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A Positive Voice (of Customer)?

Recent research tells us that consumers are more likely to give positive feedback than ever – but of course, the full picture is more complex. Research methodologies are rarely, if ever, flawless, and data can be interpreted in different ways to be a ‘best fit’ within any organisation or argument. How then can customer facing organisations really understand what is happening to their customers day in and day out?

If you can’t say anything nice...

Growing up as part of a large family, there was always some element of discord and disagreement and I am sure my parents felt that despite their best efforts ‘they couldn’t please everyone all the time’. A sentiment that rings true in the world of customer service.

Two pieces of advice from my childhood that have stuck with me, and I catch myself now saying to my (also) large family are

  • If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all
  • Be kind to people and they will be kind to you

6 out 10 customers give feedback to an organisation at least once a year
(58%, n=2117)

Its never been easier for our voice – both individual and collective – to be heard. We are spoilt for choice as to how we pass feedback to organisations (email, telephone (voice & text), letter, social media, web forums etc) and we have quickly learnt that those who shout loudest (i.e. use social media to air their views) will, most often, get the quickest (and most crowd-pleasing) response.

A recent (dire) shopping experience with one leading UK Retailer, an organisation that relies on a VOC programme to capture how well they are doing, got me thinking about the effectiveness of these programmes. Do they really capture enough of the detail and depth of understanding that is needed to help shape, imbed, and improve a coherent, holistic customer experience?

To that end, we commissioned a piece of research (Nov 17) to better understand the frequency, motivation, and methods that we, as consumers, are giving to customer-facing organisations. The results indicate – overall – that there’s a shift towards positivity. But the question is whether this gives us a true and full picture, or whether the value and applicability of any qual-quan research, in a world where consumers are savvier than ever about how data is collected and what it might be used for – gives us what we really need when we ask what’s really happening at the ‘coal-face’ of customer interactions in any environment.

We wanted our research to provide answers to some ‘simple’ questions, questions that we are often asked by our clients:

  • Who actually responds to organisations? Why do they do so? And what can we learn?

1 - The positive generation: Baby Boomers are more likely to praise

  • Baby Boomers are most likely to proactively contact an organisation. Heeding my mother’s advice, this generation will more frequently pass on positive feedback than focus on the negative.
  • Millennials are least likely to provide feedback to organisations, but are more motivated to pass on feedback following a negative experience than a positive one, and are more likely to use social media to let their views be known publicly.
  • 25 – 34 years, living in London, are the most likely customers to provide negative feedback.
  • 45 -54 full time workers living in the North East & Scotland focus on the brighter side of customer service, choosing more often to contact organisations after a positive experience.

What we can learn from this?

Overall, there has been a shift, and perhaps one that’s surprising. People are increasingly likely to give positive feedback than previously thought, and moreover, those people are more likely to come from a diverse band of ages and physical distribution. The Boomers, often painted as negative in media, are more likely to praise and give positive indications. The Millennials, a little more likely to complain. And people in the North and Scotland are highly likely to praise, as opposed to those in London.

What can we deduce from this? Perhaps that millennials, so conscious of the nature of brands and the ability to ‘get something out of them’ are aware of the power of their voice to effect change. But also that generations can surprise you. As to the split of London and the North – we may be seeing, in the macro context, the effects of increased cost of living and pressure of life. But of course, here we are inferring. In the end, nothing here argues for anything less than a strong, personal engagement – and perhaps, an improved process across the board for dealing with negativity and turning it into a win.

2 - Not waiting to be asked: more people are being proactive to praise or complain

37% of customers have proactively given feedback in the last 3 years
(n= 1598)

There’s no one-size-fits-all statements to make here, it’s clear from the data that more people than ever are being proactive in their feedback. More than ever, people will get in touch. The majority of these will be with positive feedback, perhaps again, echoing the advice of my mum from years ago to be kind.

  • 2/3rds of customers proactively getting in touch with an organisation do so because of a positive experience
  • Organisations are hearing more about what they are doing well. In a time where we are all encouraged to be kind, to drive improvement through positivity, to pay it forward and to not offend, there is a danger that organisations may get a skewed response on how they are performing every day. The loyal customers remain satisfied, and the vocal ones are heard, but the everyday customer – the 40% who do not provide feedback – may vote with their feet and take their custom elsewhere.
  • Unsurprisingly, the most common method for proactively contacting companies is via email
    • 77% of customers proactively giving feedback will do so via email
    • Social media is the 2nd most popular channel (34% of respondents)
  • We typically prefer non-verbal means of communication with organisations, even when we are passing on positive feedback. Just 1 in 5 customers will pick up the phone and have a conversation.

What can we take from this? Above all that the nature of the customer relationship is evolving as empowered customers can not only ‘receive’ from the companies they interact with but actively deliver response. This is no longer a distribution of requests for information from companies, with passive reactive responses. The customer, often positively, is pushing back. This inherently makes the relationship more complex and underlines that, potentially, customers not only have more power and voice than ever in it – they know they have the power to make change. However, it also might mean that, because of the availability of non-verbal channels to engage with the companies that deliver to them, customers simply feel that they can air their experiences more easily and fully and without interruption. This last is surprising, given the often-repeated ‘truth’ that people like to interact with people (particularly older audiences like Boomers). This may be an old idea in a culture more and more used to interaction across the web and social channels, etc; but it also might be more evidence that the idea of demographics itself is on the way out: customers, and people, are not easily ‘fittable’ into one demographic or another any longer. The complexity inherent in this data, of course, once again tells us that we can only make some (educated) assumptions – and that nothing takes the place of a well-put-together customer experience, and measurement of it.

3 - Asking for insight: who responds to requests, and why?

When customers are specifically asked for feedback, 59% of customers will do so, but what motivates this group? Perhaps in the end, while there is strong evidence that people want to pass on positive feedback more, a key determinant is whether people feel it is convenient for them to do so.

  • 30% of customers who respond do so because they want to give feedback after a positive customer experience. Just 18% of respondents were motivated to give feedback after a negative experience. Times have changed from when we last looked at this, when motivations for passing on prompted feedback were equally split between positive and negative experiences.
  • The second most common motivating factor is when customers have time available to help the company (23%) - a nod to the establishment of more effective ‘close the loop’ VOC programmes than previously in place – as customers may now feel more encouraged that their voice is not only heard, but also acted upon.
  • 20% of customers are motivated by an incentive, with a monetary reward driving an increase in respondent rate.

Muddying the waters further still is that 75% of customers will consider previous experiences (and/or perceptions) of the organisation when completing feedback, so it becomes harder for organisations to understand if their data is based on their current service offer, or tied up in legacies of the past.

In the end, the voice is not the only measure

Through all these statistics, another word of caution needs to aired: Our respondents were taken from a panel of individuals who had chosen to answer these questions – a panel of individuals who were getting something in return for their time. It’s interesting to note that even then, 11% of our respondents said they would never give feedback to any customer-facing organisations.

In conclusion, what does this tell us?

It tells us that a VOC programme is a great measure, but tends to look at extremes of customer service and response. If it’s your only measure, it may not be giving you a full, live and active understanding of what your customers are really experiencing, and therefore how you and your business need to respond. While the trend overall is towards an increasing positivity of response, this is not in itself telling you everything is right – there are too many variables around the reasons and motivations of customers to respond, whatever demographic they’re in or channel they use to do so.

Organisations need a flexible framework of measurement where VOC is a critical, but not the only, tool to use to better understand, shape, and improve the way they interact with and support their customers.

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