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5 Standards of Excellent Customer Listening


Martha Brooke

September 11, 2019

Close-up of a businessman's hand filling online survey form on laptop in office
Close-up of a businessman's hand filling online survey form on laptop in office

In the last decade I’ve seen and run a lot of Customer Listening programs. Here’s the one thing I know for sure: high quality Customer Listening programs always meets the same 5 standards. Meeting these standards achieves dependable, high-insight data. Failing to meet these standards often steers companies off course.

These 5 standards are not an ideal but rather the minimum requirement. Once you’ve met them, there are many ways to add depth and nuance to your Customer Listening. For instance, to get more insight and improve ease-of-use, build operations data into your surveys. Or, you can replace your conventional surveys with a rigorous, yet free form, next-generation approach.

So, let’s start with a definition of Customer Listening.

Customer Listening: The Prevalent Definition

Qualtrics, the dominant survey software platform defines Customer Listening as, “a term that describes your customer’s feedback about their experiences”. That definition (while prevalent among customer feedback discourse) omits the crux of what Customer Listening is.

First, Customer Listening is often best when it doesn’t come from solicited customer feedback. Observations of your customers as they interact with your company or your products, frequently yields more nuanced insights.

Piper Smith, Sr. Consumer Insights Researcher of Nautilus, Inc. says: “We got the answers to questions we knew to ask in our surveys, but it took watching customers actually using our products in their homes to see where our assumptions were wrong. We found huge opportunities to improve that we just hadn’t even considered.”

In other words, surveys alone limit you to what you already know to ask about. Listening that expands beyond surveys has the potential to add significant actionability.

The second problem with defining Customer Listening simply as customer feedback is that it neglects your side of that listening. How you listen is key and should be part of the definition.

Customer Listening: A Better Definition

Here’s my shot at a definition: Customer Listening is a research-driven discipline that requires an open, curious, and scientific state of mind. It seeks concrete insights to improve the customer experience and it explores customer successes, friction points, and missed opportunities. In addition, it’s a way to stay on top of—and address—customer issues.

Customer Listening can ask tactical questions such as:

  • Did we resolve your issue?
  • Did you find our associates courteous?

It can also address strategic concerns like:

  • How can we beat the competition?
  • How can we increase customer loyalty?
  • How can we make sure that our customer service reinforces our brand?

Whether tactical or strategic, when done correctly, Customer Listening gives you greater accountability, more insight, and a lens into the details that will boost employee and customer happiness.

Now, on to the 5 standards…

Standard #1: Ensure Objectivity

If your data fails to capture what’s really going on with the customer experience, what’s the point?

How to be more objective with your Customer Listening could fill an entire book, but here are three best practices to get you started:

  • Use an accurate sample. 
  • Eliminate bias.
  • Test for replicability.

Standard #2: Use the Right Methods

Surveys may be the default method, but they’re not always the best tool. Ask yourself what you need to know. Then, match your methods to those objectives. Methods outside of surveys include customer interviews, mystery shops, and customer service evaluations.

  • Customer Interviews: Give you an in-depth view of your customers’ expectations versus their perceptions. They’re also the ideal way to uncover issues you didn’t know to ask about.
  • Mystery Shops: Reveal customer service insights, especially regarding specific scenarios. They’re also a great way to compare yourself to competitors.
  • Customer Service Evaluations: Quantify associate performance and identify communication gaps.

Standard #3: Appreciate Your Customers

With your surveys this means:

  • Ask compelling questions.
  • Use dynamic logic to keep questions relevant.
  • Add small tokens of gratitude such as gift cards and priority codes.

And, if you can find out how you’re doing without asking your customers, that’s even better! For example, if you have contact centers, instead of surveying customers about their interactions, apply statistically-valid analysis to your calls, emails, and chats.

This gives you data that is inherently more accurate and objective, without taxing your customers. And as Piper Smith mentioned earlier, for Nautilus, observing customers uncovered opportunities they simply were not seeing in their surveys.

Standard #4: Prioritize Analysis

This is where nuance and insights come in.

  • Segment your data and code unstructured data—the point is to uncover themes!
  • Find out what’s driving your outcomes. It’s the only way to prioritize next steps and actions. Simply knowing your Net Promoter or Satisfaction Score is not enough.
  • Use an outside team to triple check your facts and math.
  • Make sure your analysis accounts for the subtleties of the customer experience. This is crucial because experiences are comprised of multiple touchpoints and personas. In addition, experiences are largely subconscious and always evolving.

Standard #5: Find the Story in the Data!

Share your Customer Listening through dynamic formats so that teams are motivated to act.

  • Use dashboards and audio.
  • Enable interactivity.
  • Conduct findings reviews.

The 5 Standards are Interconnected

The 5 Customer Listening standards I’ve outlined are interconnected and work together as a system. For example, interactive dashboards are a great way to visualize your findings. But if those dashboards are based on biased data, then you’ve reached a dead-end.

Or, if you have objective survey questions but your survey fails to engage customers, you’ll have a low response rate and potentially misrepresentative data.

For your Customer Listening program to be valuable, uphold ALL 5 standards.

Now, Ask Yourself the Hard Questions

  1. Are we objective?
  2. Are we using the right methods?
  3. How engaged are our customers?
  4. Do we prioritize analysis?
  5. Have we found the story in our data?

Customer Listening is a Research Discipline

Customer Listening is often treated as a cut and paste task that doesn’t require time or expertise. But if you ask tired questions in tired ways you won’t learn much.

Customer Listening is a research discipline. If you are open, curious, and scientific in your approach, you’ll gain actionable insights that can dramatically improve your business.

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