Even With a Culture of Listening – You Still Need Surveys

I have been keeping tabs on the Clarabridge Customer Connections conference in Las Vegas Florida via Twitter.  Clarabridge is a vendor in the analytics world and one of the vendors I follow.  There have been some interesting tidbits that have come across my activity stream about the role and need of analytics going forward, how to better use data, what is Big Data and why it matters.  Some good stuff indeed.

Then, I see this tweet from Seth Grimes come across my stream.

First, let me absolve Seth of any crimes – he is merely reporting the content being presented – my rant is not against him (whom I respect and whose work is very grounded when it comes to analytics and sentiment analysis — if you don’t follow him on Twitter or his blog, you should).

How can anyone even conceive not asking the client?

Direct questioning of the client is a sine-qua-non requirement of any listening program.

There is no possible way that any organization, under any circumstances can get sufficient data and knowledge about the customer needs, wants, and desires simply by “listening”.  Sure, the unstructured feedback you can get from listening is more likely to have truthful statements than poorly done surveys, and the volume of unstructured feedback collected in a listening program can be 20x to 100x the volume to structured feedback collected in surveys – but there is no comparison between one and the other.  We tried this before, where CRM and the operational and transactional data it produces was going to generate a “360-degree” view of the customer – that ended up being more like a “220-ish-degree” view of the customer since we were missing both the attitudinal and sentimental aspects of them, both provided by surveys.

Listening and Surveys have a place in a well executed Feedback Management initiative.

If you want to understand why your customer did something, or how they feel about it you must ask them.  Was the experience effective?  Did we do a good job? Can we do something better?

I can see the thought process behind this: if something was wrong, the customer will find a way to express themselves in other channels and we will capture that in our listening program.  Possible, but not always likely.  Not to mention that you would then never find out what you did right (maybe what you did exceptionally well, but not what you did just right – which is about 70%+ of the interactions.

There are three problems with that thought process:

  1. Your listening program may not capture that specific piece of information
  2. The customer may not be interested in using the channels you listen on
  3. The customer may not be inclined to share their thoughts in public

How do you bypass those problems? Ask them.

Would you rely on a listening program to know what is going on with your kids? What they like and dislike?  Would you rely on a listening program to find out why your spouse is unhappy? (Editor’s Note: experience speaking, don’t try that one – back to the regularly scheduled post).

The bottom line: relying entirely on your listening program may capture the feedback from the client, but without the surveys to corroborate you are just likely to end up “greasing squeeky wheels”, not solving root causes of problems.  You must query customers directly to find out what is going on, there is no substitute for it.  No matter how good your company may be at analytics or how much you have improved your listening skills.

Do yourself a favor and have a listening program in place.  Make it one portion of a well executed Feedback Management program that includes both structured and unstructured feedback.

You will thank me later.

11 Replies to “Even With a Culture of Listening – You Still Need Surveys”

  1. Hello Esteban,

    You are quite right about the listening approach not being enough. Only, the problem is that the survey approach always sucks. I have participated in my life in numerous surveys. In general, I answer every survey sent to me by a company whose services or products I use. However, the problem always is the same. The questions always address the things that the company thinks are important to know and never the things that the customer thinks that the company should know. At best, you get a box at the end for ‘Other remarks’. Knowing that such feedback cannot be handled automatically, you know that the probability of this feedback being taken care of is limited. Companies should ask external sources, such as consumer organisations to write the survey for them. Then, then will get some relevant feedback. But not a pleasant one.



    1. Thanks Marc,

      I stopped by your blog and posted my thoughts there – but needless to say: only bad surveys suck, good surveys provide value (in my experience). Problem is that over 98% of surveys out there are bad surveys — and from the other 2%, less than 10% of those organizations do something with the feedback. On a research report we produced while I was at Gartner the bottom line was that fewer than 0.2% of organizations from the initial population we sampled were actually doing it right – good surveys, follow up, follow through, close the loop, etc.

      pretty disheartening, actually.

      Thanks for the read and comment!


  2. I saw the same tweet and retweeted…had a few heated replies in return. 🙂 You are correct. A listening platform is just one slice of the pie and not indicative of the thoughts and behaviors of your entire community. There is no one magic button. Problem is, everyone craves these “tools” to fix their immediate needs. Once implemented, often there is no more retooling or gleaning through the data to understand the root cause. Surveys, listening platforms and other sources of feedback generation only keep the pulse…it takes work to dive into the data to understand it and see if and where there is any internal bleeding or disease. The question is not whether an org executes surveys or has a listening program, but how are they acting on the feedback received? How is this feedback bettering the community and the organization. Great sanity check, Esteban.

    Lauren Vargas
    Director of Community at Radian6


    1. Lauren,

      Thanks for the read and comment!

      I usually tell clients (and anyone else who wants to listen to me) that listening is not the first step – that is easy. Anyone can listen – even for free! The first step is doing something with what you heard. Being an academic-inclined company does not give the idea of customer-centric – it gives the idea that learning and listening is the only thing they will do. Stop listening, stop learning, and start doing.



  3. I cant agree with you more, and I actually just wrote a Forrester research report on this topic.

    My POV is that companies must use customer feedback solutions help organizations establish a dialog with their customers. Feedback should be gathered traditionally using surveys and complemented by tapping the unstructured, unsolicited feedback already found in internal systems and social media conversations. One feedback channel doesn’t give you the whole picture. Both should be used in conjunction.


    1. Kate,

      Thanks for reading, and for the comment. And thanks for the link!

      I could not agree with you more, and I am glad I am not the only that insists on the value of unstructured only as part of a larger plan. It would be totally silly (best business-type word I can come up with) to rely on any one feedback channel to know how things are going. This is like asking your kids what they learned in school – if you only listen to one channel, your view of their academic progress would be very distorted (mine apparently, don’t even know how to write their name, add, subtract, read, or even that the world is round!). You need multiple sources of feedback, there is no question about it.

      What baffles me is that makes people who seemingly understand this in all aspects of life to either ignore it or don’t follow it in their businesses.

      Thanks, again, for coming over.


  4. Esteban,
    I appreciate your “listening” in, so to speak, at the Clarabridge C3 conference last week via Twitter. It was a great event – we had close to 300 people attending this year (100% growth in attendance over last year) and the sessions, as well as the informal discussions, networking, and relationship building that occurred between attendees was valuable and very well received by all.

    It’s interesting that you cite in your blog the importance of framing customer feedback through contextual insights that come from survey questions, additional sources of insight, etc, vs. relying on free form insights from a single source, like Twitter. We agree – the single twitter post you cite from @sethgrimes does not provide the fuller context of requirements that many participants and speakers suggested were critical to establishing successful listening programs. Our opening keynoter, Rory Sutherland, spoke passionately about the 4 E’s essential to establishing context aware marketing and listening programs – Experience, Exchange, Everywhere, Evangelism – and made it clear that content from many sources, and programs that establish a culture of asking questions and listening to answers is key to success. In an executive panel that I moderated a number of executives from USAA, BE Aerospace, and others agreed that text provides key insights, but how the text is gathered, and contextual details also gathered alongside the text (survey framing, point in time, location, experience attribute information) is critical to aligning the text insights to a business drivers and business outcome. Finally, there was good discussion between survey and market research partners Valtera, Confirmit, Vovici, and others on the need for good survey methodology as a linchpin of good listening programs.

    Interestingly, several attendees did note that increasing use of text analytics in survey and listening programs has allowed changes in survey methodology – namely that surveys can be shorter, can ask more open ended questions, and can be augmented with data from additional sources of insight, obviating the need to ask dozens or even hundreds of questions as many had done before. Text Analytics is having an impact on survey methodology, to be sure. But you’d be comforted to hear that the prevailing sentiment at the show was not for doing away with surveys. Not even close.

    As always, I enjoy your provocative blogs and posts. Let’s make sure to stay in touch.
    Sid Banerjee
    CEO, Clarabridge


    1. Sid,

      thanks for stopping by – and for reading.

      There is one thing that I need to get out of the way first – the tweet may have been out of context with your clients and other people in the conference feelings and initiatives – but the quote was real, and it was said. There is no taking that out of context. While I do agree that probably close to no one would endorse such a model – it was said (I checked several sources).

      I am quite certain that surveys are not going away, and the point you bring it totally valid – they are getting better. Partly by combining the need to gather feedback with other sources (like Twitter, Blogs, Facebook and other social networks) and partly because the people conducting the surveys are getting smarter. I am still one that holds as the number one axiom of feedback management that listening means nothing: it is the doing. We learned to collect better feedback, analyze it better, and make the insights derived from it even stronger than before. This, which was as you say augmented by better text analytics, was then augmented and improved by the massive volume of social data we collect.

      Putting all together, they amount to a complete program of feedback that allows any organization looking at all their channels (including social) to generate a far better data set for then leverage what vendors such as Clarabridge, Attensity, SAP, SPSS and many others offer in the form of analytics and produce great actionable insights. In other words, the “revolution” of Social brought us more data and better actionable insights – a win-win-win for any feedback management program.

      Thanks for the comment!


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