Don’t just listen!

For decades, people have talked about listening to the customer. Yet, our systems seem as bad as ever. Are we listening?

I would argue that we’re listening… we’re just not taking the right actions.

mic for listening to the customer

Once, I helped to present the results of an employee survey; we mainly left it to them to develop action plans — the best way to instigate change. There was some brief discussion, and then the president of the company said, “Why should we care about any of this?”

All heads turned to him. Then to me as I started explaining why I should care. It turns out the president just assumed employees only cared about pay and benefits, and everything else was irrelevant. In my experience, that’s sometimes true — usually, with salespeople — but it’s usually not. After all, there’s no shortage of people who work for less money than they could.

A few months later, the president found another job, but that led to the question of why he would even allow the survey to waste company funds if he had no intention of acting on the results (there was a chief executive above him, who did value the survey results, did act on them, and may have had something to do with the departure of the president a few months later).

It’s not uncommon, though. There is no shortage of companies who tap customers and employees with market research and surveys, and then do nothing with the results, or use them to justify actions they would have done anyway. To this I say: it’s better to take some action based on the data, but if you’re not going to, don’t waste time and money getting the information in the first place.

There are many ways to use employee input; Toyota, for example, has committees that seek employee input, and then, if the suggestion is at least cost-neutral, often empower that person to make the changes, so they will actually get done. One of the rules, at least in past years, was that increases in efficiency wouldn’t result in immediate job losses, removing one source of fear. A bias for action on employee input is invariably part of any self-improvement program.

You don’t need to survey customers to make improvements; you can just listen to what people are saying (both customers and employees), and do something about it. I recently had to contact someone at a company I dealt with; each rep had a telephone number in their email signature, but none of those actually worked. Nobody had thought of changing the email signatures to match the “new” (a few months old) phone system. Two weeks after I told them about it, nothing had changed, and I changed vendors — what else were they missing?

phoneMost outfits with call centers get a flood of customer information, sometimes dealing with product issues, but sometimes indicating problems with the company’s internal processes (such as mis-programmed voice prompts, or leaving out a common problem). The clever company collects both kinds of information, and has a way of quickly taking action to fix problems and streamline processes.

It’s common for organizations to make mistakes, because people make mistakes, and organizations are groups of people with some rules. What separates the best from the worst is how quickly they fix the mistakes — and part of fixing mistakes is listening and doing something with what you hear.

David Zatz, Ph.D

David Zatz focuses on using research and data for targeted change efforts, including employee and customer surveys, linkage, process mapping, and process consulting. He has spoken at conferences and has published articles in journals (such as HRMagazine, Quality Digest, and Effective Executive), trade publications, and books. David has worked with clients such as the American Management Association, Arthrocare, BTI Americas, the Coast Guard, Enhanced Vision, General Fire & Casualty, Mattel (American Girl), Santen, and the City of New York. David holds a B.A. in psychology from Rutgers University, and an M.Phil and Ph.D. in social and organizational psychology from Columbia University.