Why Customers Should Not Help Write Your Vision

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A question I'm often asked is what role customers should play in helping a company write its customer service vision.

A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page. Creating one is the most important step you can take toward building a customer-focused culture.

My answer surprises people. I don't think customers should be involved at all when you write your customer service vision.

Group of professionals gathered to write a customer service vision statement.

What is the danger of asking customers what they want?

There's an old episode of The Simpsons where Homer discovers he has a half-brother named Herb Powell. 

Herb is the CEO of a car company called Powell Motors, and he's frustrated by his design team's uninspiring new car concepts. So he enlists Homer to help design his company's next car, believing that Homer personifies the wants and needs of the average American consumer.

The result is a disaster. The car, dubbed The Homer, is so overloaded with unnecessary features that it can't be sold at a profit. 

There's a real-life lesson here. Customers have diverse tastes and interests. And a customer merely wanting something doesn't automatically mean a company can make money providing it.

I’m a huge fan of the online pet store, Chewy. It offers convenient online ordering, a huge selection of products, incredible prices, and has a fun and helpful service culture. Chewy’s sales have grown rapidly over the past several years, but the retailer has yet to turn a profit.

At The Overlook, a vacation rental cabin my wife and I own, we've gotten all sorts of requests. A few have asked for air conditioning, which would be cost-prohibitive to install given the short warm period of the year is also a slow time. Others suggested we list The Overlook on Airbnb, but the listing fees would add expense without bringing in much additional revenue. (Airbnb would also make The Overlook more expensive for our guests.)

Sometimes different groups of customers have conflicting needs. For example, all the rooms at The Overlook have either a king or a queen bed. This is perfect for our target market, but others would prefer bunk beds, sleeper sofas, and air mattresses to accommodate as many people as possible in one house.

When I researched customer-focused organizations while writing The Service Culture Handbook, I consistently found these companies resisted the urge to be all things to all people. That’s why you won’t find a chicken salad on the menu at In-N-Out Burger, but you will find a line of loyal customers waiting to get their hands on a delicious cheeseburger at 10pm on a Wednesday evening.

Who should help write your vision?

The vision should be rooted in reality. It should describe how you’d like to serve customers in the future based on how you serve customers today when everything is going well. For this reason, all employees should be given a chance to provide input on your customer service vision.

This step-by-step guide describes how to do that.

When it comes to drafting the vision statement, there should only be 7-10 people in the room, plus an outside facilitator if you decide to use one. More than that, and the group becomes unwieldy. Fewer than that, and not enough perspectives are included.

The group should be comprised of a representative sample of employees:

  • At least one frontline employee. They keep it real.

  • At least one senior leader. They provide authority.

  • At least one mid-level manager or supervisor. They're the link between execs and the front lines.

Many organizations try to have the executive team create the customer service vision at a retreat. My research reveals that's a big mistake.

Should you ever ask customers about your vision?

Absolutely!

The time to ask customers for their input is after you write the vision and start using it to guide your operations. This is when customer feedback can be invaluable. Keep in mind you're not asking customers what they want, you're asking them how well you are executing your vision.

At The Overlook, our vision is welcome to your mountain retreat. We constantly use guest feedback from surveys, comments, and even our own observations, to refine our approach. For example, we added extra guest towels after learning that many guests like to shower after returning from a sweaty hike, but don’t want to use the same towel later that evening when they use the hot tub.

How can I write a vision statement?

Here are some resources that can help you write an effective customer service vision:


What is an Effective Employee Onboarding Process?

A friend of mine recently started a new job. It's not going well.

She was gung-ho at first. The new gig represented a step up from her previous position, the work seemed challenging, and she felt the new company had a lot to offer.

Then reality set in. The company's onboarding process was disjointed, and left my friend without the support and training she needed to fit in. She spent her first week just trying to get her office phone working.

Within a few weeks, my friend started wondering if she had made the right decision. Shortly after that, she started looking for a new job.

Experiences like this are all too common. That's why re-vamping employee onboarding is a top challenge I hear from training and human resources professionals. 

So what exactly is onboarding, and how do you do it right?

A bored employee plays with post-it notes at her desk.

What is employee onboarding?

Employee onboarding is a process that starts the moment a job offer is accepted and ends once an employee is fully trained to independently do their job at a minimally competent level.

There are various elements that are typically included:

  • New hire paperwork

  • Provisioning tools, resources, and equipment

  • Mandatory compliance training

  • Job-specific training

  • An introduction to the company and culture

The ultimate goal of a good onboarding program is to engage employees by creating a sense of belonging and securing their commitment to make a positive contribution.


Why is onboarding important?

There are a few benefits provided by an effective onboarding program:

  • Increased engagement

  • Increased productivity

  • Lower turnover

My friend is an example of what happens when onboarding goes poorly. She's already disengaged, meaning she's not sure how she can help the company succeed. Her productivity is lower than it should be because she doesn't have the right resources. And she's a turnover risk since she's already looking for a new job.

This two minute video follows two employee onboarding programs to highlight the stark differences between effective and ineffective approaches.

How can you build an effective onboarding program?

A strong program consists of five stages.

  1. Pre-Hire

  2. First Day

  3. Orientation

  4. Training

  5. Performance

Pre-Hire: This stages starts when a job offer is accepted and goes until the employees first day. It's an opportunity to prepare new hires for their new job, and to make sure you're prepared for their arrival. For example, it's a best practice to share new hire paperwork ahead of time. It's also important to make sure all the necessary tools, resources, and equipment (i.e. computers, phones, uniforms, etc.) are ready for the employee's first day.

First Day: A new hire's first day forms a critical first impression. You want new employees to feel like they made a great decision to join your organization. I advise my clients to include a social element on day one, such as a lunch or a meet and greet, so new hires can start making friends with their colleagues. Another best practice is to give employees a small project on their first day so they can immediately make a contribution.

Orientation: This is where new employees learn about the company, including its history, mission, and culture. Be careful--there's a real danger of sharing too much information during orientation. Employees are bombarded with so much information during their first few days that they're likely to forget most of it, so try to give new hires information on a just-in-time basis.

Training: Every employee needs adequate training to learn to do their job. Frontline employees in many organizations are under-trained, and leaders often get even less development. In my book, Getting Service Right, I describe how a lack of training contributed to my very first customer service encounter ending in failure.

Performance: New hires often need extra coaching and feedback from their boss during the first days, weeks, and months on the job. This can mean the difference between quickly performing at a high level, or struggling to meet even minimum performance standards.

You can get step-by-step instructions for building your own program from my Running Company Onboarding course on LinkedIn Learning.


How to Increase Survey Response Rates by 370%

Andrew Gilliam, ITS Service Desk Consultant

Andrew Gilliam, ITS Service Desk Consultant

Small changes can often lead to big results.

Andrew Gilliam is an ITS Service Desk Consultant at Western Kentucky University. He improved the response rate to customer service surveys by 370 percent simply by changing the wording of the survey invitation email.

I interviewed Gilliam to learn about how he was able to do it. He provides a lot of helpful, actionable advice into this short, 20 minute interview. 

Topics we cover include:

  • Why you should survey both internal and external customers

  • What constitutes a "good" response rate

  • How to improve your survey invitation email

  • What types of customers typically complete surveys

  • Why you need feedback from angry, happy, and even neutral customers 

You can watch the full interview here. Follow Gilliam on Twitter at @ndytg or contact him via his website.


I Took Every Survey For a Week. The Results Weren't Good.

Customers are inundated with surveys.

We get them on receipts, via email, and in the mail. Shop somewhere and you're asked to take a survey. Don't shop somewhere, and a survey still appears. Visit a website and ping!, you get asked to take a survey.

I decided to take a week and do a small experiment. During that week, I would take every single survey I was asked to complete. The idea was to test three things:

  1. How many surveys would I be offered?

  2. Were any of the surveys well-designed?

  3. What was the experience like?

I was asked to complete 10 surveys during the week. That pencils out to over 500 surveys per year! No wonder customers experience survey fatigue.

Only one of the 10 surveys was well-designed. Every other survey had at least one glaring flaw, and most had multiple failures. More on that in a moment.

And what was my experience like? Most of the surveys backfired. The experience was so poor it made me like the company even less.

Person filling out a customer service survey to report a negative experience.

Surveys Are Too Difficult

When you ask a customer to take a survey, you're really asking the customer to do you a favor. A lot of the surveys I took made that favor really difficult.

Just accessing the surveys was a big challenge. 

My first survey request was on a receipt from the post office. The receipt had a QR code that I was able to quickly scan with my phone, but then the survey site itself was not optimized for mobile phones.

A survey from Dropbox wanted me to first read and acknowledge a confidentiality agreement before completing its survey.

Confidentiality agreement required to take the Dropbox survey.

The super odd thing was the confidentiality agreement had it's own survey! This extra bit of aggravation got even more annoying when the survey required me to fill out the comments box to explain my rating of the confidentiality agreement.

Survey requiring a comment.

Back to the first Dropbox survey, I had been working on it for 11 minutes in when I hit an infinite loop. None of the answers to a question applied to me, and it lacked a “Not Applicable” option for this required question. I felt I had put in enough time at that point and just gave up.

The survey invitation from Vons, my local grocery store, was a real piece of work. It was a receipt invitation, but there was no QR code, so I had to manually enter the web address. Then I had to enter a string of numbers along with my email address!

Vons survey invitation page, which requires an email address.

I couldn't complete two surveys due to errors. An email invitation from Chewy linked to a web page that I couldn't get to load. The Human Resources Certification Institute sent me a survey on May 24 that closed on May 23. Completing that survey is pretty low on the list of things I would do if I had access to a time machine.

Poor Survey Design

Beyond being difficult, just one of the ten surveys was designed well enough to provide useful, actionable, and unbiased information.

Many surveys were too long, which often triggers low completion rates. The Dropbox survey advertised it would take 15 minutes. (Who has that kind of time?!) These companies' surveys could easily be redesigned to get better data and higher completion rates from just three questions.

Many were full of leading questions designed to boost scores. This AutoZone survey arranged the rating scale with the positive response first, which is a subtle way to boost ratings. Like many of the surveys I took, there wasn't an option to leave comments and explain why I gave the ratings I did.

AutoZone customer service survey.

The survey from Vons was an odd choose your own adventure survey, where I got to decide which topic(s) I wanted to be surveyed on. 

Screenshot of multi-part customer service survey from Vons.

This created unnecessary friction and generated a little confusion since my biggest gripe on that particular visit was the large number of aisles blocked off by people stocking shelves. Is that a store issue, an employee issue, or a product issue? It’s a great example of where asking a customer to simply give a rating and then explain the rating would quickly get to the core of my dissatisfaction.

The One Good Example

The best survey was a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey from Suunto. 

I received this survey invitation about six months after I registered a new watch on the Suunto website. NPS surveys measure a customer's intent to recommend, so giving me six months to use the watch before asking if I'd recommend it allows enough time for me to know what I like and don't like about the product.

Another positive was it asked just two questions: a rating and a comment. 

Suunto NPS survey.

Short surveys tend to have much higher completion rates than longer ones. Counterintuitively, you can almost always get more useful data from a short survey than a long and tedious survey. (More on that here.)

My question about the Suunto survey was whether the survey was linked to my contact information. This is necessary so someone from Suunto can follow-up with unhappy customers to learn more about the issues they're experiencing. (More on that here.)

Resources to Create Better Surveys

Here are some resources to help you avoid these mistakes and create better surveys.

You can also get step-by-step instructions for creating a great survey program by taking my customer service survey course on LinkedIn Learning.


Why Customer Service is Always Running Late

This wasn't a bucket list item, but it was close.

My favorite winery in Napa was hosting an exclusive winemaker dinner, with another party the following day. My wife, Sally, and I love this winery and it sounded like an amazing weekend.

I signed up for the interest list to get notified when tickets went on sale.

Five weeks went by with no news. I emailed my contact at the winery for an update. She replied a day later, "Tickets go on sale Tuesday." It was Friday.

Tuesday came and went with no notice. I emailed again the following Friday but received no response. On Monday, I called and left a voice mail but still no response.

A day later, my winery contact emailed me. The tickets are finally on sale. It was a week later than she'd promised and too late for us. We'd already made plans with some family members who were visiting from out of town.

Why are customer service professionals constantly running late? Here's a look at the reasons why, plus some potential solutions.

Group of businesswomen running late.

Our Overly Optimistic View of Time

A few months ago, I wrote this post about why employees are often late. A problem occurs when employees are overly optimistic about how long it takes to get things done. 

One of the studies I cited was a 1994 series of experiments conducted by Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross. They wanted to see how accurately people could forecast the time it takes to complete a task.

A group of 37 psychology students were asked to estimate when they would complete their honors thesis. The average estimate was way off.

Days to complete thesis.png

Only 11 of the 37 students finished their thesis by the time they predicted. That means 70 percent of the group was overly optimistic.

The researchers anticipated this optimism problem, so they asked participants to make a second prediction after their first one had been recorded. Participants were asked to imagine everything went as poorly as it possibly could. How long did they think it would take them to complete their thesis given that scenario.

The worst case scenario predictions were still off.

Days to complete thesis - worst case.png

Buehler, Griffin, and Ross ran a second experiment where they asked another group of psychology students to think about a school project that was due within the next two weeks. The subjects were asked to predict when they would get it done. As before, the subjects were overly optimistic, with only 43.6 percent finishing by the predicted time.

There was an additional twist. Subjects were asked to think aloud as they estimated the project completion time, and the experimenters recorded and categorized what people thought about. The results were startling:

  • 71% of the subjects' thinking focused on how they would complete the project.

  • Only 3% of thoughts were spent on anticipating problems.

  • Just 1% of thinking considered problems encountered on previous projects.

That last one amazed me. Participants continuously failed to learn from their experience when making plans to complete a task. It also explains why some employees and companies are consistently late.

How to Meet More Deadlines

There are a few things you can do to meet more deadlines and keep your customers happy.

First, whenever planning a task, start with the deadline and work backwards to create your plan. Buehler, Griffin, and Ross found that having a clear deadline can be very helpful—in one experiment, 80.6 percent of school projects were finished on time when the students had a deadline. 

Try to negotiate the latest mutually agreed-upon deadline to give yourself some extra time. So if you think you can get something done by Thursday, ask if Friday is okay. (More on that technique here.)

Next, think about potential obstacles. Here are some common ones I consider:

  • Travel: My available time is limited when I'm on a plane or with another client.

  • Workload: I consider other projects I'm working on at the same time.

  • Personal: My personal life factors into my availability as well, such as an upcoming vacation.

As you think about each potential obstacle, think about how similar situations have gone in the past. For example, if I'm traveling, I know from experience that I'll likely be too tired to do much on the return flight from a long trip. So I don't count on having that time to work.

Finally, lay out a project plan and track the important milestones as you go. My goal is always to get work done early, because you never know what will come up.

In case you're wondering, I told a few people I was working on this post. My promised delivery date was next week. And now I'm early.