2005 Winter/Spring Volume No. 5

How are we doing? Don’t forget to ask!

Use a customer feedback system to get answers

Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s the things you know that ain’t so.”

We all “know” that we provide the best service in our own areas at a fair price. But what if, “it ain’t so?” How would you find out? How do you really discover what your customers are thinking about you and what they want?

The best way to find out is to ask. And, don’t just ask in one way every few years, but in many different ways every few months by developing a customer feedback system. The ongoing information you receive will be invaluable and you may be surprised by what you learn.

A customer feedback system should be designed to get responses at many customer contact points—billing, service, management, and sales. The benefits of the information you receive will help you truly become the best in your area and get a leg up on competition.

Customer Satisfaction Survey
A good place to start is to develop a customer survey. A customer survey is not just a bunch of questions strung together. The way the questions are posed, how they are answered, and how the survey is given out are important factors to be considered before finalizing your survey. For example asking, “How satisfied are you with our service?” will give you mostly positive answers. However asking “What are you dissatisfied with about our service?” may give you a much more negative response, but will get closer to the truth and thus be more useful in the long run.

The shorter and easier the survey looks, the more response you’ll get. Your best bet is to whittle the survey down to between 10 and 20 of the most important questions you have. Keep questions short and provide multiple-choice answers that allow responders to mark their response on a scale from 1 to 10

Billing statements are a good way to send out the surveys if you are sending them to small operators who pay their own bills. However, if the survey is going to a larger company where an accountant or office staff pays the bills, then you’ll need to mail the survey directly to your customer with a stamped self-addressed return envelope inside. To increase your response rates, send out the survey with a small gift, such as a tin of candy and a note politely asking them to help you.

Sending out a customer satisfaction survey provides several benefits. First, if there is a problem with your service, you may hear about it in time to correct it and keep the customer.

Second, the compiled results can be valuable to your sales program using statements such as: “93 percent of our customers report that they are extremely satisfied with our service and that they will use us again.”

And third, you are showing your customers how much you care about your service and how much you value their opinions.

A blind survey—that is one that comes back without the customer’s name on it—will provide the best and most honest responses. However, you lose the opportunity to answer a negative survey with a “customer recovery” call. You can solve this problem by using a small numeric code at the bottom of a survey page. The code can be used to reference individuals, if necessary.

Telephone Interview
A more effective way to get your customer’s opinions—albeit more expensive and time consuming—is to have office staff conduct a telephone interview. Although a script should be written out before hand, your staff can ad lib as they get involved in the interview responding to the customer’s feedback. By engaging customers in a conversation, your staff may discover information that would have been lost in a typical survey. However, to be successful, staff must be friendly, better listeners than talkers, and talented note takers (or calls should be recorded). Phone calls should be limited to five or ten minutes to avoid being a time burden to your customers.

Focus Groups
Another way to develop customer feedback is to hold an occasional focus group. One of our fastest growing customers in the Northeast got into the portable sanitation business five years ago by doing this. He invited half a dozen local contractors to a restaurant for lunch. After speaking with them over lunch, he
was able to determine everything he needed to know about what they wanted in a portable restroom service. He also discovered that they were all unhappy with their current service. That meeting was the single most important factor in making his decision to start his company. All of the men he met that day are now his customers.

If a focus group can work that well for a start up, there’s no reason an existing business can’t do the same thing. While taking competitor’s customers to lunch may be seen as “predatory”, there is no reason not to take your own customers to lunch occasionally. If you do, make sure the entire hour isn’t spent in small talk. Bring notes on the questions you’ll ask and make sure you have some tough questions.


A focus group differs from a business lunch because you are inviting several customers at once. Customers feel more relaxed because they don’t feel that they are being individually pressured to compliment your service, or to buy additional services, and the interaction between strangers that all have your business in common naturally makes it the subject of conversation.

The best customers to invite are those who have been with you for a while and know your service, but haven’t been around for many years, continuing more out of habit than conviction. Questions can range from “How did you first hear about us?” to “Where do you prefer to get information about vendors?” You can get competitive information by asking questions such as “How often do you hear from my competitors, and in what fashion?” and “What do they say about themselves and about us?” Or, “What do you like about our service, which you didn’t get from your previous provider?”

Following Up with
Lost Customers
Finally, the last part of your feedback system is to always call customers you’ve lost to competitors soon after they have defected. Take a diplomatic approach to your call without showing any defensiveness. Let them know that you are sorry they left, but that your main reason for calling is not to win them back, but to prevent further defections of current customers. Taking this stance, as one business owner to another, most people will be willing to explain their reasons for leaving. Don’t pass this job on to a salesman. It always means more coming from the president of the company.

Here are some other simple ideas that will improve customer feedback:
• Put a “comments” section on your bills, so that every time a customer pays a bill they
have an opportunity to provide feedback on your service.

• Print customer feedback forms attached to self-addressed, postage-paid envelopes
and give each service driver a stack so that he or she can leave one in customer
offices when leaving extra toilet paper or other supplies.

• When sending out surveys always include a cover letter that explains the survey’s
objectives, why the customer was selected to participate, and sets a one or two week
deadline for its return. Thank them in advance for their participation.

• Make follow-up calls to customers who don’t return surveys. Ask if they remember
receiving it, and if they lost it, would they like another one.

• Provide an “800” number complaint line with a voice mail-box. Print the number
clearly on the door sticker on all your units. Make sure call-in messages get
immediate responses.

Silence is definitely not golden when it comes to customer feedback! Don’t be fooled into thinking there are no unhappy customers. In fact, if you are not receiving complaints from customers, something is wrong, especially in this business where one fouled up restroom can ruin someone’s day. The more contact points you can supply for give and take with customers, the better your feedback system will become and your customers will repay you with greater loyalty.

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