Don't Invite Customer Feedback If You're Not Really Listening

Last Updated Jul 29, 2010 3:43 PM EDT

Do you really want my feedback?I'm not an habitual complaint-letter writer. But I had an experience recently that chafed me just enough that I had to fire off a note. I wanted to vent but I also wanted to do a little customer service experiment: Could I get a huge company to listen to my feedback?

Here's what happened: My cable company changed its on-screen and DVR interfaces after a big marketing and advertising buildup, and replaced it with a new, completely unintuitive system that shows no evidence of being tested on real people. I may not watch a lot of TV but I do know that this new system is just plain awful.

I went to the company's contact page on the website and found a drop-down menu of reasons for contacting them. (I'm pretty sure that selecting one or another category does not actually improve your odds of getting routed to the proverbial "correct department" but I'll save that for another post.) I was at least encouraged to see that "Feedback" was an option.

So I wrote a brief note offering my opinion, as a longtime customer who has spent no small amount of money with them over the years (some rough math suggests that I've spent perhaps $30,000 or more on cable TV in my adult life, which makes me kind of sick. But I digress). There, it was off my chest. Perhaps I would be pleasantly surprised by getting a personal call or e-mail from a customer service person letting me know they are listening and taking all feedback on the new system very seriously. Or, even if they weren't taking it all that seriously, they would at least let me know that they had read my note.

First, I got the usual, immediate autoresponse that my e-mail had been received and that I could expect a response within two business days. (Don't get me started on how ridiculous and inexcusable a 2-day response is in this day and age.)

Sure enough, two days later I got a generic e-mail from someone in tech support. She said that she understood I was having problems with my on-screen menu and DVR functions, assigned it a trouble ticket number, and asked for more information on the specific problem I was having, so they could diagnose and repair the issue. I got the sense that the only words in my note that they read were "on-screen menu and DVR."

I decided that trying to explain would only shorten my life further, with little or no hope of anything but more frustration. So, I continue to pay for and use this lousy system. Why don't I speak with my wallet and consider satellite TV or just get rid of cable altogether? That's a valid question. But it's not a big enough deal and we're busy people with kids, so for now we just put up with it.

All too often, this is what happens when customers are effectively a captive audience. Service providers have no incentive to do anything more than provide the basic level of service required. So they get complacent and they put up the equivalent of a suggestion box with a hole in the bottom and a trash can underneath.

Great and elegant companies, on the other hand, solicit feedback, really pay attention to it, and offer a thoughtful response, even if it's brief, and even if it's not always what the customer is hoping to hear. And before you say that it's an unfortunate factor of company size, with all due respect, I say that's bull. It is completely within the capability of even a large company to really listen and take personal care of people -- if the company is interested and motivated to do so. There are shining examples of this: Try calling zappos.com and talking their ears off about your picky taste in shoes for a half-hour -- They want to hear all about your feet. Really. In fact, their record customer service phone call stands at six hours. (Side note, I highly recommend the new book Delivering Happiness by zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh. Nobody does it better).

The moral of the story is best summed up in a saying my father likes to use: "If you don't want to hear what I have to say, don't ask me for my opinion." Don't tell customers how important they are and how much you want and need their feedback, only to prove through your behavior that not only do you not care, but you aren't even listening.
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    Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at www.businesswithclass.com.

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