What companies think and what customers say

A few years ago, Bain & Company surveyed over 350 companies and asked them if they thought they delivered a good customer experience.

What I found interesting about their survey was that some companies claimed to deliver not just a good experience — they claimed to deliver a ‘superior experience’. I find these kinds of companies fascinating: these are the small proportion of companies that place user experience on a pedestal. These companies are user experience heroes, the companies to work for, the leaders in the user experience field.

Who were these companies?

I was expecting this to be a rarefied group: perhaps 5-10% of the firms in the survey.

Here’s a question for you: what percentage of firms do you think this was — what percentage of firms in Bain & Company’s survey do you think claimed to deliver a ‘superior experience’ to their customers?

The answer? A whopping 80%.

This wasn’t because the researchers had chosen a biased sample of overachievers.

We know this because the researchers took the unusual step of asking the firms’ customers the same question.

When researchers asked customers for their views, they heard a different story. Customers said that only 8% of companies were really delivering a superior experience.

This reminds me of the illusory superiority bias, where most people tend to rate themselves as above average. For example, 93% of US drivers describe themselves as better drivers than average and 88% say they are safer drivers than average.

Nowadays nearly every company pays lip service to user experience, but it’s a fact that many of them are out of touch. A small amount of reflection on your own interactions with various brands will probably bear out Bain & Company’s research: just a small percentage of companies actually deliver on the promise of a superior user experience.

What causes this disconnect in customer feedback and how can we resolve it?

In my experience working with a range of companies, I find that customer feedback programs tend to move through four phases. I like to call this the customer feedback maturity model.

The first phase: Criticism is rejected

This is a region where you’ll find both start-ups and established companies. These firms don’t involve their customers because, they assert, customers don’t know what they want. Senior execs live in a reality distortion field where they believe they know better than their customers. Indeed, these people often invoke this quotation from Steve Jobs: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

These people tend to ignore two things.

First, they are not Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was a visionary who prioritised design and surrounded himself with the best designers in the business. And I don’t just mean Sir Jonathan Ive: some members of Apple’s earliest design team (like Bruce Tognazzini, Jef Raskin, Don Norman and Bill Verplank) went on to define the field of user experience.

And second, they ignore the fact that Jobs was talking about focus groups, not user research. In fact, user research is part of Apple’s DNA. For example, in the Playboy interview way back in 1985, Jobs talked about the user research that went into the development of the mouse: “Pointing is a metaphor we all know. We’ve done a lot of studies and tests on that, and it’s much faster to do all kinds of functions, such as cutting and pasting, with a mouse, so it’s not only easier to use but more efficient.” Quite rightly, Jobs distinguishes this kind of research (“you show it to them”) from focus groups.

Regardless, we don’t want to spend much time here. Let’s move on.

The second phase: Criticism is welcomed

In this phase, a company has no formal plans in place to collect and analyse feedback from customers. Nevertheless, informal feedback still arrives — in the form of a letter, an e-mail, a newspaper report, a tweet or a forum post. These aren’t ignored because the company prides itself on welcoming feedback. Indeed, they may be collated into a digest and forwarded to the chief executive with a cheesy title like, ‘Brickbats and bouquets’.

The problem with this kind of feedback is that it tends to come only from customers who are either delighted with your product or from customers who absolutely hate it.

These represent a small fraction of your overall customer base and tailoring your design to customers who shout the loudest is rarely sound business practice. I wonder if this is partly the cause of the firms in Bain & Company’s research being so out of touch with their customers?

Things are improving, but we’ve a way to go.

The third phase: Criticism is solicited

In this phase, the organisation prides itself as a company that not just welcomes but solicits feedback. Surveys are constructed to answer specific business questions and these surveys appear on its web site. A new product may come with a postage-paid mail in card that asks about the purchaser’s experience. To answer specific issues, the organisation may ask an outside firm to run focus groups. Someone in the organisation will have the responsibility of collating the feedback and providing rolling summaries to senior management.

The most obvious problem with this approach is, again, the biased sample of respondents. Most people tend to complete surveys when they already have some goodwill towards the brand: ‘OK, as it’s you, I’ll spend 5 minutes on your survey’. Again this misses the bulk of customers, and criticisms that you do hear can often be muted.

But there’s a second, more subtle problem. With these techniques (and this includes focus groups), people are asked to recall their behaviour. Our memories are imperfect and sometimes we don’t tell the truth, or the whole truth. We also know that people tend to say one thing but do another. The truth is that we aren’t very good at explaining the ‘why’ behind our behaviour.

The fourth phase: Criticism is demanded

The most mature companies — and these are probably the 8% in Bain and Company’s survey — take a different approach.

These companies demand criticism.

They achieve this not by asking for anecdotes, but by observing the experience.

Researchers carry out field visits to the places where the product is used. They sit and observe people using the system. They discover the deeper problems that people experience with a system that people may not be able to describe or articulate. They run usability tests, where representative users carry out real world tasks without help, and the researchers observe where people fail. This provides real data that can be used to drive design decisions, rather than ad hoc opinions.

These techniques enable researchers to peer into the gap between what people say and what people do — and this is where some of the best design ideas are hiding.

Solving the addiction to bad data is like solving any addiction: the first stage is to admit you have a problem. This means identifying your own position on this maturity model and relentlessly moving forwards.

So here’s some questions for you:

  • Does your company think of itself as user or customer focussed?
  • If you asked your customers, what would they say? Do they love, hate or simply tolerate your product?

And if you would like some help moving your company along the customer feedback maturity model, please get in touch.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) holds a BSc and a PhD in Psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, you'll love his online user experience training course.


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