The Importance of Fixing Your Customers - While You're Fixing the System

(Originally published in the March/April 2005 issue of AFSMI's Sbusiness.)

By William K. Pollock

The most successful businesses are those that understand their customers - from what makes them "tick", to what "ticks them off" - and everything inbetween. At the most basic levels, some of this understanding may come simply through tracking ongoing sales, service calls, and administrative activities relating to various phases of customer interaction.

However, building an actionable database from these often disparate, informal, or otherwise unstructured sources may be difficult, if not impossible. That is why many organizations conduct periodic customer surveys to measure, monitor and track the needs, requirements, preferences, expectations and corresponding satisfaction levels of their customers. Many also go one step further by surveying the general marketplace (i.e., their non-customers) from time-to-time to better gauge the markets they are not presently capturing.

Services organizations that routinely conduct customer satisfaction measurement and tracking surveys typically find that they are better equipped to:

  • Determine the defining characteristics of service and support that best meet the needs of their respective customer base;
  • Identify, measure, and track changes in their corresponding levels of customer satisfaction (or lack thereof);
  • Determine the relative strengths and weaknesses of their customer and technical support organizations;
  • Identify all of the critical service delivery areas requiring improvement;
  • Collect data that can be used to set and/or refine desired targets or goals for improvement; and
  • Identify changes that will have to be made to their existing customer support processes and organization.
All of these objectives are admirable, important, easy to identify, and will ultimately lead toward the ability of the organization to "fix the system" (i.e., the business processes, operations, and infrastructure) that will empower it to deliver the desired levels of customer service and support to their customers. However, as hard as they may be working to "fix the system", there is always the risk of losing some of their most "vulnerable" customers in the interim, since systemwide improvements typically take a long time to design, implement, manage, and maintain. For this reason, many have turned to customer survey programs that are designed to also provide the data, information and guidance needed to "fix the system" - and "fix the customer" - both at the same time!

In recent years there has been as increasing use of a combined Customer Discovery Survey approach that not only provides guidance for identifying systemwide problems that need to be "fixed", but also generates a set of individual Customer Relationship Case Study Profiles that identifies customer-specific problems that need to be addressed in the immediate-term. In this way, while the organization is spending the large amounts of time and dollars that will be required to correct its systemwide problems over the long haul, it can concurrently address some of the specific problems that may be negatively impacting individual customers in the present-term - certainly, well before they become critical "kick-out factors".

Using a traditional, time-tested approach consisting of preliminary client management interviews, questionnaire design, and conventional survey research, a Customer Discovery Survey program can be tailored to an organization's specific needs and situation to achieve the maximum output and return on investment. For example, the results of the large-scale customer survey program can be used to identify, analyze, assess and prioritize the specific actions required to "fix" deep-routed systematic problems in the organization's customer support operations, while the individual customer profiles can be used to "fix" individual customers that may not otherwise be prepared to "wait" for its vendor's systemwide "fixes" to be implemented months (or even years) later.

For each individual customer surveyed, a detailed analysis and management report can be generated that identifies:

  • The customer-specific areas that need to be fixed,
  • How vulnerable the organization is to losing the customer in the absence of taking the necessary corrective action, and
  • What timeframes for resolution will most likely be required to prevent the customer from switching to another services organization.
Basically, each customer profile summarizes and presents the key findings from a single customer interview, including side-by-side comparisons of perceived importance vs. vendor performance for all of the performance attributes tested. As such, these profiles are enormously helpful toward gaining a better understanding of exactly how your services offerings (or your dealers' offerings) are being perceived by individual customers, and where particular points of vulnerability, disconnect, or other potential problem areas may be occurring.

Through these Customer Relationship Case Study Profiles, you can also identify - and "flag" - areas of moderate, significant or severe customer "vulnerability", as well as the root causes for why these problems may exist in the first place. Potential "kick-out" factors can also be easily identified. Ultimately, these individual case study profiles afford a unique opportunity to utilize a customer-centric database that allows organizations to focus on the specific concerns of individual customers - i.e., a tactical counterpart to the results of a large-scale, aggregate, or otherwise representative, customer survey base.

In general, Customer Discovery Surveys seem to work best for organizations with either a relatively finite customer base (i.e., in the hundreds, rather than in the thousands), or where a small number of customers represents an important component of the total customer base. Some organizations - regardless of their size - prefer to survey their most valuable and/or "vulnerable" customers as a way of stopping major problems "dead in their tracks", or preventing minor problems from growing larger.

The general rule of thumb is that in cases where there is a large enough sample of the customer base (e.g., let's say 25 to 30 or more customers), the following data and information may be generated and used:

  • A detailed analysis of the total respondent sample, providing the organization with a representative customer base overview, as well as
  • A set of individual, case-by-case, customer-respondent profiles - providing the organization with the ability to "fix" its key customers while it is "fixing" the system.
Many organizations like the way the individual customer profiles present detailed, case-specific data and information that may be used to "fix" customers on a one-by-one basis as they move forward with the systematic "fixes" that are otherwise recommended by the large-scale survey findings. In fact, many organizations use this information on a prioritized, case-by-case basis as they move forward - concurrently - with their systemwide improvement initiatives.

Customer Discovery Surveys can also be a cost-effective way to determine the current levels of satisfaction - and vulnerability - of your organization's most important (and/or "vulnerable") customers without having to engage in a large-scale customer survey effort. As such, this type of program allows you to put your major concerns to bed quickly, while also giving you a better understanding of where you need to focus - immediately - to get your systemwide support organization running more effectively.

A Customer Discovery Survey Program can generally be offered at a fixed price and completed in about one month or less, so you can get fast results and know exactly where you stand without incurring any major delays or expenditures. Results are generally presented in terms of executable actions accompanied by a set of case-specific Customer Relationship Management Profiles that can help you to better understand - and "fix" - a targeted set of customers.

The only true way to understand your customers' sensitivities is to ask them directly. By doing so over time, you can also better understand the evolutions that have taken them to where they are today - as well as what you will need to do to keep them "in the fold" tomorrow and into the future.


William K. Pollock is president of Strategies For GrowthSM (SFGSM), the Westtown, Pennsylvania-based services consulting firm specializing in strategic business planning, services marketing, CRM consulting, market/survey research, and customer satisfaction measurement and tracking programs. Bill may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.


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