Listening to the voice of the customer

There are few gifts in business more valuable than customer feedback.

The insight into a customer’s mind is invaluable; and because feedback is most common when something goes wrong, it is nearly always focused on an area that needs improvement.

Customer feedback not only showcases a company’s faults, it also gives clear advice on how to remove them. It allows businesses to turn a customer’s negative situation into a positive experience.

And fortunately, it’s never been easier to acquire than it is right now.

In today’s world, businesses looking to tackle customer feedback need to look no further than the phones on their desk.

Nearly every form of feedback today can be transmitted through a smartphone.

When the message is short, a quick phone call remains tough to beat, says Walt Sherbourne, vice president of marketing at Dayton Parts.

“[Most calls] are usually pretty brief; ‘If you did this it would help me,’ or ‘you would be more efficient if you did this,’” he says. “Our customer service team gets those calls almost every day.”

Sherbourne says Dayton’s customer service center is built specifically to handle those messages. Each team member is trained in receiving and recording feedback, as well as dealing with a wide variety of customer emotions.

And that’s an important aspect of acquiring customer feedback, says Liz Macpherson, customer service manager at Haldex.

Customers call when they have a problem; they rarely call to say “thank you.”

“Most of the feedback we receive is when someone has a specific issue at that moment and they need to have it resolved,” she says. “They have a truck down and need a part, or have a question about a repair, at that exact moment.”

“The customer can sometimes be emotional,” adds Darlene Shepherd, customer experience manager at Michelin Truck Tires, North America. “It’s important that we respond to them with the highest level of service and professionalism as we can.

“We want to do whatever it takes to ensure the customer is satisfied” at the conclusion of the call, she says.

And while a well-trained customer service team is a great asset in these situations, Sherbourne says it’s important to note that not all customer feedback is directed to a call center.

Sales people receive a ton of feedback, too, and must be equally trained to positively respond.

The reasons for this are layered, suppliers note.

Good sales people are the face of their company to their customers. They are typically the person a customer contacts first to answer every question they may have. A sales person who struggles to manage those calls not only hurts their direct relationship with their customer, they also weaken their company’s brand.

Brands also can be damaged by indirect customer feedback: through conversation and online.

While poor word of mouth remains nearly impossible to track, customer comments posted on social media and other Internet platforms can be found, and addressed.

To hear everything customers are saying online about Michelin, Shepherd says her customer service team has a strong online presence. The team actively manages its social network feeds, using its training to offer advice and solutions to customer comments.

“We try to be available for customers no matter [which] touch point they choose to communicate with us,” she says. “We want to increase the customer’s level of satisfaction and loyalty with our products.”

Which is why suppliers say the instant customer feedback is acquired it is important to respond.

A solution is not always immediate, but for a customer facing downtime, speed matters.

The amount of time and team members needed to find a solution typically varies depending on the customer’s request, says Sarah Rogers, marketing specialist at Reyco Granning.

According to Rogers, sales and customer service employees at Reyco Granning are educated on problem solving as part of their customer service training, and are given authority to respond immediately to as much feedback as possible.

Rogers cites a shipping or ordering mistake as one area where Reyco Granning’s customer service team is capable of an immediate response.

“That [type of request] doesn’t need to be escalated to anyone else,” she says. “When our [customer service] people receive a call like that they know who to contact within our operation to address the issue so a new order is placed at that time.”

A similar strategy is in place at BorgWarner Thermal Systems, where customer service and sales people provide the first line of defense when handling all feedback, says Richard Harrold, national fleet and aftermarket sales manager.

“With our primary products all of our people are trained so they can answer most of the questions we receive,” he says. “When questions become more technical in nature, we have them transfer those questions to our technical support line where our engineers assist” the customer.

In both cases the companies note their goal is to fulfill the customer’s need during the first interaction. Return calls are acceptable, but the businesses believe customers have a better experience when it only takes one call or conversation to solve a problem.

“That’s what we try to do,” says TA/Petro’s Jim Reed, vice president of truck service marketing and recruiting. “When a person who receives a customer request is able to handle it, or knows who to contact in order to handle it, we tell them to take care of the customer at that time.”

Adds Sherbourne: “The worst thing is having a customer on hold and not knowing who to ask for help. You can’t waste the customer’s time like that.”

Yet not every customer request can be solved in minutes. In these situations, keeping a customer apprised of progress in solving their issue is incredibly important.

A customer issue that can’t be repaired in one conversation cannot be forgotten.

“We know how important it is to [our customers] that we respond in a timely manner,” says Lessie Hoover, customer service support and training manager at Michelin. “We don’t want them to feel they’re waiting for us.”

“It’s not always going to be one [call] and done,” says Macpherson. And when it’s not, she says Haldex has standards in place to escalate an issue and help get it resolved. Among these benchmarks are requirements that customers are notified on a regular basis of progress made in addressing their feedback and questioning them about other ways the company can lend support.

The internal targets are equally important. By setting corporate standards, the suppliers say they can be sure no customer’s feedback is overlooked.

This is also where record keeping becomes absolutely vital, says Reed. Customer feedback that’s been well cataloged and outlined is much easier to solve, he says, because its shows you the genesis of the problem. (See page XX for more.)

And even if a problem takes weeks to solve, the customer must always remain in the loop.

Customer feedback may be negative in nature, but that doesn’t mean businesses can’t turn them into a positive customer service experience.

On the contrary, says Sherbourne. Customers provide feedback because they want the company in question to be better.

“Customer feedback is probably the most important part of our business because if we don’t listen to our customers we’re not going to have customers,” he says. “They give us great information about how we’re doing and how we can be better.”

Harrold says responding to customers is the “No. 1 goal and responsibility” of BorgWarner’s sales and customer service teams.

“We want our points of contact to be able to help customers resolve any issues they might have,” he says.

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