Keeping the customer satisfied

Published:  18 March, 2006

HELEN ELIAS explains how to get more from the customer-satisfaction surveys that are required as part of a quality-management system.

Like many other design disciplines within the built-environment sector, managers of building-services practices are having to get to grips with the various checks and balances that together make up the quality-management system.

This process embraces client satisfaction, and many design practices, installation engineers and sub-contractors and manufacturing companies see the feedback process as a box that has to be ticked to keep their QMS accreditation.

At its most basic, firms adopt a system which involves a feedback form being sent to the client at project close out. The few replies that do trickle back are logged on a spreadsheet, with the forms stuffed into a drawer in case they are needed at audit.

Measurements

Clause 8.2.1 of ISO 9001 is pretty clear about what measurements of customer satisfaction should be achieved under QMS: ‘The organisation shall monitor information relating to customer perception as to whether the organisation has met customer requirements.’

Although there is no specific requirement to perform formal customer satisfaction surveys to meet ISO 9001, the auditor will look to see that the practice has a transparent customer feedback process which includes relevant, representative and reliable information that can be analysed effectively, with the results used to drive continual improvement.

More and more firms, however, are taking the customer-satisfaction process seriously. The outcomes from an in-depth survey are illuminating, even if the information uncovered is not what you want to hear. An interview with a firm you think you have an excellent relationship with can produce unexpected comments on service level, performance, attitude of staff or other issues that might be unsettling and need addressing. Negative feedback prompts action, and should be viewed as an opportunity to introduce improvements. Firms with an established client-satisfaction process can more directly hone staff personal development, project management, submission and bids documents, marketing strategies and even management of meetings, presentations and difficult situations as a result.

Opportunity

ISO 9001 requirements to one side, the opportunity to see things from a customer’s perspective should not be ignored. A business relationship should not be taken for granted, as complacency can lead to lowering standards of service. Likewise, as firms grow, open offices, employ more staff and increase service offers, satisfaction surveys are a good tool for checking that key clients are aware of the practice’s enhanced capability. Never assume that clients know what changes you are making. Find out what they know — and what they don’t know.

The first step is to agree what the firm wants to achieve from a fully fledged customer-satisfaction process. Establishing desired outcomes will ensure that feedback will be useful. Develop the right questions to ask so the feedback can be used to influence long-term management and enhance client relationships. Questions should cover all key professional relationships as well as client organisations. For H&V sub-contractors and M&E engineers, the process can gather the views of key influencers that are likely to refer them to potential client organisations or be the lead consultant in future projects Agree a process at the start for sharing feedback, so that those responsible for developing marketing, staff training, business development and running projects all get to hear the things that are most relevant.

There are many different ways to collect the feedback, so you need to decide which system, or combination of systems, is best for your firm. The most frequently used formats are:

• face to face interviews;

• telephone interviews;

• questionnaires by post or e-mail.

At this point, decide if you want to gather the information yourself or use an independent consultant to make the calls or visit the client for a face-to-face interview. The process that you use will to a certain extent dictate the format for the questions.

Questionnaires are best structured as scored questions that the client can easily make judgements on. The results can be analysed statistically, but give little scope for interpretation or personal views. Quite a few completed forms are needed to get a representative sample to discover trends in answers that make the exercise worthwhile. Posted or e-mailed questionnaires frequently get lost or are simply ignored, so expect a lower return from these routes.

Another option is to gather information by telephone. This process best suits a score style questionnaire and also allows for personal observations. Many people do not like being kept on the telephone for a long time, so time the questionnaire you develop in a mocked-up call to make sure you keep the whole thing to less than 15 minutes.

The most in-depth analysis of your firm from a client’s point of view will come from qualitative one-to-one interviews. Approach clients and ask for an hour, then send in your representative armed with five or six conversational leads to trigger information flow about the areas that really matter. Service levels, professionalism, creativity, personal relationships and staff performance are usually included. The conversation may also provide feedback on areas such as IT capability, finance systems, marketing and Press impact.

Interviews

It takes only five or six in-depth interviews for themes to begin to emerge, touching on areas that you might have suspected would arise, or uncovering new areas that can come as a surprise. Clustering results from the interviews can give recognition to the company’s strengths, while identifying areas where there is room for improvement. Clients seem to like being asked to give feedback in this way, and even the busiest people will set aside time as they can see the benefits to future working relationships.

Don’t be complacent about the firms that you survey; it is tempting to send your interviewer to speak to people that you know will send back a positive message. But will you learn anything from this? Probably not. More constructive information can be gained by being brave enough to explore your service offer with past clients, and clients with ongoing projects where things may have got a bit sticky. Strategically, pick clients from different market sectors and geographical locations, or served by different offices or design disciplines.

Whatever method you chose, make sure the whole system is set up professionally, with letters asking for the interview. Send a thank-you letter immediately after the interview and another a few months later explaining how the feedback gained has been collected and used to help the development of your company.

Helen Elias can be contacted at helen@ateliercommunications.co.uk or tel. 01225 869470.

caption

Customer-satisfaction surveys should not simply be viewed as part of a quality-management but also as the key to more effective working together on projects.



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