Have you received a retail store receipt with a link to a "Customer Satisfaction Survey" lately? I feel like I see a dozen a month. There’s been an explosion in customer satisfaction measurement over the last decade in the consumer world. It became a hot topic with books like Fred Reichheld’s The Ultimate Question—all about Net Promoter Scores and how to know if your organization is successful in keeping customers loyal.
But for B2B companies, customer satisfaction measurement isn’t quite as easy. You can’t exactly send an online survey to a client that you do tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of business with and expect that it will go well.
So how can B2B companies effectively measure customer satisfaction? There isn’t a one size fits all answer—an approach that’s right for one company will depend on the size and nature of their customer base, their industry, and their approach to managing their business. Here’s what I’ve seen at various B2B companies.
Option A is to not measure customer satisfaction. There are hundreds of thousands of B2B professional services firms (lawyers, accountants, consultants and others) who don’t measure customer satisfaction other than by seeing if clients come back. They might argue that they aren’t sure how to measure customer satisfaction well so they don’t do it, or that they can’t control satisfaction so there’s no point in asking the question, or that they measured in the past but weren’t willing to make the changes customers wanted, so it doesn’t make sense to ask the questions in the first place. In other words, don’t poke the sleeping bear.
There’s a part of me that cringes at this. And there’s another part (the practical part) that says, "Yeah, I can see that." The textbooks will argue that they should measure customer satisfaction, but given all the reasons they have for not doing it, I can see why they don’t.
Options B and C are for B2B companies who do want to measure customer satisfaction. Because they believe it will help them more effectively manage their business (and there’s lot of data to support that), there are a few ways to approach it.
Options B and C have two steps. The first step is to figure out which questions to ask (fewer is better). The ultimate question—which boils down to “Would you refer us to do work for someone in your network?”—is a good one for most B2B companies. It cuts to the heart of the matter, so if you can only ask one question, this is the one to ask. But asking a few other questions is helpful because it will allow you to make changes to the areas of the business that matter most to your customers.
When you decide what questions to ask in your customer satisfaction assessment, keep the "shadow effect" in mind. The "shadow effect" is when one parameter of satisfaction greatly affects the others. The best example is the airline industry. After doing thousands of customer satisfaction surveys, the airlines realized that on-time arrival had a major "shadow effect" on their ratings. If a flight arrived on time, passengers would rate the whole experience—from food to service—satisfactory. If the flight arrived late, passengers would say that the food was bad, the flight attendants rude, and the airplane dirty. On-time arrival colored their view of the whole experience.
Not many companies know if they have a "shadow effect"—a single parameter that affects how customers feel about everything else. Figuring that out and then delivering exceptionally well on that one parameter is a strategically powerful way to improve B2B customer satisfaction (not just your customer satisfaction rating).
The second step is to decide how to ask the questions. In Option B, you get someone who can effectively represent your brand to call your customers and explain that their role is to evaluate satisfaction. It’s good if they are not directly an employee of the business. They might be on the board or affiliated with the company somehow, or an outside person or firm retained by the company. They should explain that they’ve been asked to make the calls so that customers can provide the most candid responses and not be swayed by relationships they may have with the company’s staff or management. They can ask open- and closed-ended questions so that they’re able to obtain qualitative insight and quantitative data. After the calls they summarize their findings—both the hard data (numerical ratings, etc.) and their insights (comments on what customers would like, what issues they’re having) and present the results and some actionable recommendations to the company’s leadership team. In an ideal world, the management team will then make plans for change and communicate these back out to customers. Basically a “Here’s what we heard from you, and here’s what we’re doing about it.”
Option C is to have a senior person in the firm do the calls or meet in person with customers. This can be effective but is not as easy. Executives can get sheepish about asking the questions, customers can skirt issues, and often the results don’t get tabulated well so there aren’t actionable recommendations coming from the evaluation, which defeats its purpose. It’s worse to ask the questions and then do nothing about the responses than it is to not ask the questions in the first place.
If you have a large customer base and sell smaller-ticket services or products, you can consider using an online survey tool. In this instance, if a lot of the customers are users and a small group are decision-makers, I would recommend an online-survey for the users and a telephone interview for the decision makers. To do this you’ll need email addresses for everyone. Put your questions together in an online survey and send them out.
B2B companies can get a huge amount of value from customer satisfaction evaluation—not just feedback on what they’ve done well in the past, but what they can do well in the future. If they’re smart about it, they can also figure out the key drivers of satisfaction, which helps them focus resources on the areas that matter most to customers. But, effective B2B customer satisfaction assessment is all about HOW you do it—and doing it poorly is worse than not doing it at all.