The notion of providing customer feedback is as old as 1750 B.C. when a shipment of copper ore was received that was considered inadequate quality and late in delivery (akin to Woody Allen’s joke that life is full of misery and over too quickly). The complaint about the ore, as shared in the British Museum, was inscribed on a clay tablet.
Since those early years, the art of giving feedback has come a long way. Today we apply big data, artificial intelligence, SurveyMonkey and a variety of platforms to keep our finger on the pulse, and we pulse people all the time. But for all its evolution, the core principles of “voice of the customer” have remained essentially the same.
The following principles drive my work to capture feedback and make it count:
• Feedback should be fair. A client once told me that I was too pushy in advocating for a necessary change. His feedback was important, but was it fair? He knew that I was hired to help spur change even if it rankled some. I internalized his comments but wasn’t sure what to do. Balanced feedback would have started by acknowledging my larger directive and then explored ways to reduce organizational friction.
In a similar vein, customers will frequently share significant unmet needs while lacking the resources to address them. Having champagne tastes on a beer budget is another version of unfair. Helpful feedback means understanding the constraints imposed and their effect on the reality of the experience.
• Feedback should be specific. When customers complain about a bad product or services experience, a deep dig is typically needed so that the “perpetrator” can truly understand and address the issue.
Recently someone complained to me that my client’s software was too cumbersome. After I asked, “How?” I heard specific and constructive details: “When I am searching for a specific customer account and there are 10 pages of accounts to scroll through, I can’t jump ahead. I have to tediously scroll through each page.”
Besides being specific, the feedback was tactical and visual, and enabled my client to actually feel the problem.
• Feedback should be constructive. After answering the question, “What is the problem?” we need to provide an idea or at least some thought as to what might improve the situation. This might seem obvious but is surprisingly rare.
In the case of my client who bristled at my involvement in a changing organization, it would have been helpful to brainstorm ways I could better deliver my services. Maybe a charm offensive (assuming I had the skills)? More one-on-ones? Giving a talk where I shared outcomes of organizations that resisted change? Constructive guidance would have changed a complaint into a tip.
I was hip to the value of “constructive” from an early age, as I grew up hearing my mom tell us nightly, “After eight o’clock, the complaint department is closed,” whenever one of us would express some dissatisfaction. However, while the complaint department was closed, the suggestion box never was. I didn’t know it then, but this would be a core tenet in my professional life.
• Feedback should be in the moment. I will never forget my husband and I sitting in my rabbi’s office on the eve before our wedding. The rabbi wanted to counsel us on fair fighting, which he considered vital in sustaining a healthy marriage. “Share what is bothering you at the moment,” he counseled, “and don’t revisit history.” Specifically, he mentioned, we couldn’t bring up old, long-ago digested fights.
Focusing on the moment applies to customer feedback as well. Revisiting old wounds only taints the water and does nothing to solve the problem. If I am still using the same car mechanic, and he misdiagnoses an issue that costs me time and money, it is not helpful to remind him of his other misses. The ability to stay on point requires discipline as we search for somewhere to park our anger.
The art of giving feedback is challenging, but my guide is to internalize the wisdom of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Atticus counseled his children to consider things from the other person’s point of view, to “climb into his skin and walk around in it.” When we provide feedback, if we force ourselves to see the other side — to “climb into (another’s) skin” — our words are usually kinder and better heard. This is a greatest of all starting points.