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Measuring Customer Satisfaction

By: Dennis Castiglione

Is customer loyalty dead?

Asking that question across the country prompts far more affirmative responses than we'd care to accept. Certainly we're discovering that it's not enough to deliver a top quality product on time, on budget, consistently to keep business these days. If the printer down the street can top your prices by 5% he'll probably snag the next job. Or will he?

Every company has those cherished few accounts that are vitally loyal, resisting tempting prices and extravagant proposals to stay with us. And we quickly point to the strength of the relationships we've built with those accounts as the reason for that loyalty. Of course, we also acknowledge that when it comes to those special customers, we always find a way to come through for them regardless of the circumstances - so why would they ever consider leaving?

True enough, most of us have had customers leave when we were deadly certain we were totally satisfying them. Merrily we roll along and then one day, bang - they move a big job that was perfect for us! "How the heck did THAT happen?", we wonder "After all we've done for them? Whatever happened to customer loyalty?"

At the risk of oversimplification, it boils down to degrees of satisfaction. The higher the level of satisfaction our customers experience, the greater the trust and confidence they show in us. The greater the trust, the more comfortable they become and the less likely they'll be to move the business for a few percentage points.

The key is to consistently measure our customers' satisfaction levels to be certain we aren't susceptible to abandonment by our accounts. And then taking prompt action to raise the comfort level if we sense a decline. Gratefully, there are several ways to measure satisfaction - formally and informally.

Person to Person

Customers who are quizzed about leaving long-time supplier relationships most often cite neglect as their primary reason. They feel like they've been taken for granted. Somewhere along the way the sales courtship ended and their supplier rested only on reliable performance to secure customer loyalty. It's not enough, and it never will be.

This is still a people business, people doing business with people. And if we fail to acknowledge and respond to silent or audible cries for attention by our customers, someone else will - and they'll move on.

So it begins with a personal touch. The primary contact on the account simply must stay in front of the customer as frequently as possible, but always with a purpose. Educate, inform and persuade, of course, but equally important, that primary contact needs to ask the appropriate questions to ascertain the customer's satisfaction level.
"How are we doing?", "What can we do to improve?" Logical, simple questions, right? But do we ask them? Often?

Unfortunately most companies wait until there is an obvious problem before they pay appropriate attention to some customers. Those accounts who are reliably loyal are all too often repaid for their loyalty with neglect. Lesson to be learned - stay close to your key customers. Don't allow the attention your prime competition pays to your top accounts cost you the business.          

Quarterly Meetings

Some firms find it valuable to schedule and conduct quarterly review meetings with their customers. These quarterly reviews cover performance evaluations on both sides of the desk.

Customer and printer critique the relationship, the performance of the key people, the successful execution of the work done together and the effectiveness of the communication between the firms.

Often the meetings include sales, customer service and top management personnel from the printer and the print buyer, designers and key personnel from the customer.

Current sales volume and historical sales records are reviewed. A written action agenda is prepared to focus on improving the relationship, too.

Annual "State of the Union" Meetings

Another method of measuring customer satisfaction is the annual �State of the Union� meeting. This is often conducted by a top executive from the printer and the key contact from the customer. The sales professional and frequently a �higher ranking� official of the customer company is present for the session.

As the name suggests, both firms review the state of their respective companies in this meeting. Aside from the obvious performance appraisal, the direction, progress and future plans of the firms are also revealed and discussed.

This represents an excellent opportunity for the printer to share industry trends, the availability and cost of raw materials, the impact of technology and other elements. On the other side of the ledger, the customer has the chance to talk about what affects their buying decisions from a marketing and sales standpoint, the competitive pressures they face in their business and the future direction their firm is taking.

This is an excellent company-to-company sharing experience and a wonderful way to bond the two firms as you go forward into the next year. They're routinely held early in the fourth quarter of the year and sometimes include a forecasting of future activity together.

Job Critique Cards

Customer satisfaction cards or job critique cards are the most obvious ways to be graded on performance. We see them in nearly all consumer markets - restaurants, hotels, auto dealerships, etc. And we are also seeing them with more frequency in the printing industry.

These critique cards are distributed to customers on individual projects to give the buyer an opportunity to evaluate the printer's performance. They address the quality of the work done, the timeliness of delivery, the completeness of communication and the overall level of service.

The critique cards can be used on every job produced for every customer. They can also be used to measure performance on only new projects for new customers. How they're used and when is a matter of what the company is intending to measure.

One of the keys to success with this tool is active follow-up with customers who cite problems. To simply ask the question and not respond to dissatisfaction is worse than never having asked the question. A system should be in place to review all responses and answer negatives in a timely fashion.

Likewise, all responses should be shared with all employees, too. It's a great way for everyone in the company to see how the customer's view their performance. It's an excellent additional quality and service assurance method.

Regarding feedback, it's also a great public relations move to share a summary of the results of your critique system with customers and prospects. Publish and distribute a company grade card revealing your performance in the areas of quality, turn around time, service, etc. This grade card might also include footnotes on what the company intends to do to improve it's grades in the next quarter or year.

Customer Satisfaction Surveys 

One of the more obvious and often most revealing means of measuring customer satisfaction is by formally surveying them. This can be done using any number of methods from personal interviews to phone and mail surveys.

The method to be used depends upon the time frame, budget and size of the audience you intend to study. Mail surveys, for example, take a bit longer to execute but are less expensive per response than phone surveys or personal interviews.

Satisfaction surveys can also be managed in-house or using a professional marketing or market research firm. The primary advantage of doing this in-house is most often cost-related. The down side is the possibility of lost objectivity in evaluating the responses or inexperience in the field of market research. These can sometimes be obstacles to the effective execution of the study.

An outside firm can be costly but the return on the investment can be readily measured. Fast results, unbiased appraisals, well-structured questionnaires and objective recommendations of action are all advantages.

One of the down sides to outside firms is their possible unfamiliarity with your company or the industry. They may know the research business but not the printing business. It's your assignment to flatten the learning curve and use these professionals and their skills to your advantage. 

Cost is also a potential negative. The cost of using an outside researcher can be expensive if the audience you're surveying is large and the methodology is more personal (personal interviews or phone surveys). However, it's all relative if you get results that provide a means of accurately measuring your customer's satisfaction levels.

Why Measure?

Hopefully the answer to that question is obvious. But to put it all into perspective, when we look for new business, we strike our competitors where they're most vulnerable - we go after customers that are not only attractive to us, but those who have some level of dissatisfaction that we can pick away at to encourage them to move their business to us. So it stands to reason that our competitors might look for that very weakness in our customer ranks.

Prevention of customer loss or the erosion of customer satisfaction begins with a solid understanding of where you stand with those accounts. And the more successful the measurement process, the greater the chance we can head off potential problems and solidify relationships with our customer base.


Dennis J. Castiglione is the President of Procom Marketing based in Cleveland, Ohio.


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