How to Get Customer Feedback Without a Survey

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I frequently use subscriber feedback to improve my Customer Service Tip of the Week email newsletter. Yet I've never used a survey.

Customers are inundated with surveys, so it's important to think carefully before rolling out yet another one. With my newsletter, I've found I can get a lot of useful voice of customer feedback from several alternative sources.

Here are five ways I collect and use voice of customer feedback.

Business people sitting around a conference table analyzing survey data.

Issue Alerts

The weekly email will occasionally have a small issue such as a typo or a broken hyperlink. I try to proofread each email and test all the links, but problems occasionally do happen.

Typos are my kryptonite.

Thankfully, I can count on subscribers to let me know when there is an error. It's usually just a handful of people who email me about the problem, but that's all the feedback I need. Keep in mind most customers won't bother to tell you about small issues, but that doesn't mean they don't notice!

I have a process in place where I can flag a problem and fix it the next time I send out the same tip. In some cases, such as a broken hyperlink, I may re-send the email with the correction, although I try not to do this very often because I don't like swamping people's inboxes with extra emails.

Discussion question: What process do you have in place to allow your frontline agents to resolve or report problems?


Investigate Icebergs

A customer service iceberg is an issue that seems small and isolated on the surface, but is actually a sign of a much larger and more dangerous problem that's hidden from view.

Someone recently emailed me to let me know she had tried to sign-up for the Customer Service Tip of the Week email, but never received a confirmation. This was a classic iceberg because it was easy to dismiss the problem as a one-off where maybe she just missed the email or the confirmation wound up in a spam folder. 

I was tempted to just manually subscribe her to my list, but I decided to investigate. 

My research led me to a helpful exchange with a support agent at MailChimp, the company that powers my newsletter. With his help, I identified a technical setting in my account that would make my emails more recognizable to corporate email servers.

Here comes the kicker—my weekly subscription rate instantly doubled!

Some of those extra subscribers undoubtedly came from a marketing campaign, where I'm promising to send a PDF of my new book to anyone who is subscribed to the email by September 30, 2018.

But some of that huge increase was certainly due to this technical issue. And I never would have found it if I hadn't investigated the iceberg that came from just one email.

Discussion question: What do frontline employees do when they encounter a strange or unusual problem? Are they trained to search for and identify icebergs?


Invite Conversation

There are a few books that have absolutely changed the game for me. One was Kevin Kruse's book, Unlimited Clients.

A key piece of advice in the book was to invite conversation with your customers. The first version of the book had Kevin's phone number and email address right on the cover, and I can tell you from experience he actually responded!

So I took Kevin's advice and added a special invitation to the welcome email I sent to new subscribers. 

Excerpt from Customer Service Tip of the Week welcome email.

Subscribers have always been able to reply to any email and send a message directly to my personal email address. However, this invitation substantially increased the number of people who actually emailed me.

It's not everyone. (Thankfully—I don't know if I could keep up!) But a couple times a day I get an email from a new subscriber who tells me a little about themselves.

It helps me learn more about them and I often try to share something helpful in response. I've also learned those subscribers are more likely to share their feedback as they begin to receive the weekly tips.

Discussion Question: How can you invite individual customers to engage in a one-on-one conversation?


Catalog Unstructured Data

Something really amazing happens when you take all those individual conversations you have with customers and categorize them.

I went through hundreds of emails from subscribers and categorized the customer service challenges they shared with me. When I decided to put my weekly tips in a book, I put the top ten challenges in a chart and identified tips that could help with each one.

Going through several hundred emails may seem like a lot of work, but it really doesn't take that much time. I probably spent an hour or so. 

It goes even faster if you catalog feedback from individual customers as it comes in. A lot of customer service software platforms have a tagging feature that allows agents to do this on the fly. If your technology won't do it, you can have agents use a spreadsheet or even a piece of paper.

Discussion Question: How can you capture and analyze unstructured data?


Be a Customer

I learn a lot by subscribing to my own email.

This was a trick I learned from working in the catalog industry. Catalog companies would mail themselves a copy of each catalog so they could time how long it took to arrive and could verify each catalog arrived in good condition.

Subscribing to my own email allows me to do something similar.

For example, the Customer Service Tip of the Week goes out each Monday at 8:45 am Pacific time. One week, the email didn't arrive as expected. I double-checked the system and discovered I had set that particular email for 8:45 pm

Oops! Fortunately, I was able to quickly change the send time and the email went out only a few minutes later than normal.

Discussion Question: What can you learn from being your own customer?


Take Action

This post is a bit longer than normal, so here are all the discussion questions in one spot:

  1. What process do you have in place to allow your frontline agents to resolve or report problems?

  2. What do frontline employees do when they encounter a strange or unusual problem?

  3. How can you invite individual customers to engage in a one-on-one conversation?

  4. How can you capture and analyze unstructured data?

  5. What can you learn from being your own customer?

All of these questions can yield terrific customer feedback without ever resorting to a survey! Best of all, the feedback you get from these sources can often be quickly used to make improvements.

You can get five more survey alternatives from this old post.

And, if you really want to use a survey, my course on LinkedIn Learning can guide you. Here's a short preview.

Signs that a service failure lies ahead

Businesses use signs for a variety of reasons. They’re used as advertising to entice customers to come on in. They offer guidance so people head in the right direction. They’re also posted to warn people about potential hazards.

I’ve written about signs a few times before. One post examined an unfriendly sign from a penny-pinching business that may have cost more money in lost customers. Another post had some fun with humorous signs posted in restrooms. I even wrote a post explaining why customers often don’t read signs.

Sometimes, signs warn customers that a service failure lies ahead. Here’s the signage I recently encountered outside a casual restaurant:


Would you want to eat here? 

The rules themselves aren’t unreasonable, but these signs suggest the restaurant focuses more on making sure guests are well-behaved than providing a great experience. 

Signs like this are often just the tip of the customer service iceberg. A closer look at this restaurant revealed other indicators that a service failure is likely to happen. Their rating on Yelp was 2.5 stars. Trip Advisor reviewers were a little more generous with a 3 average. They offered open air seating, so I was able to observe a server greeting a newly seated table. Her opening lines consisted of listing the items they were out of. No “Hello,” “How are you today?” or “Can I get you something to drink?” Just “Here’s what we don’t have.”

All of these signs encouraged me to find somewhere else to eat. 

Fixing service quality at this restaurant will take more than just fixing the signs up front, but signs are a part of a business’s image. It’s hard to imagine a place that offered great service would choose to project an image like this restaurant did with their signs.

Here are a few questions you might ask if you want to look at your own signs: 

  • What do your signs tell customers about your business?
  • Do your signs match the image you want to project? 
  • When rules are absolutely necessary, is there a friendlier way? 

Don't let icebergs sink your service ship


Note: I originally wrote this article in 2009. It didn’t make it over to my recently upgraded website, so I’ve updated and republished it.

Getting the first shipment of your new book is an exciting time for any author. It was definitely a thrill for me to open my box of Service Failure books and see the result of a lot of hard work.

I was excited to hold my first book, blissfully unaware of the iceberg.

I was excited to hold my first book, blissfully unaware of the iceberg.

I brought a copy to my parents when I visited them that weekend. It was my Dad that made the discovery during my visit. Pages were falling out of the book.

We encounter problems like this every day in the business world. The challenge we face is determining whether it is an isolated incident or just the tip of the iceberg. 

Isolated incidents can and will happen. They’re unfortunate, but you can generally recover quickly. 

Icebergs will sink your service ship. That’s because the real problem is unknown. Just like a real iceberg, the hidden part of the customer service iceberg is larger and more dangerous.

Was my parents’ defective book an isolated incident or the tip of an iceberg? Here’s the three step approach I used to address the issue:


Step 1: Don’t assume it’s an isolated incident

It’s too easy to dismiss a problem as an isolated incident. Fix the problem, make the customer happy, and move on.

Rude employee? So sorry, we’ll talk to him. Food not cooked to your liking? Dessert is on us. It took too long to answer your call? We’re experiencing a temporary spike in call volume. 

But what if it’s not an isolated incident? 

Believe me, I wanted the book I gave my parents to be the one and only copy with its pages falling out. It would certainly make things easy. In fact, it would be a relief knowing that the sole defective book went to someone I knew so I could easily replace it.

There’s a simple question I ask whenever I encounter a problem like this:

“Can the same problem exist in other places?”

The first thing I did when I got back home from visiting my parents was check all of my books. Sure enough, every single one of them had the same defect that caused pages to fall out. I had found an iceberg!


Step 2: Find the root cause

As counter-intuitive as it seems, you should not immediately try to fix the customer’s problem when you spot an iceberg. 


Let’s imagine I sent my parents a new book to replace the defective one. How do I know the pages in the new book won't also fall out? I can’t be assured they won’t get another defective copy until I understand the problem. 

Now imagine you are working with a customer who isn’t quite so understanding as your dear old Mom and Dad. Sending out a second defective product will only compound their frustration and hurt your reputation. You can’t fix things for the customer until you solve the problem.

You should always ask this question when you encounter an iceberg:

What caused the problem?

I immediately called my editor at AMACOM once I realized all my books had the same defect. He had one in his office and found the same problem with his copy. He promised to look into it and get back to me right away.

My editor got back to me just a few hours later. They had located the source of the problem. Not all books were affected, but they couldn’t tell how many. As a precaution, they were going to reprint all of the books. 

It was an expensive move, but the right one.


Step 3: Provide proactive customer service

I was grateful to learn about the problem from my Dad. He was able to serve as a customer service canary, an early warning system that alerted me to the problem before it became too widespread.

Learning about icebergs and fixing them quickly allows you to proactively serve your customers. You can reach out to the people affected and offer solutions that minimize hassle. You can also prevent future customers from experiencing the same issue. In the long run, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to fix a small problem now than a large problem later.

It’s always good to ask this question when you find the root cause of a customer service iceberg:

Who else is affected?

Understanding the potential scope of the problem allows you to create a proactive customer service strategy. One big concern with Service Failure was that Amazon had also received an early shipment and had used it to fulfill all of their pre-orders. The good news was that I knew many of the people who had pre-ordered the book and could contact them personally. The bad news was that I didn’t know them all.

I worked with my publisher, AMACOM, to devise a proactive customer service strategy once we understood the scope of the problem. Retailers like Amazon have their own generous return policies that allowed customers to return or exchange defective books, but I wanted to get out ahead of the problem as much as possible. 

Here’s what we did:

  • Several people, including myself, double-checked the new batch of books to ensure there were no problems. There weren’t.

  • AMACOM authorized their customer service department to send out a replacement book to anyone who had received a defective one. The customer didn’t have to return the defective copy. This was a critical step since it would save customers time and effort if they went this route.

  • I personally contacted everyone I knew who had pre-ordered a book from Amazon. I told them how to quickly check for the defect since it wasn’t immediately obvious. I also gave them instructions for getting a replacement copy from AMACOM if they needed one.

  • I followed up with anyone I knew who received a defective copy to ensure their replacement copy arrived in good condition.

This was a lot of extra effort. It was also much better than potentially disappointing many more readers. 

What will you do the next time you encounter a customer service problem? It may just be an isolated incident, but beware of icebergs! 

Do you have a customer service canary?


Coal miners used to depend on canaries as an early warning system for poisonous gases such as carbon dioxide. Miners knew they’d better get out quickly if the canary became sick or died. 

Companies that provide outstanding service have their own version of the coal mine canary. They use early-warning systems to detect and solve small problems before they become big ones.

Credit card companies provide a familiar example. They employ complicated algorithms to detect fraudulent charges. I recently got a call from my credit card company asking me to confirm a suspicious transaction. It wasn’t one that I recognized, so they immediately cancelled the card and sent a new one overnight. 

This was a tiny hassle, but nothing compared to the expense and annoyance that would have resulted if a credit card thief had run amok.

In his book, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, Micah Solomon calls this “anticipatory customer service.” Here are some of the major benefits of anticipating problems and solving them before customers notice:

  • Improve customer loyalty by saving them time
  • Avoid the negative word of mouth that comes with repeated service failures
  • Save money proactively fixing small problems instead of reacting to large ones


Customer service canary examples

Call Monitoring. Call centers can use call data to spot trends. For example, a software company shares recorded calls with its development team so they know what types of questions customers are asking about new product releases. This allows the software team to quickly identify and fix bugs.

Seed Lists. Many direct marketers maintain a list of recipients who can provide feedback on the timeliness and condition of deliveries. This list, called a seed list, can help spot problems in mailings. Netflix takes this a step further by periodically sending customers a quick email survey to ask when a particular video was received or sent.

Google Alerts. Automated services like Google Alerts can help you monitor online mentions of your brand, a particular product, or even trends that may affect your organization. I recently learned about a nice review of my book, Service Failure, from Portland Book Review thanks to Google Alerts. 

Here’s a customer service canary for personal use. I keep a list of anything that I’m waiting for, whether it’s a return call from a client, a package from a vendor, or an email from a colleague to confirm a meeting. I review this list once a day for anything that is overdue so I can follow-up quickly before the delay becomes too much of a problem.


Unlike coal miners, don’t run away

It’s hard to imagine coal miners ignoring the ominous sign of a dead canary and continuing their work. Unfortunately, this is exactly what many companies do when it comes to customer service. The warning signs are there, but they get ignored.

When the alarm sounds, you have to do something.

My friend Jason Marcus works at Main Street Hub, a company that helps local businesses manage social media. He recommends actively engaging customers who send out early warning signals by complaining online.

“Through monitoring you can gain a better understanding of your brand perception, and also get great feedback about what you're doing well and what you could be doing better. However, managing online reputation doesn't stop at monitoring. The best companies engage with reviewers.”

Marcus told me about one of his clients, a hotel that received a three-star review on Yelp. The guest felt the hotel was great overall but her room was too noisy. The hotel manager replied to the review by thanking the guest for her feedback and explained that they’d be happy to put her in a quieter room on her next visit. 

Here was her reply:

“I wish every hotel manager was as professional and courteous as you were to me just now. It's what will bring us back :-)"

The guest also upgraded her review to four stars!

Engaging the guest on Yelp helped the hotel beyond earning a higher rating. The guest’s feedback represents valuable information that can be used to prevent more unhappy guests and avoid low Yelp reviews in the future.

Here are just a few ways the hotel might prevent future noise complaints:

  • Market the hotel as having a lively atmosphere (a.k.a. noisy)
  • Ask guests about their room preferences at time of reservation or check-in
  • Provide ear plugs in some of the noisier rooms along with a card that says:
“Our local nightlife can be quite vibrant, so we’ve provided these ear plugs for your comfort. Please inform the front desk if there’s anything else we can do to make your stay more enjoyable.”


Finding your own customer service canaries

Here are my suggestions for finding your own customer service canaries:

  1. Identify your most critical customer interactions.
  2. Ask yourself, “What could go wrong?”
  3. Put a canary in place to signal any problems.

For example, I recently upgraded my website. The transition was generally smooth but I did experience a few problems connecting my new website with Feedburner. (Feedburner is the service I use to broadcast my blog via RSS, Twitter, and email.) 

Broadcasting my blog is critical so obviously it would be a problem if my blog didn’t get sent to subscribers. That’s why I set myself up as a subscriber too so I would know if the blog came through (my canary). When Murphy’s Law kicked in and my first blog post on the new website didn’t get broadcast, I quickly realized it and was able to correct the problem.

I’m still working out a few bugs with the new website, but at least I have my canaries to let me know where they are!

Note: No canaries were harmed while writing this blog post.

Why you need to view service through your customers' eyes

This sign greeted me as I entered a parking lot on a recent Tuesday morning:

I chuckled as I imagined what someone might think if they didn’t realize that Tuesday Morning was the name of a store. Yes, that scenario seems a bit far-fetched, but it’s a good reminder that customers can often view a situation in different or even unexpected ways.

This is a topic I’ve blogged about before. Two years ago, I shared a post about a sign taped to an ice cream cooler that either advertised a nice selection or the worst flavor imaginable (Seeing things from the customer’s perspective). This time around, I’ll relay a story from a friend of mine plus share a few strategies I use for gaining customer insight.

"You're no longer welcome"
A friend of mine recently posted an update on her Facebook page complaining that she had been refused an appointment at her hair salon. Apparently, she had been a no-show for an average of 1 in 9 appointments, so the hair salon finally decided to turn away her business. From the salon’s point of view, no-shows cost them money since that appointment slot would otherwise have been filled, so it made sense to cut loose an unreliable customer.

However, I doubt the hair salon considered my friend’s perspective when they made their decision or when they delivered the message. Predictably, she was quite angry to be abruptly told she was no longer welcome. It also made her remember the poor service she had received on her last visit, where she had previously forgotten about it because overall she really liked the place. Her post on Facebook drew many supportive comments and offers to refer her to another hair dresser.

How to see through the customers’ eyes
The challenge is our customers’ perspective is often only obvious in hindsight. It takes consistent, deliberate effort to really get inside your customers’ heads before a service failure occurs. Here are a few techniques you can use:

Teach empathy. The ability to empathize with another person comes from having a relatable experience, but customer service employees often have difficulty relating to their customers. Through proper training, employees can learn techniques to see things from their customers’ point of view (see 5 Ways to help employees empathize more).

Dig deep into survey data. The problem with a lot of customer survey data is it’s presented in aggregate, but those averages don’t tell the full story. For example, a client mined their survey data and discovered that one particular problem accounted for the overwhelming majority of customer dissatisfaction.

Look for icebergs. It’s easy to dismiss strange feedback as an isolated incident involving a confused and disoriented customer. However, in some cases this feedback may be just the tip of the iceberg. A favorite technique of mine involves digging deeper to see if there’s a systematic problem (see What the FAA can teach us about icebergs).

What the FAA can teach us about icebergs

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been in the news quite a lot lately. The story reminds us to look out for icebergs in our own organizations.

What are icebergs in business? Icebergs are huge problems where only the tip is visible. Hidden from view is a big, nasty problem that can sink your company.

On March 23, an air traffic controller at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport fell asleep on the job. Two planes subsequently landed without any contact with the control tower. No accidents occurred, but the incident caused a national uproar.

Additional reports of employees sleeping on the job quickly surfaced and the uproar intensified. It became clear that there was a widespread problem with chronic fatigue among controllers working overnight shifts. Since late March, eight employees have been suspended and the head of the Air Traffic Organization has resigned.

This ain't new
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has been making tough statements in response to this problem.

"None of us in this business can ... tolerate any of this," Babbitt said. "It absolutely has to stop."

Unfortunately, Babbitt is either experiencing extreme denial or has been sleeping on duty himself. The FAA has been tolerating or ignoring the chronic fatigue issue for years. Here are just a few examples:

July, 2001. Two planes nearly collided on a runway in Denver due to an air traffic controller error. The controller had worked three shifts in the past two days.

September, 2001. A plane was cleared to land in Denver on a runway closed for construction. The controller had only slept two hours between shifts.

August, 2006. Another near-collision, this time on a runway in Chicago. The controller had gotten only four hours of sleep during a nine hour break between shifts.

April, 2007. The National Transportation Safety Board sent a letter to the FAA that expressed concern over air traffic controller fatigue and made reference to 80 fatigue-related incidents since 1989.

Icebergs become even more dangerous when managers are unwilling or unable to acknowledge their existence. The longer a problem is allowed to continue the more likely it is to end in disaster.

Searching for icebergs
High performance managers are constantly searching for icebergs in their organizations. Here are three things every manager should do at the first sign of a big, nasty problem.

Step 1: Don’t assume it is isolated. Smart managers should go looking for evidence of similar problems. The FAA treated the sleeping controller at Ronald Reagan Washington National as an isolated incident, but there was already a pattern in place. Over the past few weeks, intense national scrutiny has revealed many more troubling examples of chronic controller fatigue.

Step 2: Check to see if the system is broken. Icebergs are usually the result of systematic failures. Controllers sleeping on the job isn't solely due to a few lazy, unprofessional employees. The evidence clearly indicates the FAA has a widespread problem with air traffic controller scheduling and staffing levels.

Step 3: See the bigger picture. Smart managers understand the strategic implications of fixing the problem and others like it. Changing controller schedules and adding staff may help reduce chronic fatigue, but sleeping on the job isn't the only performance problem dogging air traffic controllers. A recent article in the Washington Post reported a 51% increase in recorded errors by air traffic controllers in 2010. The FAA should take a broader view of the situation and identify ways to improve controllers' overall performance.