You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

By John W. Weikert

How many clichés have you found that apply to the “live” operator business such as “Your service is only as good as your worst operator?” How would you ever really know what impact your total business is having on your customers if you haven’t surveyed your customers? If you haven’t surveyed your customers, your business operation is based on guesswork. The bottom line is that customers are just about the most important component in any business. If you aren’t keeping them happy, they will find someone else who will.

The bottom line to the successful operation of a live operator business is maintaining a loyal customer base. Present answering service owners must look for new ways to improve their business which can be done by applying corporate management techniques. To apply these techniques, management must have the information to utilize the changes and improvements. Thus in order to improve customer retention and increase profits, management must have continual feedback from its customer base.

Customer surveys can identify factors that are most predictive of customer risk and loyalty. Recent surveys conducted of answering service customers found that between 23% and 28% felt their existing service provided either fair or poor service. This alone indicates that an astounding number of customers might be ready to switch services.

In real business terms, a lost customer is a shocking expense. New customer prospecting is expensive, so good customer care matters! For an example, the cost to purchase new customers from another service can range from $400 to $600 per account. Conversely, a dissatisfied customer can spread the bad news and undermine your business.

Here’s some examples of how management can use the information produced from a survey:

  • establish a company-wide standard for performance and customer satisfaction
  • immediately contact all dissatisfied customers and rectify any misunderstandings
  • reward top performers and initiate additional training on poor performers
  • detect negative trends as they occur – not after
  • identify which strategies should be emphasized in the sales and marketing process.

The following responses are from a recent customer survey taken around the country. The question asked was “Please tell us how (name of TAS company) could become even more important to you?”

  • “This firm is very unprofessional on the phone when/if they answer at all. One of my parishioners asked what time the church service was held and was told they didn’t have the information. I have also had numerous complaints that the phone simply wasn’t being answered.”
  • “Patients who call on weekends with emergencies are cutoff. several times. This is unacceptable in a medical practice and can potentially become a legal issue. It should never happen.”
  • “If they would: answer the phone more politely, give correct information about the office, take messages instead of abruptly getting rid of callers, answer the phone when asked after one ring instead of 15 rings.”
  • “We lost a big contract due to their inability to answer the phone. They let it ring 7 – 10 times then mispronounced the company name. There were also babies crying in the background.”

In all fairness, there are many customers who also have a great many accolades to say about their service.

The only true way to evaluate your client base is to have an independent company perform the survey function. Many times it’s easier for customers to respond candidly to an objective third party. It will cost more than for example, enclosing a survey card to your customer base, but the results and analysis can make a world of difference in the way you conduct your business. It is not uncommon for a research company to achieve a response rate of 35% or more which gives a statistically accurate assessment of your customers’ loyalty factor. A survey can take anywhere from a few days to about 75 days depending on the complexity.

Here are eight things to look for in a survey:

  1. Simplicity of Language: Questions should be clearly and easily understood. Avoid questions such as “do our operators engage you in interactive dialogue”.
  2. No Ambiguity: Avoid words such as “often”, “usually”, or “normally”. These terms mean different things to different people.
  3. High Level of Confidence: Confidence levels are dependent upon the number of people surveyed. Thus aim to survey 95% of your client base or higher.
  4. A Carefully Chosen Sample: Choose the right mix of people from your client list. Samples can be selected at random, by cross section, stratified according to specific criteria etc.
  5. Selecting the Most Appropriate Question Format: Deciding what kind of questions to use is an essential part of the questionnaire design process. Survey developers must avoid making the mistake of asking only what someone thinks are the important questions. Ask the customers what they think the important issues are. Ask what improvements they would like to see; what new services can be offered. People may be asked to rate something according to a certain scale i.e. 1-20 (use a scale that will give a range of response but not too large as it can be overwhelming); to check off their response to choices; to answer simple yes or no; or to answer how they feel about a certain issue.
  6. Survey Administration: One must now decide how to administer the survey; by email, mail, fax, letter, by telephone etc. How will you encourage people to complete the survey and how are they to send it back to you? What is an acceptable rate of response? There are factors to be considered for each of these issues and the best test designers will and should explain the differences.
  7. Scoring and the Turn Around Time: How the survey will be scored (turn around time) can be important factors in your choice of a survey design and provider. Today most, if not all, surveys are scored by computer and should be analyzed by computer. This will give you the fastest turn around time and the greatest degree of complexity and sophistication in data analysis.
  8. The Kind of Report that will be Produced: Survey results are usually reported in the form of tables, graphs and written comments. You must decide how much complexity and detail you want and can use. A good rule of thumb is to strive for simplicity, clarity and brevity. Decisions about the report should be tempered with some thought about who is going to read it, to use it and how the information will be disseminated to other people in the organization.

Surveys are one of the most important tools to use in determining customer loyalty. Contact a market research company for additional information. Your customer’s loyalty factor can either make or break your organization.

John Weikert, of J. Weikert & Company, may be reached  at 203-371-6423.

[From Connection Magazine, May 1994]

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