Conscientious Hecklers Required

Saturday 13th June 2015 at 9:55AM

Some years ago I was asked to compere a big business dinner in Yorkshire.  As I stood before the guests, I confided that sometimes I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands when I was ‘on stage’.  Then came a shout from a table close by. ‘Put them over your mouth’.  I think it was my wife, although she denies it.

Strictly speaking, it isn’t the sort of quality feedback that I’m about to espouse in this article (nor which I’d like to see repeated), but it helps me make an important point. I believe that there is a direct link between the profile customer feedback has in any organisation and the likelihood that its employees will regard customer service as core business activity. 

I know it’s not a revelation on the scale of improving Tottenham Hotspur’s performances by depriving the players of tomato ketchup, or the discovery that things the Government says are illegal, are only so because no one’s found a way of taxing them yet.  But bear with me …

I remember David Jackson of stating a few years back that the annual customer satisfaction survey was dead.  Collecting customer feedback once a year and no doubt focusing on ‘satisfaction’ was to be consigned to the past (as if a noun expressing a sentiment some way short of excitement would ever be used as an organisation’s measure of customer focus) while progressive folk everywhere proclaimed a future of continuous, real-time customer feedback, engagement and rapid experience improvement.

Several years on and I’m suffering from ‘Life on Mars’ syndrome.  Feedback systems may have become more sophisticated, but my experiences show that customer service is still some distance away from the coveted ‘core activity’ slot.  If technological development proceeded at the same pace as customer-focused change in this country, we’d still be lighting fires instead of texting.  Sky Plus would be a character in Guys and Dolls and Bluetooth, a condition contracted by eating too many smarties.  Anyone getting bitten by a Blu-Ray would need a ton of calamine lotion and probably several weeks off work.

This morning I stood with several other depressed customers, wincing as the assistant said ‘it’s not my problem’ to a customer whose card failed to trouble the chip and pin device, while the vacancy on the faces of the three girls hiding behind the cash desk in a department store was so extensive, we could have built houses on it.  And don’t even start me on the ‘phone calls I receive.  Every third one is a pre-recorded message (at least you can tell it to f*** off) while the other two are usually made by callers so embarrassed, they take the first opportunity to hang up (often just after I pick up the telephone).  Yesterday’s began with the announcement ‘Hi, I’m (stifled mutter).  I’m calling from Global Futures (more muttering)’.  The quality of the phone line was so desperately poor; you’d think a company with such a far-sighted name would have ‘phones that worked.  I’d sooner take financial advice from my guinea pig.

So is our investment in feedback truly paying dividends?

Perhaps not.  But I believe that our indolence is best illustrated by a couple of questions: how transparently do you share your customer feedback with your wider customer base and how readily can your customers see evidence that their feedback is leading to service improvement?

For me, demonstrating transparency and transfer of feedback into tangible, visible service improvements is a key, yet widely unachieved, milestone of success – and I invite you to plot your own company’s position on my exciting graph.  One axis can be the depth of transparency while the other can show the process maturity (i.e. feedback collected annually, quarterly, monthly and / or in real-time).

And as I ponder, I’ve learned to recognise that customers fall into two extreme and polarised groups.  There are those who our feedback systems rarely reach – by definition, truly British customers whose fear of confrontation prevents them from offering sincere and constructive feedback and there are those who assail our every waking hour.  The serial complainants.  The troublemakers.  The I’ve just found out something about you on the Internet brigade.  Like a ticking cartoon bomb, we’d prefer to see their business in a competitor’s lap.

But the progressive centre is missing.  We need more conscientious hecklers.  Jeff Tweedy, musician, songwriter and Wilco front man, describes his own fans that way. They’ve stuck around as Tweedy abandoned his earlier alternative country music for a more ‘out there’ sound and these fans are now a healthy measuring stick.  They always show up – and they let him know exactly what they think, since they genuinely believe they are doing good.

All businesses need these conscientious hecklers – customers who appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback, do so and see some visible reciprocation in future interactions.  They can be a pain, but they keep you on the straight and narrow – and companies with such customer relationships seem to have no problem bringing customer service centre stage for every employee. 

The more transparent and visible your feedback systems, the more of these hecklers you will accumulate.

Unless, of course, you think this diatribe is another justifiable reason for me to keep my hands over my mouth.


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