Time to junk the satisfaction survey

Why your customer strategy should focus on complaints

I was half listening to the news the other day when I heard a story about a couple who were selling their new-build house at less than they paid for it “because it was sh*t”. Apparently, the poor people had got so fed up with the number of things wrong that they had wearied of their constant complaints to the builders and decided that to put it on the market. Presumably they’d felt that the loss they’d realise on the sale would be less than the stress of continuing to live there.

I can’t find the reference to the story – there’s only so many times you can type four-letter words into Google – so I don’t know who the builders in question were, although they did issue a statement to say that the customers had received compensation and repairs in line with the contract they had signed. Whoever they were though they have missed a massive opportunity. In fact, they should have paid the couple handsomely for taking the time to complain, because

complaints are the best customer feedback you can get.

So wrong, it’s right

Most companies I know invest time and money in finding out what their customers think of them. The problem with this “voice of the customer” approach is that, when applied to all your customers, it just produces an average view – i.e. what keeps most of them satisfied. Even the sainted Net Promoter Score approach frequently fails to ask the net promoters why they are so enthusiastic about the company.

I think you could just junk most customer satisfaction surveys as the surefire way to get meaningful feedback is to make it easy for the customer to provide you with it, positive or negative.

Think about it: customers who love you or who have just had amazing service will want to tell you about it and those who haven’t will also do the same.

“That’s all very well” I hear you say, “but what about the ones who don’t complain and just leave.”

To which my reply is: too bad – you probably didn’t act on the feedback from your complainers earlier – and those middling-dissatisfied customers would be unlikely to respond to your customer-wide survey.

Inconvenient truths

I’ve noticed that organisations generally don’t give as much attention to complaints and negative feedback as they should do, and I think the reasons for this is that there’s a bias – reassuringly it’s a human trait – towards good news. We’re hard-wired to create a story around the way we want things to be rather than how they actually are, or indeed, how they appear to someone else.

Customers who fail to fully appreciate the products and services we’ve spent a massive effort perfecting are an inconvenience, a distraction from the narrative we’re trying to create, even when their lack of appreciation is down to something we’ve failed to deliver.

Our bias, therefore, is towards those customers who fit the norm. Unfortunately, they are not the source of innovation and improvement.

Just about managing

Dealing with customers who don’t fit the norm – i.e. the massively dissatisfied ones – is the domain of complaints management which is a frequently neglected and under-resourced area. The overriding attitude is to get the complaint dealt with as efficiently as possible, making sure the customer isn’t over-compensated along the way. Sure, you need to provide redress and to put things right, but the opportunity is often missed to find out what the customer’s desired outcome was and to do what you could to deliver that outcome, not just the initial product service.

For example, the hapless couple in the new-build house probably wanted something more than a non-leaking roof over their heads (although apparently even this was beyond their builder’s capability), they wanted a home. And whilst this isn’t an unusual outcome, I bet the building firm didn’t have the nous to sit down with their customers and find out what it was about a home that they wanted – their unspoken needs if you like. Finding and delivering against these, rather than ineptly repairing an initial botched job, would have created delighted customers.

Complaints at the core

Building a customer strategy around complaints is the efficient, if counter-intuitive, route to increasing the number of delighted customers. The elements of such a strategy should answer the following questions:

  • How easy do we make it for customers to provide feedback? (Answer: it should be very easy, and through multiple channels, including social media.)
  • How do we resource those channels?
  • How far do we empower front line people to sort out complaints focusing on customer outcomes?
  • How do we learn from feedback?
  • How do we use the learning to be able to anticipate and deal with complaints before they happen?
  • Who is responsible for driving through the improvements that result from root cause analysis?

Focus your strategy on answering these questions and you can drop your customer satisfaction surveys.

Ten tell-tale signs that show you’re not that customer-centric

It’s not what you say, it’s what you do (or don’t)

Are you customer-focused, customer-driven or customer-centric? If you’re any of those things that’s probably why you’re reading this, but does the organisation you work for feel the same way?

In our work with CX leads we come across a real tension between what companies say they care about and what they actually do. Very often, the tension is so great that it’s a real disconnect. The result? Wasted effort on customer initiatives that don’t have sufficient momentum and under-realise potential benefits.

So, what can you do about this? It’s best to start with what the organisation does: a good reflection of the environment within which a culture of customer obsession can grow. Here’s my take on the tell-tale signs that will tell you that – unless addressed – getting genuine customer focus to take root will be tough.

1. Customers don’t figure in strategy

This is the obvious one, so let’s get it out of the way first. But before I do, I should say that there is no hard-and-fast rule that says you must have customer focus to have business success. You can build a company that successfully prioritises other things: being faster and/or cheaper than the competition, creating innovative products. And in most cases, you’ll need enough customers to buy your super-cheap or fabulously innovative products so obviously that’s part of any business strategy. But if caring for customers, creating a superior service experience, enabling employees to make customers happy, including customers in your community or other words like that don’t feature in your strategy – and even more critically in the plans and budget allocations that follow – then it’s a good bet that your company is driven by something else.

And that’s fine, but just don’t expect a long CX career there.

2. No-one is curious about customers

One characteristic of successful customer-driven companies is that everyone – from the CEO to the front-line – is interested in what customers think, what they want and what they aspire to. That shows up in a number of ways: senior execs don’t go “back to the floor” once a year, they talk to customers and the people whose day job is to provide a service to them on a weekly or even daily basis.

When you have people in your organisation who are curious about customers, you get ideas and you get genuine conversations about customer outcomes that help you build killer propositions. The converse is that if you don’t come across this quality on a regular basis, your organisation is almost certainly focused elsewhere.

3. One measure is pursued relentlessly

As fellow contributors have argued (here and here) it’s senseless to focus all your efforts on measure of customer satisfaction or customer success when customer behaviour is such a complex thing.

It’s one of the subtler symptoms of a lack of customer focus that a focus on one measure of success – yes, Net Promoter Score I’m talking about you – means that an organisation can kid itself that it’s customer-focused when in fact it’s paying lip-service to customers with one simplistic measure. And when you relentlessly pursue the one measure, people get rewarded on it and then start to influence the measure rather than what the measure tells you.

Life, and customers, are much more complex than that, and your measures should reflect that.

4. Complaints are seen as a problem

Does your organisation have a well-resourced complaints department that deals with customer feedback in a prompt and positive manner? Or is the prevailing view that complaints originate from a few awkward customers who probably weren’t in your target market anyway? If it’s the former then you’re mining the rich seam of customer feedback for some customer-driven improvement but if it’s the latter then that’s another sign that something else is the focus, and it isn’t the customer.

5. Difficult or vulnerable customers are shut out or marginalised

Well, no-one would have this as an explicit strategy but it’s a symptom of having an idealised view of the customer rather than reflecting the messy reality that people find themselves in. One way of testing this is to look at your organisation’s policy for vulnerable customers: does it exist, and if so, is it translated into action that means that customers who don’t fit the “norm” are catered for and treated equivalently? Being customer-centric means being focused on all your potential customers.

6. Social media is not understood

I’m often staggered by the ineptitude of media campaigns generally, particularly where the brand takes a bit of a battering as a result of poor service performance. In these situations, social media appears deaf to customer feedback. So, if you see your organisation failing to respond constructively to grumpy tweets or fractious Facebook posts then there’s a good chance that customer-centricity has failed to take root in your marketing department.

7. Cost-cutting hits the contact centre first

Where a business allocates its budgets is a good indicator of what its priorities are. So, if your contact centre is under pressure to cut costs that’s a sign that customers might not be a priority. But again, this is a subtle sign: spending more on contact centres could mean that your organisation can’t stop customers calling who’d rather not have to sit in a call queue for ages. But if the focus is to cut costs first and then ask why customers are contacting you, it’s a sure sign that cost-saving comes before customer experience.

8. Digital streamlining is everything

Of course, the reason for cutting contact centre costs is usually to direct people online where the chances are that they will receive a slicker, more streamlined service. That’s absolutely the right thing to do. But if your streamlined service is at the expense of human contact to handle exceptions, queries or special assistance then you’re digitally excluding part of your customer base.

9. Silos are indestructible

Despite the protestations of management theorists, organisations today look much like they did 30 or more years ago, with Sales, Marketing, Operations and Finance all with a seat at the top table. I’m not advocating a different way of organising as an essential part of being customer-centric: as far as I’m concerned, we’ll need those functions and disciplines for at least the next 30 years. But if the functions turn into indestructible silos, with no genuine co-operation between them, then customer-driven efficiencies from cross-functional processes are going to be hard to generate.

10. Jerks get promoted

In this article I’ve not focused that much on the creation of a positive, customer-focused culture, possibly because you can’t be that prescriptive about what works. It’s easier to focus on what doesn’t help and I have argued elsewhere that the prevalence of assholes in an organisation can have negative consequences for performance. So, if you’re in an organisation that promotes people despite their negative, self-centred or bullying behaviour then you’re in an organisation that it not committed to employees’ happiness and, without that, customer happiness is likely to be in short supply.

Look on the bright side

Customer-centricity isn’t the only game in town, but if you’re in a role that espouses it whilst your organisation shows signs – as illustrated above – that it’s got different priorities then you could be in for a stressful time.

On the positive side, if it’s genuinely committed to becoming more customer-focused, then any of those ten tell-tale signs will be a great place to start your change initiative.



Most strategies don’t work! Here’s how to have one that does

Most organisations have a strategy, and many devote some of the best and smartest brains in the organisation to developing and implementing it. Almost all of this falls short in some way or other. So, is strategy failing to deliver?

In their new book “Beyond Default: Setting Your Organization on a Trajectory to an Improved Future” change strategists David Trafford and Peter Boggis pinpoint what’s wrong with most business strategies: the failure to realise what trajectory you are on – and why – and where it’s taking you.

I had the pleasure of working with both David and Peter when we were all at CSC Index, the consultancy that gave birth to business reengineering, back in the 1990s.

I recently caught up with David and asked him some questions about the compelling and practical ideas the book contains.

NB: The idea of an organisation being on a trajectory is a compelling one, but I’ve not seen it articulated in this way before. Has anyone else defined strategy in a similar way before?

DT: Not that we’re aware of. The thinking emerged over many years of consulting to and advising companies and it really accelerated over the last eight years since we set up our own company (Formicio). We kept hearing language like “This organisation is hard-wired, it will never change” and CEOs would say the organisation won’t change or people tell me what they think I want to hear but nothing changes. And when you talked to non-execs they would say we need a change of direction – but the only lever they’ve got is to change the CEO. Companies were spending millions of pounds on transformation programmes, but they weren’t delivering. We figured something more fundamental must be going on.

As we thought about it we started to use the term “default future”, we were then approached by a publisher who had seen some of the ideas on our website and thought they would make a good book. When we suggested a title for it, which was too long and complicated, the publisher suggested it was really about taking organisations beyond their default, hence the title of the book.

Then we started to use the term trajectory rather than “path” and the more we worked on it, the clearer it became. In 2016 we concluded that our default future was that the book wouldn’t get finished if we just continued to talk about it. So we sat down to write it: once we’d articulated the default future it became easier to take action to change our own trajectory.

NB: The idea of a trajectory makes sense to me because anything you plan to do is a bit like shooting an arrow long distance, you have to set it off on a path and hope it gets somewhere near the target.

DT: When we launched the book an old colleague of mine – who’s an engineer by training – asked why we were using the term trajectory. He didn’t get it initially but then after a while he came back to me and said it’s like crossing a river – if you want to get to the other side, you have to take the current into account.

NB: The first half of the book makes for tough reading if you’ve spent part of your career working on strategy as it sounds like we’ve been wasting our time defining things that can’t be implemented! Is it the strategy that’s wrong – not taking account of those internal and external forces? Or just poor execution? Or are people just over-optimistic about the chances of success?

DT: All of these things: When CEOs think of the future, they think of the future they want to have, not the one that they’re going to get, so they falsely assume they can change the trajectory of the organisation and also that they’ve got more power to change it than they really have. So they say “We’re going to become X”, but don’t articulate X very well. Often there’s a small group involved in developing the strategy but that doesn’t mean everyone outside that group understands it. Very often strategy is poorly communicated or is based on false assumptions.

I’ve seen many strategies but often I just don’t get it. I find myself thinking, is it so sophisticated that a simple person like me doesn’t get it or is it just nonsense? I usually then ask: “help me to understand how by doing this you achieve that?” This simple question often triggers a rethink.

So, there are three things that are often wrong: 1) a false assumption that you can get the future you want, 2) it’s poorly articulated and 3) it’s poorly executed

NB: Particularly if it involves IT?

Absolutely! Take customer experience: it’s easy to say: “we’re going to give our customers a compelling digital experience”, but you have to consider your legacy infrastructure. It doesn’t mean to say you can’t start doing it but it’s more of a directional thing than an end state – you need to be cognisant of the limitations. A number of digital transformations have started but then failed. People underestimate the money and effort required to re-platform.

NB: And often the solution is just to put more and more effort into building that platform…

DT: It’s a false assumption that organisations are capable of delivering digital. One Insurance CEO we spoke to realised that their IT capabilities were wrong so went externally (to Silicon Roundabout – London’s digital agency hub) and brought it in. Another CEO in a different sector bought a pureplay digital company – then had the challenge not to destroy its successful culture.

NB: Is there an optimum size or shape where it’s easier to articulate the default and desired futures? Some businesses are complicated so there will be lots of different trajectories?

DT: It’s a combination of size, complexity and legacy thinking. The optimum size is where it’s perceivable by the CEO – i.e. it can be retained it in the head all at the same time. For example, a mobile digital bank is fairly straightforward, but for a global bank with many lines of business in different geographies, you can’t easily do that. The divisions can but then the challenge is to align the different trajectories.

What I see is the CEO delegating accountability to the divisions and this translates into individual strategies but with no overarching trajectory or synergies. So, a new group CEO can say the focus is on delivering end to end digital CX, but legacy thinking leads to doing things in the same way. When the overarching strategic intent is translated into the divisions, something gets lost along the way, for example, how does the US division align with international? Executives do different things according to their accountabilities and incentives. Silo organisations are, in themselves, a powerful navigating force that keeps the organisation on a certain trajectory.

NB: Silos will always exist though and – as articulated in your book and through our own experience – operating principles can be a powerful tool to help link across the silos.

Absolutely right – operating principles are a powerful way of making strategy meaningful to those people who were not engaged in developing the strategy. When we articulate principles we’re effectively saying do it this way not that way – a principle always implies a conscious choice.

Many organisations confuse principles and policies – but if you articulate principles there are implications, and this is what needs to be managed. You can’t just declare them, you have to manage the implications (which in turn will shape your policies and procedures).

You can then translate operating principles into design principles for different facets of the organisation, for example IT systems, processes and organisational structure.  These in turn will have implications that need to be managed. It requires joined-up thinking, which actually is quite rare.

NB: So you’re making conscious choices about the culture you want to create – but I didn’t spot the word ‘culture’ anywhere in the book. Was this a conscious choice?

DT: Yes, we intended deliberately not to use it and chose instead to focus on ‘organisational capabilities’. In addition, I don’t think you’ll spot the word vision in there either – or mission.

NB: These are all terms that are well-used, and that people understand, but I’ve started to use “purpose” as this has a greater simplicity. This also connects to your personal purpose as you state at the end of the book.

I like the example of purpose. We didn’t use the language of vision or mission as they are based on a false assumption: it assumes we live in a static world. And it assumes that we can define a change programme to take us to our vision. But we live in a volatile and uncertain world, and by the time you get to your vision, you find you need to be somewhere else because the context has changed.

What we say in the book is that the future exists but it’s not evenly distributed. You have to be cognisant of the exogenous navigating forces that are continually changing your context and the strategic trajectories you could pursue.

NB: You did pick up on one well-used term: Operating Model – but in my experience it’s used differently and less powerfully that you intend.

You’re absolutely right: it’s a powerful idea that has been hijacked and corrupted. It has to be consciously designed and it’s multifaceted (processes, IT, organisation, roles and culture). Very often it looks like the organisation has been designed by accident!

NB: The other powerful idea is that of a “strategic signature” which I would simplify as “taking all the things that we’re doing and varying them”

DT: About three years ago we were working with company and the CEO and Board were having difficulty becoming aligned around the strategy. We helped them identified their different strategic axes – which represent their sources of value – and then facilitated a process where they decided if they were going to introduce new strategic axes or drop some existing ones.  They then decided where they where are you going to operate on each strategic axis.

And the resulting “signature” is unique, even between different players in the same industry, and when you identify current and future signatures this leads to a meaningful conversation about where you can “increase the volume” on some axes and turn it down on others. It’s a very simple tool that creates a meaningful dialogue and alignment of understanding.

NB: Can you cite organisations that have embraced this approach wholeheartedly?

It’s difficult to find one that’s done everything in the book and also some of our client examples are confidential, so we can’t quote them directly. What we’ve done is to cite organisations that are in the public domain who show evidence of doing, or have done, what we’re talking about – even if they don’t know it.

For example, that’s why we used Blockbuster, it’s well cited by anyone who can remember them. Nokia also follows the thinking exactly. And with GE, we talk about their strategic focus shifting to industrial products and the industrial internet and moving away from financial services. However, the cost of changing their trajectory is proving to be higher than they would have liked due to liabilities they retained when the divested their insurance businesses.

NB: What’s your advice to someone who’s not a CEO – how can they get started?

DT: Start by using the language.  I’ll give you an example: my son, who works in a large multinational organisation has been using the language of default future for some time and about a year ago he was in a meeting with his boss’s boss and other some senior people when his boss’s boss started to use the terms default future and trajectory to describe their strategy.  It’s now becoming more commonly used across the organisation. More recently he’s introduced the language of operating principles, so I would say just start using those ideas in conversations in your business.

More information on David and Peter’s book Beyond Default can be found at www.beyond-default.com

Closing the loop: the vital missing component in complaints handling

You need a strategic approach to managing complaints that focuses on customer outcomes as much as what went wrong.

I recently described complaints as being an under-exploited goldmine of customer feedback. Companies need to widen their focus from purely complaints i.e. dealing with the “expression of dissatisfaction” to a more strategic approach that I refer to as “closing the loop”. This means joining up the three main parts of complaint management into a coherent programme that’s focused on change and improvement in the quality of overall customer outcomes as much as customer satisfaction in relation to the original issue.

Why is this important?

According to market researcher Pierre-Nicolas Schwab, in a 2015 article, the data shows that complaints from customers are not taken that seriously or are ignored.

  • More than 50% of companies don’t answer complaints
  • In 2013, post-complaint satisfaction was still at 1976 levels (RAGE survey 2013)

And, looking at the latest US RAGE survey, $313bn are at risk because of dissatisfaction in the US alone.

It’s time to get strategic.

It’s time to close the loop.


It’s rare that companies adopt this approach – or if they do it’s underpowered – and – as the statistics above show – it represents a great opportunity to create differentiating customer value. The underlying components are simple to describe:

  • Detection – identifying the complaint or the potential complaint and averting it if possible.
  • Handling – dealing with the complaint when made and restoring the customer back to the state they were in before the error occurred
  • Learning – identifying what went wrong at the “root cause” level in relation to either stated or expected customer outcomes and then taking action to:
    – prevent future occurrences
    – identify the potential contribution to the wider outcome-driven operating landscape.

This last part will be different from traditional best practice, but the complaint interaction creates a fantastic opportunity not only to repair the issue but create a level of loyalty – and therefore business impact–over and above what could have been achieved if the complaint had never happened.

In other words, customer complaints can be used as the basis for customer innovation – and in my experience very few organisations are currently doing this.

Detect and survive

Going back to basics. The front end of complaint handling takes place before a complaint is made and, at best, avoids the complaint being made at all. This requires the ability in each contact channel to detect imminent dissatisfaction and take action to deal with it.

Different channels will require different skills to carry out this, for example:

  • Face-to-face channels require staff who can pick up on the visual cues that a customer is potentially irritated.
  • Similarly, an experienced agent in a call centre should be able to detect from a customer’s tone of voice that they are unhappy.

In both these cases situational training and role play can help build competence since not all of your staff will be naturally empathic.

In the digital world we have not yet reached a point where machines can match an experienced front-of-house manager or call centre agent for empathy but there are various ways it can be simulated. It’s possible to detect if a customer’s online journey is particularly slow and then to prompt with help and support messages. Similarly, the availability of an online chat button means that customers can divert to a human (or chatbot) for support rather than getting frustrated with an online experience that’s not working for them.

But online doesn’t just mean websites: social media are increasingly an opportunity –in some cases the preferred channel – for customers to vent their dissatisfaction. Early detection here is crucial given the propensity for some grievances to go viral. It pays to have a light touch when dealing with these – as UK retailer Argos did in a “street speak” exchange with a disgruntled would-be PS4 purchaser back in 2014: the amplification performed by the Twitterati performs a handy bit of brand enhancement.

Dough balls

This front-end detection isn’t always possible however as the customer may be complaining about something long after that initial first point of contact so it’s vital that the customer can raise a complaint easily. In fact, complaint and feedback should invariably be encouraged.

Sometimes you can go to a company’s website and immediately find out how to provide feedback – I recently raised a complaint with UK bank TSB and could find it within a couple of clicks (the eventual resolution wasn’t great but that’s another story) and everyone’s favourite First Direct is similarly easy – but other businesses are a bit more coy, relegating complaints to a more obscure area – in the case of NatWest’s personal banking site for example it’s hidden in the Support Centre which, to me at least is less than blindingly obvious.

This attitude suggests that some businesses don’t welcome complaints or any kind of feedback, which is nuts, since finding out what customers think of you is, you know, quite a good idea.

But people don’t actually like complaining (unless they’re a CX-obsessive like me, but even I can get worn out by the sheer tedium of it) so it pays to make it easy or to incentivise through competitions – entering a prize draw – or vouchers (Pizza Express’s How Did We Dough? for example). Personally, I think the instant gratification of a low-value item is better than the chance of a prize, since it says that the business values your opinion – but maybe I just like dough balls.


Getting your “complaints radar” working on all channels is key to minimising the actual complaints you have to deal with. They may be a great source of feedback, but once a complaint is made it’s costly to process and provide redress so early intervention is always preferable.

In the next part of this series we’ll go on to consider how to handle the complaint effectively when it is made and how focusing on the customer’s intended outcome will help deliver a resolution and an enhanced overall experience that can change a detractor into a raving fan.




image of an airliner landing

Ryanair has a customer-centric approach, but it’s not what you think

I recently co-wrote a report on customer-centric strategy for NextTen that included Ryanair as a (positive) case study. The recent problems with pilot scheduling might cause me to make a hasty edit – but I think not: Ryanair is thoroughly customer-focused, but their low-cost approach illustrates the challenges of maintaining such a strategy when things go wrong. In fact, pursuing this strategy appears to be more likely to cause these problems.


Ryanair reported record earnings earlier this year, attributing this uptick to a  increased focus on customer experience. However, what was described by CEO Michael O’Leary as a ‘boo-boo’ (may not have been his exact words) on pilot schedules caused the cancellation of 2,000 flights and has unleashed a storm of criticism from customers, staff and commentators.

So, what’s gone wrong? Leaving aside the technicalities of pilot rostering, the issue that’s surfaced shows that, when your customer proposition is low-cost, you walk a tightrope between delivering against that proposition and driving the model too hard with no slack for when cock-ups happen. Ryanair’s been an acknowledged leader in driving down costs in an industry where being perceived by your customers as lowest cost represents an enviable position to occupy. O’Leary’s acknowledged that their crew costs are about €5 per passenger (versus an alleged €9 by Easyjet) and this gives little room for manoeuvre when you ask your pilots to go the extra mile and forgo some leave, even when there is a financial reward. Ryanair is raising pilot pay in some centres, but whether this is enough to stop the defection to other airlines remains to be seen.

Hello schadenfreude

For those who like to indulge in schadenfreude, the travails of Ryanair are a boon, and rivals such as Lufthansa have lost no time in capitalising on their misfortune. Meanwhile it’s provided the humorous end of the commentariat with another opportunity to sneer and roll out the old jokes about Ryanair’s destination airports’ distance from the actual destination, surly staff and so on. But none of this is likely to matter in the long term: Ryanair will continue to have a reputation for low-cost travel and customers will continue to put up with some inconvenience in their search for a bargain.

That said, some of the customer experiences when their flights were cancelled were not a shining example of customer care. I heard many accounts in the media of long-planned special trips that were not happening and, whilst Ryanair are offering standard compensation, this will probably not be sufficient for those whose desired outcome was more than ‘get me from A to B for least cost’.

Maintaining a laser-like focus on its core, low-cost customer proposition is what Ryanair does very well and if that focus has blurred a little in recent weeks with a consequent impact on share price, it’s unlikely to dent their performance in the long term. I see no need to change my view that Ryanair remains thoroughly customer-centric.