company’s overall performance.  
  • Touchpoint surveys are smaller and give you quick performance measures of specific customer touchpoints like returns or support. They get at more fine-toothed areas, but they must be repeated quarterly/annually for comparative results.  

When Not to Survey

Depending on what you’re hoping to find out, other methods like customer interviews, customer service evaluations, or mystery shopping might be more appropriate.

  • Interviews pick up where surveys leave off. While research-intensive, they can create a space where your customers feel comfortable sharing information you wouldn’t know to ask about.
  • Customer service evaluations help you identify gaps, friction points, and missed opportunities in your calls, emails, or chats. They’ll tell you with statistical accuracy how you benchmark against competitors, how you measure up to your own brand promise, and where you have areas to improve.
  • Mystery shops simulate the customer’s experience so you can measure the quality of your customer service. They show you how your associates handle specific customer scenarios in real life (via phone, email, or chat).
  • Verbatim analysis is an important analysis tool that can help uncover crucial insight in your unstructured data. It tells you WHY your customers feel the way that they do. It can be applied to multiple methodologies including your open-ended survey questions, customer interviews, and more.

The bottom line: Don’t over rely on surveys. What’s crucial is using the right methods in the right ways and not constraining yourself to a particular method. Your questions about the customer experience should determine which methods you use.

Related Article: Not Another @#$&! Survey ...

How to Really Listen

1. Engage Your Customers

Remember that your customer listening program reflects your brand, so make it a pleasant experience for your customers to give feedback. For example, if you’re asking customers to take a survey, incorporate operations data and build in logic gating to keep it short and relevant for each customer. 

Another way to acknowledge your customers is to send small tokens of appreciation. Whether it’s a discount code or priority services, you can build it right into the survey and it’s a great way to say thank you for giving feedback.  

When it comes to reviewing feedback, show customers they’re valued and heard by responding to those who've had disappointing experiences.

Remember: Don’t unnecessarily bother your customers with a survey. In some cases, you already have all the information you need to find out how your associates performed. If you’re evaluating your customer service and you have call center data, analyze it.

2. Prioritize Analysis

You can’t act on your findings unless you know what caused them.

While you want outcome measures like Net Promoter (NPS) or Customer Effort, they don’t tell you why you have the result you do. To know what to improve, you need to know what’s causing those outcomes.

You need to allocate time and attention to segmenting your data, running correlation analyses, and using coding techniques to explore your verbatims and other unstructured data. Unlike an NPS score, this verbatim analysis gives you targeted information on what’s driving customer’s perception of your company so you can see the specific areas that need improvement.

By measuring interactions, for instance, you can assess various inputs that account for a range of experiences and identify specifically what and where to improve.

Bottom line: Ensure that the analysis tools you use tell you why you’re scoring the way you are. And always double (and triple) check your math.

Related Article: Voice of the Customer Strategies: Effectively Turning Feedback Into Action

3. Share Your Story

You gathered all that accurate data for a reason: to improve your business. So share your findings with your team so they understand your goals and take appropriate action.

Using a mixed-media approach like interactive dashboards or audio recordings can communicate insights much more effectively than raw numbers or text alone. Interactive dashboards in particular are a great way to maximize your findings. They can:

  • Show vital, real-time customer feedback metrics at a glance.
  • Compare performance scores over periods of time.
  • Keep tabs on problematic areas to track progress and identify issues quickly.
  • Filter results by key elements (such as product or associate) to get more insight.

As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” so capitalize on that.

Listening takes effort. But it’s an excellent way to improve your business and deepen relations with your customers.