I recently read about a Tampa-based health care plan that touted its very well-known ranking for customer service only to have federal regulators suspend them from signing up new clients, because of poor service. In the credit crises of last fall, one of the first large banks to be acquired by an even larger bank at a “fire sale price” was the same bank that publicly claimed to have some of the highest recommend scores in the industry. It seems almost daily that I hear a radio ad for a car insurance provider that claims “97% customer satisfaction”—whatever that means? It must work, because I hear the commercial all the time.
It is this kind of thinking that fuels the perception that achieving customer loyalty is an end unto itself, rather than an on-going journey to discover the truth. If customer metrics do not predict business outcomes with increasing accuracy, of what value are they? It would be like a doctor telling a patient that the treatment he is receiving is showing improvement, only the patient keeps getting sicker.
I have written a lot in previous entries about the importance of the science we use to measure how customers behave. This is not simply an academic interest or bias that I have, but a very functional and well-grounded principal of scientific discovery. All scientific advances are the results of failures that lead to better understanding and better methods. Again, I will turn to the medical analogies.
In the United States today, the incidence of infant mortality is approximately 0.7%, essentially unchanged since the year 2000. That is, 7 out of 1000 babies die before reaching their first birthday. Most experts believe that the rate in the year 1900 exceeded 300 out of 1000—as this was the data provided in the major cities of the day. No doubt it was higher in the rural areas. This is an incredible example of improvement in a valid indicator and is a testament to the improvement that we have made in health care in the past century. Think about it—30% of babies dying within the first year to less than 1%? But it took 100 years of improvement! (By the way, still today depending on the year, 25 to 30 countries in the world have better infant mortality rates than the U. S.)
Will medical doctors and researchers continue to lower the infant mortality rate? I believe that they will, because even 7 out of 1000 are still too horrible to imagine for the seven families affected. Thankfully, there are people who will not accept that we have reached the limit of what is possible.
And so it is with our efforts to understand how customer loyalty drives business success. Businesses that really do have good customer relationships will not fail or will have many more good outcomes than bad. It is also in these companies where the work of improving the customer focus is never really done. The company that is truly dedicated to accurately understanding how its customer relationships relate to business outcomes will, in the long term, be more successful.
As a customer advocate, make sure that you define “customer focus”, not in terms of proving how great you are, but rather by explaining how much more improvement is still left to be accomplished. Enjoy the journey, read the map objectively, and never get too satisfied about reaching the destination.
Originally published in Customer Connection on April 7, 2009.