Improving the Customer Experience Begins with Active Listening

This is an expanded version of a presentation I gave at the Customer Experience Summit on May 13, 2009 at The Art Institute of Chicago. The event was hosted by TeaLeaf and OpinionLab.

Feedback, Voice of the Customer, whatever you want to call it is not new. It was born with that first comment or letter to Customer Service, store manager or the President of the company expressing outrage or praise over a recent experience. Today most large firms have formal processes in place for collecting feedback across numerous channels. Collecting information is easy, organizing it is harder and making changes based on feedback sometimes requires Congress to act. We are seeing Voice of the customer getting more attention these days for a number of reasons.

  • Increasing use of the Internet by consumers
  • Renewed focus on digital marketing in this economic downturn
  • Explosive growth of social networking

As someone responsible for the online customer experience of a large site, I am very interested in customer feedback. We get bits of it through usability testing prior to launching features and functionality, but those events are spaced out over the course of the year and part of a specific feature of function of the site. It’s critical to monitor what customers are saying about their experience on your site on a more regular basis, like daily.

If it’s your site on the screen this young woman is confused about on her laptop then you very much need to know what she’s thinking.

Is this your site on this laptop?
Is your site on this laptop?

Your Customer is talking, so listen

You should be collecting customer voices from multiple channels across the company. This feedback falls in one of two classes:

  • Internal Voices
    • Ratings and comments submitted on the site
    • Inbound e-mails
    • Call center discussions
    • Mail / executive letters
    • Surveys / research
  • External Voices
    • Blogs
    • Video sharing networks
    • Twitter streams
    • Media sites

Within all that feedback are rich clues you can mine to improve the customer experience. But if you are a large company this will mean an overwhelming amount of data and pose collection and processing challenges. You must leverage technology to help you make sense of all this feedback and weed out the noise. There are dozens of firms that can help with this. Which one you choose will depend on your objectives.

Practice Active Listening

We’ve all heard about active listening through a psychology class, team building exercise or during one of those individual development discussions you’ve had with your manager. It’s half of effective communication. The SIER hierarchy of Active Listening was developed in the mid 1980’s by communications researchers Steil, Watson & Barker. They were responding to data that told them humans immediately forget 50% of what their are told and an additional 25% after two days.

SIER Hierarchiery of Active Listening
SIER hierarchy of Active Listening

By practicing active listening on your customer feedback you will be taking important first steps to improving your customer experience. I’m thinking about going so far as to changing the term customer feedback to active listening for my team. Here are techniques we use:

  • Collect Voice of the Customer on
    • Most visited pages
    • Highest business value pages
    • Most complex interactions
    • Customer service sections
    • Sensitive areas (pricing, policy, etc.)
  • Track and compare site sub-sections
    • Aggregate scores can be a false friend
  • Look for commonality in feedback across channels
  • Categorize feedback and link directly to a measured business value
  • Take action on changes you can make within your role
  • Recommend enhancements your partners can champion

This establishes a series of filters and brings into focus the most meaningful customer feedback. By meaningful I mean important to the customer and valuable to the business. You must demonstrate an intersection of customer feedback and business value. Without that no one will take you seriously and you will end up frustrated. But that’s only the beginning. From there you need to create a process that works in your organization with an end goal of actually making changes to your site, or marketing practices, even policy. Here is a simple, but very effective model.


You must speak your business partner’s language and invite them into the customer circle. By speaking their language I mean connecting customer feedback to what matters to your partner including the associated business value. If you run your web site you should know exactly how much money you save or revenue you create (or both) with each and every log in. Customer comments are easily rationalized away and marginalized without this monetary value attached to it. The The steps in the process are:

  • Collect: Leverage technology, automate communications and practice active listening
  • Connect: Link feedback to the customer experience (moments of truth) and monetize
  • Inform: Convene regular cross-functional meetings, report findings and make recommendations
  • Act: Translate recommendations into projects with associated business value

It will be tough going at first, which is why you need a process that ties back to business value. Once you make changes you will need to collect the feedback to demonstrate progress, again with business value attached. That reporting coupled with the tracked business results will take you places you never thought you could go. Your customers will thank you and you will be rewarded by the business.

Photo Credit:

2 thoughts on “Improving the Customer Experience Begins with Active Listening”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: