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The Feedback Equation

January 14, 2013

A retail business revolves around an interaction between people (customers) who find value and worth in the offering of the business.  It can be a damn marvellous and rewarding affair.

Assessing feedback and the decision making involved with running a business is, to me, rather fascinating.  The feedback equation isn't always obvious and is less simplistic than many common viewpoints (the customer is always right…) allow for.

Sometimes, it can feel like deciphering a riddle.  What is the right answer?  What is the right action?  What is valuable and what is worth seeing differently?

For example, Once the goals of the business have been assessed, we can then question whether what seems like negative feedback could actually be positive feedback.  I explored this in the setting the stage article.  This is displayed particularly well though in the developing of the menu behind the bar.  So, we have spent a lot of time trying to make the menu communicate its information as effectively as possible, at the same time the very information it aims to display is unusual (farm name, flavour notes etc rather than the usual cappuccino, machiatto etc) and on many cases the response is “wow, I'm a bit confused”.  Now the question for us regarding this feedback is, do we need to display the information more clearly or is the very nature of such information in a coffee shop not something they are used to?  If we dropped the info and reverted to a more familiar coffee shop format then the customer may be immediately more comfortable but also mislead as to the focus of the shop and their experience would not be the unique tasting and information based one upon which we have built our reputation.  So in this case what seems (when isolated) like negative feedback is actually the opposite.  The board is serving to break and change expectation. What then matters for us is that we are adept at filling the gap that the confusion of the menu leaves.  This actually provides more positive potential for our shop and the customer experience.  I am however, pleased that visual changes to the menu have made it easier on the whole to navigate, but not always and that’s not a bad thing.

Another feedback example I would like to look at, is the request for products that are not currently sold. Now and then people have requested that we provide a wider food offering.  However at the same time others feedback is that they really like the sole focus - they rightly deduce that the focus and knowledge of the staff is so in depth because of such specialism.  On top of this there is also the feedback that they are glad not to feel inclined to purchase food in order to not feel like they are taking up space with just a coffee.  There is also the brand dilution which isn't seen in this case.  The reason many of the customers are there is because the brand is strong on coffee.  Food not being offered is part of that to begin with.  I appreciate that certain feedback may represent that people are peckish and really enjoy the coffee, or that they really value a tasty bite to accommodate a great coffee.  There is a bigger picture here though, and we are back to retaining a larger perspective.  This is not to say the two couldn't work, but it must also be noted that not having a wider food offering helps convey our specialism and allows the experience we offer to be focused.

I see feedback as roughly split into two main sections - relevance and statistics.

Firstly, is the feedback relevant to your business, or more succinctly, should it change your product?  Just because a business has received direct feedback that does not mean it is relevant to said business.  This is because feedback is nearly always a singular individual’s viewpoint which reflects their singular experience and needs.  As it should, the most valuable feedback people can give you is that of their own viewpoint.  As it is clear and real, it’s not a guess about what most people want but an honest personal response. Indeed it is the businesses role to look at a broader picture, to consider many personal experiences concurrently.  This is not to be confused with acting on all of it but instead assessing what to do amongst it all.

How is information processed?  We are keenly interested in the customer experience we want to offer, our success relies on this.  But acting upon feedback that is not relevant as it doesn't reflect the vision of the business can cause more problems than it solves.  Many new business owners I know have spent hours anguishing over these same questions in their first six months.  Some have pursued their original goals and allocated a time frame to set expectation and find the demographic they are aiming at, whilst others have quickly changed what they do based on immediate feedback.

One of the defining marks in the differing approaches to feedback relies on the line that is drawn between convenience/service led businesses and expertise/service led business.  Yes there is overlap to consider.  Although, however much a convenience /service led business aims to respond with a solution to all feedback “a yes I can get you whatever you like” approach, they cannot physically achieve this for many varying reasons.  It depends on whether they can actually fulfil the request.  They may also be setting themselves up for a fall by promising such services. So communication as to what can be offered directly affects feedback.

There is most likely a symptom here regarding expectation. It is a modern illusion as regards the duties of retail businesses - the assumption that all retail businesses fit into the convenience/service model.

I would like to quickly look at the possible multitude of reasons that not only suggest why this expectation exists but why many service based businesses justify such a viewpoint in the way they respond, it does seem cyclical.  Being a shop is effectively a pretty vulnerable to position to be in.  Yes you will garner support by virtue of the quality of what you do but it is an idealistic world in which everything is hunky dory that works in such a way.  If what you do is specific or different/unusual, then it will be at odds to the convenience expectation.

If you look at the situation of the roles of both the shop owner and the customer/visitor as regards the law, as I touched on in the last post, then there is a balance to consider, however the reality of modern media and review sites tips this balance off.

A reviewer can be anonymous whereas the shop never will be; if this was a bargaining/blackmail/extortion situation then the bargaining chips are piled up in the hand of the reviewer.  Yes, this has pros of ensuring shops don’t rip people off and so forth (especially in high footfall ‘one visit’ areas where an, “I won’t return if I don’t like it policy” makes little difference), but have you ever wondered about the conduct of the reviewer, their motives, whether it’s a fair or reasonable representation.  As far as review sites go I could anonymously set up an account tomorrow and slag off my competitors, or just someone that had annoyed me.  I would not be held accountable in any way (other than within my own consciousness).  The truth of what I say would not be tested or questioned in any way whatsoever.

The business is accountable and so should be the reviewer.  It’s a simple matter of equal responsibility.  What seems to seal the lid on this one-sided power play is that it is not seen as good conduct to rebuke feedback.  For the business to challenge the authenticity and reasonableness of feedback is seen as somehow unnecessary, that all customer feedback should be respected and valued, even if it is a liable unfair attack- well no, this is ridiculous and if the shoe was on the other foot this idea would not be so lightly used.  The lay of the land has ended up in a place where the business is expected to be a punch bag, service driven businesses more so than many others.  The law regarding liability and responsibility on the web is being looked into, to come in alignment with adjacent non web laws, but currently it is not.

Whilst this happens, it is definitely not encouraging specialism and businesses may endeavour to put themselves in a position where it is harder to be attacked.  They may be less specialist and do less interesting things, instead sticking to whatever is normal. Sticking with a set up that does not rock the boat.

The consideration of some larger businesses may also help to understand this lay of the land.  The conduct of some larger businesses/chains who aren't happy to empower their staff with responsibility as they don’t trust their staff (I've worked for a few companies that have displayed absurd versions of this conduct) and would like to use the customers as a management system.  It is economy of scale that often drives the actions and solutions in these businesses - a dislocation between customers and management.  This conduct of passively saying yes to everything allows thing not to be fixed because they can always say sorry.  Expecting the service to be sub standard means criticism is embraced and becomes normal, as opposed to striving to do something well and avoid criticism in the first place.  Importantly though solely aiming to avoid criticism is not a good driving force for a business, instead one should strive for and believe in the quality of what one is doing.

In fact, relying on the customer to tell you how to run your business along with what and how you should offer your product is in many ways a slightly odd concept when you think about it, especially the format of feedback cards.  In reality, the business should be endeavouring to get everything right without waiting for explicit feedback, you would hope that conceptually they understand the kind of service and product they are trying to offer (this does not discount that customer feedback can offer unique perspective).  But after all they should be the expert and they have the experience in their field and I for one want them to do a bloody good job because they understand their business, because they understand the psychology of service and have a forward vision for their store.  I as the customer can then enjoy a considered experience, rather than having to tell them what to do on the comments section (which personally I don’t do, it’s awkward).  I do then think that an eagerness to show a willingness to hear and receive feedback or criticism serves as a fail-safe mechanism that softens the blow when something is crap. “Oh, sorry, tell us how we should do it” What, because you haven’t got a clue? What about self-assessment and development?  It is handing the role of management and employment to the customer - it’s lazy.  There are businesses that have done very well with this ethos. However, the lay of the land blog does show that this is one type of approach as opposed to a blanket rule.

In fact it is all too easy to forget that it is often the singular creative direction of a business that will draw customers in to start with.  It is then important to note that crowd sourcing may take this creative direction away.

At this point it is imperative to look at what I see as the second important aspect of looking into feedback and that is the scaling of data - statistics.  It is the importance of embracing a larger perspective, a more realistic viewpoint.

In essence feedback is a survey, and it is very easy to conduct awful surveys that pay the most attention to whomever shouts loudest or to whatever makes the biggest bang- the anomalies and outliers.

This must not be confused with running a shop based on the largest vote, as this can easily descend into something bland, mediocre and homogeneous   The data needs to be plotted against the goals of the business.  Any strong brand that offers a strong identity of its own, that is creatively driven requires an understanding that goes beyond the initial crowd sourcing and looks to be perceptive.  I would say many brands are successful as they realise the difference between their offering in comparison to what is already available in that area.  This is the difference between replication and creative development.  There are millions of people in this country; a business does not need to please the majority but instead enough to support its business.  In fact, these businesses will often be able to serve customers whose interests are neglected by the broader attempts of businesses that aim at a larger audience.  Once again it is important not to see private enterprise as equating to public services.  In fact it is rather wonderful that businesses can embrace individuality, can embrace creative direction and uniqueness because there are many of them.  In opposition to this, public services must compromise in order to serve their purpose as a singular service for everybody.

When looking at feedback, it is also important to think about the type of feedback that is given.  Feedback is happening all of the time.  Written word (feedback cards) and incited verbal feedback will often represent a politeness on the customer’s behalf, or the opposite.  As well as a likeliness not to engage in a critical assessment of the experience, if they feel it is way off, or well it was what it was then the feedback will not provide the key to improving the business.  It is also important to consider as to whether incited feedback is a good representation of the hundreds upon thousands of customers that do not provide direct feedback, but quietly go about their experience.  Many people who are happy with their experience/product may not openly state so and vice versa.

In many ways with feedback, that which is unspoken is the most valuable.

An issue with the whole “customer” tag is the limitations and naivety of such a labelling, as I have already stated customers are people who desire the services of said business, so really we need to start from the base that it is people we are looking at and not this singularity of “the customer”, as if the customer is a singular entity that represents everybody in the same position, inferring that they all want and request exactly the same things.

Swimming upstream and doing something different requires a specific ability to keep on the path of charting feedback against aims and goals.  Tyranny of the majority otherwise awaits, mediocre results - supermarket style set ups and a dull market place for everyone.

All in all there is an equation to consider, an equation that makes a business what it is. Feedback should all be fed into this equation, absorbed by it to make the business stronger and better.  I guess that everything I have explored here is questioning the type of absorption and change that is required; it will not always be a physical change, such as the introduction of a requested product or a furniture change.  This doesn't mean the feedback has not been listened to, instead the effect of the feedback may be seen elsewhere in the improved communication and presentation of the business, with clearer displays of reasoning.


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