Market Research

The Art of Understanding Customer Satisfaction

Today we live in a world where customer expectations are higher than ever.  Next day deliveries or even same day deliveries are becoming the norm rather than the exception.  Stories of bad experiences can go viral on social media in a matter of minutes.  Multiple social media channels, email, chat rooms and call centres provide customers with many ways to communication with a brand and the immediate nature of communications in the modern world creates the expectation that queries can be swiftly dealt with.

For many years now customer experience professionals have made use of customer satisfaction and experience surveys to help them understand their customers.  When tracked over time, they can provide useful insight into what is going well and what could be done better.  But with things changing so fast, how can we ensure these surveys remain relevant and continue to provide useful feedback?

Here are some of my observations and tips for managing customer satisfaction surveys:

Be aware of customer feedback from all sources

Customer needs can change fast.  New technology can create new expectations that rapidly alter customer perceptions of how well or badly a brand is doing.

It is important to ensure that your customer satisfaction survey measures what is important to customers today – not what was important yesterday.  If the market changes, that might mean we ought to be measuring something new or measuring something in a different way.

We can pick up early signs that change might be necessary from a variety of different sources both internal and external to the brand.  Internally, anecdotal feedback from salespeople, accounts people or service engineers are all potentially important.  So too are customer comments on social media – even in the unfortunate event when they present a significant PR problem in the short run, they also provide an opportunity for the business to learn something useful. 

Finally, many customer surveys include open comments questions, and it is always useful to keep an eye on these for anything important that the business might not be aware of. 

The challenge is to gather all this disparate, unstructured, and sometimes entirely anecdotal information together and pick out what’s important.  It is a good idea to set aside some time for a more comprehensive review, where all these different inputs can be collated together and considered, at regular pre-planned times.

Understanding what customer feedback is really telling us

Imagine if a service engineer was late for an appointment and the customer articulates their frustration on Facebook by saying “The engineer was three hours late!”  Or perhaps in another case we hear that “the engineer missed the appointment.”

On the surface of it the problem seems obvious.  The engineer was late, or the appointment was missed.  You review your customer experience questionnaire and sure enough there are questions that appear to cover such things as late or missed appointments.  So, the survey can monitor any issues in these areas as things stand.  That seems clear enough – but is it the full story?

Would these comments have been different if the engineer had called in advance to say they were running late?  And did anyone contact the other customer in advance to let them know the appointment was cancelled?  Keeping people well informed about delays and cancellations might also be an issue here in so far as it may help alleviate the feeling of dissatisfaction.  Is this adequately covered in our survey?

Sometimes it helps not only to focus on the specific problems mentioned in a customer satisfaction survey but also to think about what other factor might be at play that may have made that negative experience worse or better.  Taking time to think about such issues can help to ensure that we are measuring everything we need, providing us with useful ideas as to how we might improve our survey.

Consistency vs. Evolution

When managing any tracking survey over time we are faced with two opposing practical considerations:

  • The need for consistency:  often the most powerful insights from a tracking survey come from the ability to compare like-for-like measures month on month.
  • The need for evolution: but markets and customer needs are ever changing.  The flip side of maintaining consistency for consistency’s sake is potentially that we end up missing emerging key issues.

This is a difficult balancing act but taking the time to step back and formally review the program at pre-planned intervals is the best way to ensure that nothing important is missed. 

However, just as we may need to add to our survey, it is also important to ensure that unused questions are not being retained unnecessarily.  Long surveys lead to poor response rates and, after all, you do not want to annoy your customers by taking up too much of their time!

When pop-up surveys fail

How many times have you been onto a website and immediately been confronted with a pop-up survey asking you for your opinion of the website? 

What a waste of time and effort some of these surveys are – and what a wasted opportunity!

How can anyone meaningfully answer questions about a website that they have only just clicked through to for the first time and have not yet had the chance to look at?

The answer is that they cannot.  Either they will just close the pop-up, or they will fill it out with meaningless information.

Unless people have the option to complete the pop-up survey after they have finished navigating their way around the site, it is a pointless exercise.  This might generate a lower response but at least the response will be meaningful.

Is NPS always useful?

NPS (Net Promoter Score) is a widely used tool in customer satisfaction and loyalty research.  There is a good reason for that.  It has been widely used by many different people for a long time, which means there are some good benchmarks around that you can compare your brand to.  It has also often been shown to translate directly to trends in revenue for many businesses.

But what holds true for a great number of brands is not always true for a particular industry or a particular brand.  If you are using NPS, track it over time and compare it with internal data on sales revenues and repeat business levels, etc.  Is there a relationship?  If so, then NPS can be said to be a key metric for the business to use.  But if not, you may need to look at more appropriate alternatives or perhaps find a modified way to look at it that is more relevant for the situation in hand.

The elephant in the room

GDPR, CAN-SPAM, data privacy. 

Marketeers and market researchers generally do not like spend too much time focusing on such things.  But corporate data compliance officers do.  Corporate compliance and marketing might be cat and dog, but these days we cannot afford to leave the compliance side of customer satisfaction research to the last minute when designing a survey.

How will the customers be contacted, who will contact them and what information will need to be used by whom?  The earlier compliance is involved in these questions the better.  After all, we don’t want to end up designing something only for a compliance officer to turn around at the eleventh hour and say, “Oh no, you can’t do that.”

These days devising a solid strategy for handling customer data in a way that safeguards privacy and complies with regulations should always form a critical part of the briefing and proposal process for any customer satisfaction survey.

The Road Ahead to Greener Motoring

In November 2020, the UK government announced that there will be a ban on the sale of vehicles with combustion engines by 2030.  The sale of some hybrid cars and vans will continue until 2035 after which they too will be banned.  The idea being that we are heading down the road to greener motoring.  Aside from the environmental benefit, it is hoped that the associated investment in electric vehicles and the infrastructure needed to support them will help stimulate our economy in a post-COVID-19 world.

It all sounds like a great target to aim for – but where are we today?  And more importantly, how can we reach our green destination?

Well, firstly it is important to acknowledge that like many other industries, the pandemic has hit the automotive sector hard.  2020 has been a tough year with SMMT figures showing a drop in new car registrations in the UK of more than 29% – the worst year since 1992.

Looking beyond the headline figure, 1.63 million cars have nevertheless been registered in 2020.  That is still a lot but, under more normal circumstances, new registrations have been regularly exceeding 2m in every year since 2013. The good news is that some 465,331 (29%) of these vehicles were electric or hybrid.  And, unlike the rest of the market, low emission vehicles of this sort have experienced strong growth (nearly 90% annual growth in a market that has declined by 29% overall can’t be bad).  

But if we are aiming to replace all cars on the road with electric or electric hybrids, we still have a long way to go.  According to UK government statistics there were just under 32 million cars on UK roads at the end of 2019.  Of these only about 2.5% were electric, hybrid or used some form of lower emission fuel such as gas.   Indeed, if you exclude all the hybrids, there were only just over 244,000 electric cars on the road at the end of 2019 (that’s less than 1%).  To replace 31.5 million vehicles with electric ones in a market where, even when things are going well, is only buying say 2 to 2.5 million new vehicles of any kind each year is clearly going to take a while.

So how do we get to 100%?  Well, one thing that clearly needs to happen is to develop the infrastructure needed to fully support electric vehicles.  As of 13th January 2021, charging points were available at 13,383 locations according to zap-map and 2,615 of these locations offered rapid chargers.  On the surface of it that’s great news.  Electric charging is now available at more locations than petrol / diesel filling stations.

However, these facilities are still in the process of being rolled out and many of our UK filling stations do not yet have them.  Many of the current charging points are in places like car parks in town centres or shopping centres or in the corner of a motorway services car park.  It is also the case that you may need to subscribe to several different providers if you travel around a lot and need to make use of charging points in different parts of the country.  The roll out of more charging points will help but ideally, we will still need an easy way for motorists to be able to access any and all charging points in a universally accepted manner. 

At present, the current set-up best suits people who are making mainly local journeys and who prefer to rely on charging at home.  If you charge at home and only make relatively short journeys you don’t need to worry too much about the need for re-charging mid-journey. 

This raises another issue that needs to be given some thought – how easy is it for motorists to re-charge at home?  If you keep your car in a garage next to your house or on your driveway then it is very convenient.  However, not everyone has off street parking and some people may sometimes find it difficult to find a parking space on their street near their home at all.  This creates a real barrier to adoption that will likely make it necessary to introduce some form of viable mass access to electric charging for anyone parking on a residential street.  This is a challenge but one for which there are possible solutions.  One possibility here might be to adapt ordinary street lighting to be able to offer EV charging facilities – as has been demonstrated in a trial run by Siemens in Westminster.

The other issue, related to charging, is range.  The range of electric vehicles is now much improved from what was once the case and we are now seeing vehicles coming to market with ranges in the order of 250-300+ miles on a single charge.  Coupled with access to rapid charging points it is now just possible to boost your range by 100 miles or so with a 30-minute re-charge en route at a rapid charging point.  So you can just about make a 400-mile trip with the current technology in practical terms.  It may not yet be ideally suited for long distance driving yet but every year sees new advances.

In a way the pandemic may have brought about changes in our society which will make electric cars fit in better with our lifestyle.  The long periods of enforced lockdown have caused many employers to re-think traditional practices of office working.  Home working and remote working will be far more the norm in the post pandemic world.  Not only that, but we have now got used to doing a lot of business via video calls rather than face to face.  As a result, people will be spending more time locally and less time commuting or travelling for business over long distances.  And more local motoring plays directly to the strength of electric vehicles.

A final significant barrier that needs to be overcome is the perception that electric vehicles are expensive.  In terms of the initial price tag, there can be no denying that the price differential can be significant – sometimes 40%-50% more expensive for an electric vehicle vs a petrol equivalent according to figures quoted by thisismoney.  That’s scary.  When paid for with financing, the monthly costs can be made to look more palatable but there is no getting away from the fact that the up-front purchase cost for a new electric car looks daunting in the eyes of many consumers.

However, if you investigate the issue of cost in greater detail, a more nuanced picture emerges.  One area where electric cars now offer a big price advantage is when you compare the re-charging costs to the cost of petrol.  Here the savings are potentially significant (thisismoney worked out a saving for £640 a year for a car owner doing a typical mileage of 10,000 a year when comparing a particular electric car with its petrol equivalent).  Electric vehicle owners may also expect to benefit financially in terms of tax, insurance, and maintenance costs.  Overall, this serves to balance the equation somewhat, such that the total cost of ownership over several years ends up being broadly comparable.  On this measure electric cars are not so expensive.

Comparing cars in terms of overall cost of ownership is, however, a task many ordinary consumers may struggle with.  It can be hard to see beyond the upfront price tag.  As a result, this may be an area the government will need to look at when crystalising their plans for getting petrol and diesel cars off our roads.  The car industry itself will also need to look at how it can find better ways to clearly articulate the value of these vehicles.  That means finding the right messaging to convince consumers that these vehicles are not actually as expensive as they first appear. 

But, right now, we are at the early stages of this journey.  A dramatic transition to greener motoring is on the cards over the coming decade.  Challenges exist for sure, but so do opportunities.  One thing is for certain – this is a market that will see some dramatic changes and significant growth over the next few years.

Understanding Change and the post-COVID Normal

There is little doubt that 2020 has brought considerable changes to our world.  Who could have predicted how dramatically COVID would have turned our world upside down at the start of 2020?

Hopefully, as 2021 begins, we can see some light at the end of the tunnel.  The new vaccines are starting to roll out (not a moment too soon) and perhaps we might dare hope for a return to normality during the spring.

But what will that normality look like?  Quite apart from the radical disruption to our social and working lives that COVID has wrought, it has quite likely accelerated and even inspired some long-term changes that will remain with us for years to come.

Remote working was forced on a large section of the working population for much of 2020.  By and large it worked.  Will office culture ever be the same again?  Or will the future of office work point towards an inexorable march toward the remote/virtual office.  The practical savings for office-based business are potentially huge – just think how much many businesses spend every year on prime location office space and business travel.  Imagine if you could slash that by cost by half or, perhaps, by even more than half.  Well, it turns out you probably can.  Tools and technologies that support the virtual office will become increasingly critical.  Who knows, in five or ten years from now we could all be holding international business meetings in VR simulated boardrooms.  In fact, I predict we will.

Many businesses have had to adapt to a world where trading online has, at times really been the only option.  Buying and selling at fixed locations and in-person has been hard hit.  Post COVID it will surely bounce back to some extent but the long-term trend to online retail has surely been greatly accelerated.  ONS figures showed that the % of UK retail business done online rose from around 16% in 2017 to 19% in 2019.  Without COVID we might have expected it to climb to around 21% for 2020 maybe.  However, the pandemic has meant the final 2020 figure is likely to end up closer to 26% or perhaps even a little higher.  

I’m sure people will want to return to the bricks and mortar shops to some degree once the pandemic is over – but online commerce has undeniably come of age and will, without question, form an increasingly critical part of any future marketing.  In future the look, feel and effectiveness of online sales and marketing will be just as important (and probably more so) than any in-person selling.

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