Surveys are tanking - but it's OK to blame your customers


“Blame” might be a provocative way to put it, but it’s absolutely the case that customers are responsible for the declining importance of surveys in the CX landscape. Here's why. 

18th May 2021

Are you tired of hearing about how COVID-19 is changing the business world? Are you tired of hearing about the customer data lake that is always 18 months from delivering value? Are you tired of hearing about how customer surveys are breathing their last? Are you perhaps wondering how these topics are connected?!

I’m tired of COVID, data lakes, and fretting about surveys too. But they do connect, and they’re the reason we’re on the cusp of massive change in the customer experience space. As the world slowly emerges from COVID, companies and consumers will need to find a way through the perfect storm of change in the business world.

Customers are rethinking what’s important to them when they interact with businesses, and smart companies are figuring out how to think differently about how they understand their customers and what they do with the insights. So instead of rehashing the historical forces, let’s focus on how companies can take advantage of this customer-driven reset and figuring out how to think differently about how they understand their customers.

It’s a race to effectively use the data lurking in our companies, and the winners will have a huge value advantage that the laggards will find nearly impossible to overcome.

Where is that fabled data and insight anyway?

Customer experience professionals have had a core problem since time immemorial: data. Now, of course CX programs have data – the point of surveys is to collect data about customer attitudes. But unless you’re kidding yourself, you know the life cycle of that survey-driven data is a sad one indeed:  

  • After months of wrangling around survey design and sample you finally get a survey out – Wahoo!
  • Three months later you have completed the analysis and you have you findings with some really insightful recommendations – Wahoo!
  • Leadership nods sagely, we are committed to customer focused decision making, but the budgeting cadence has passed us by…

So no real investment in change. And in any case, despite their sage nods, your leadership team almost surely feels underwhelmed by the low survey response rate, and they’re not as impressed as you are by your favorite results chart. The cycle begins again.

Customer experience professionals have had a core problem since time immemorial: data.

OK, so leadership doesn’t leap into action. Surely your front-line colleagues will run with those insights and make changes in their area of responsibility? Please get in touch if you’ve had this outcome, because it would be very uncommon. The limited data that fails to impress executives also fails to impress frontline leaders, because once its segmented for their area of responsibility, it’s even less compelling. Plus it’s old, and they are moving fast.

At the core then, what we as CX professionals don’t have, and don’t deliver, is useful data that helps business leaders make decisions they feel confident about.

Decision-making is still top down, and that’s bad news

I’m not the first to make the case that decision-making in most companies is too top down. Just ask McKinsey, where advocacy for distributed decision-making has a long history. Pushing decision-making out to the frontline and empowering employees to take action just makes sense, and for those few companies able to achieve it has delivered real value, particularly during the upheaval of the pandemic.

But distributed decision-making is rare, and that’s because people don’t have the information they need to act with confidence. Leadership doesn’t have it, so they know that frontline teams don’t have it either. And that prevents companies from moving away from top-down decision-making teams and leaders since they don’t have trust that decisions will be well-informed and well-guided.

It also means frontline teams are reluctant to push for control of decision-making, because they don’t have confidence that they’ll be able to achieve the hoped-for outcomes based on the limited data and insights they have.

So we are stuck, especially when it comes to customer data and insights. Note that there’s a good reason for that – company leadership and frontline leadership are right not to trust the customer data they have. It’s limited, infrequent, and backward looking.

A broader set of data isn’t a simple answer

Let’s revisit the dreaded data lake, with its continual promise of future value. It’s no secret that companies have a great deal of operational data with the potential to deliver insight on customers. This is especially true in the digital world, where every customer interaction produces the kind of “digital exhaust” that somehow, some way, we think could produce valuable insights.

But how? It’s increasingly clear that putting data in a data lake results in … a lake of data, devoid of insights that anyone can use. Maybe in 18 months? All this waiting is exhausting.

Putting data in a data lake results in … a lake of data, devoid of insights that anyone can use.

How to make magic using the ingredients you have 

Customer surveys, despite the flawed data sets they produce, have the critical advantage of structure. They’re constructed with a purpose in mind, and that’s to understand the minds of customers. They’re not always perfect, but the structuring of the data set is key to the value they do deliver.

Here’s where the magic happens: When we use customer surveys and modern technological capabilities to impose some structure on the amorphous but ample data we’ve been dumping into the data lake … well, now we have insights we can really use.

They’re up-to-the-moment (because they’re based on a constant stream of operational data), they’re complete (because we have data for every customer and account), they’re targeted (because they reflect what customer think and want), and they’re actionable (because the operational insights needed to drive change are literally built in).

Once we’re delivering insights that are refreshed constantly, cover all accounts, reflect known customer preferences, and are completely actionable – now we’re ready to distribute decision making. Executives, team leadership, and frontline staff can all trust those kinds of insights.

Why blame customers for your dying surveys?

“Blame” might be a provocative way to put it, but it’s absolutely the case that customers are responsible for the declining importance of surveys in the CX landscape. Why?

  1. They have changed their behaviours, from the way they interact with companies to the habits and patterns of their broader lives.
  2. They have changed their expectations, partly because of their changed behaviour, and partly because of shifts in the business world.
  3. They have put their foot down and said “NO” to yet another meaningless “we care what you think” email with a link to the drudgery of another online survey.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of despairing about these changes in our customers, and bemoaning the role of COVID-19 in accelerating the transformation. But rather than throwing up our hands up in horror and ignoring customers from this point on, it’s smarter to get creative and focus on what matters.

Now is the time for change, customer-wise

The underlying transformation in customer behaviours, expectations, and willingness to engage all comes back to a core concept: Trust. As we emerge into the new business landscape, it’s inescapable that customers (and business partners too) want to align themselves with companies and brands they feel they can trust to do right – right for customers, right for the community, right for the world. Though that may sound like a B2C-aligned idea, it’s true in B2B as well, where partnerships can be critical and even more long-lasting.

The best way to build trust – and keep it – is to show that you are listening to your customers in a meaningful way. And that’s where the deeper, more complete insights we can now deliver come in.

In parting, a double warning. First, this shift will reshape the organizational landscape within companies. If you don’t figure out how to lead this customer-alignment transformation, or at least collaborate with the group that does, you’ll be marginalized. Learn how to be a driver of change, not a roadblock to it.

Second, the competitive landscape will transform too. Rest assured, a business in your competitive space will figure out how the combine the data from surveys with the data from operations to deliver insights everyone trusts and uses, and that business will leave its competitors far behind with transformational speed. Make sure it’s yours.


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