How Can We Listen to Customers When No One Is Talking?

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I RECENTLY attended an event with more than 100 customer experience professionals—back when such events were still happening in person—where the focus was on gathering, analyzing, and taking action on customer insights. Throughout the morning, the conference featured presentations on techniques, advice, and case studies, all focused on this important business topic. In the afternoon the conference shifted to a discussion format with several rounds of short, small-group conversations on approximately 15 different topics.

Maybe it was just me, but it seemed like every conversation, regardless of the topic, circled back to one central issue: survey response rates.

It didn’t matter what type of survey was being used or who the potential respondents were; everyone seemed to be expressing frustration about getting customers to respond to their surveys. I get it. Surveys are everywhere and most people simply don’t have the time or the inclination to respond to every request they receive—and in our newly uncertain and distraction-heavy times, such requests may move even further down the priority list. But at the conference, I sensed a mood of tired defeat. It was as if everyone was throwing in the towel.

Granted, it’s not simple. But let’s consider some practical steps to improve the way we listen to our customers.


Yes, response rates are a big challenge, but here are a few tried-and-true methods to increase responses, if even just a little.

• Ask right away. Response rates increase when you ask immediately after the goods/services are delivered. Immediate feedback is also considerably more accurate than feedback collected just 24 hours later.

• Make it personal. Use information you already know about your customer, such as “Hello, Pat, thanks for your purchase of your sweater today.”

• Pick the right channel. Use surveys that engage with customers on their terms—email, SMS, social media, web intercept, etc.

• Let them know in advance. Send pre-communication from a trusted source in your company to let customers know an invitation is coming; this is particularly effective in strategic relationship surveys. What’s more, share the reason you’re requesting input and how you will put their feedback to use.

• Keep it brief. Particularly if there is no incentive to complete a survey, it’s important to keep it short and focused.

• Send reminders. Yes, reminders work. Limit the reminders to no more than three and refresh the language with each one.

Much of this comes down to common sense. We all receive countless requests for surveys. What prompts you to respond? Usually it comes down to whether the request is timely, relevant, and important.


Traditional surveys can only go so far. Be open to other methods and strive to have the optimal mix of listening methods to collect the feedback you need for your business. Below are just a few of the many options available.

• Qualitative interviews. Consider forming a team where each person talks to one customer each week from your most important customer segments. While the number of respondents is much lower, the feedback from these customers is much richer.

• Voice of the customer through the employee (VOCE). Instead of only surveying customers, survey your frontline employees. They’re in touch with customers every day. They’re more than willing to tell you what’s on their minds.

• Panels. How about recruiting a group of willing customers who agree to respond when you ask for feedback? These engaged stakeholders will participate because they get to have a say in the development of your strategies. The same is true of customer advisory boards, which meet more formally to provide advice and direction.

• Unsolicited feedback. Online communities and other social media sources provide an opportunity to listen in on customer conversations. You get to hear unvarnished opinions about your company and your solutions.

• Operational data. Various types of operational data, or “O-data”—such as spending patterns and usage data—tell you a great deal about customer behaviors. When it is combined with experience data (X-data), you can get a well-rounded picture of what’s happening as well as why it is happening.

No voice-of-the-customer method is perfect. That’s why a combination of approaches makes so much sense. CX leaders should stop lamenting about poor response rates. Instead, accept that it is a challenge to get the full attention of your customers. Then move on to develop a listening architecture that delivers actionable insights to grow your business. 

Patrick Gibbons is a principal at Walker, a leading customer experience services firm. He can be reached at pgibbons@walkerinfo.com.

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