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Diversification in Customer Listening

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, researchers set out to determine which types of hotels are more likely to post fake reviews on websites such as Yelp!, TripAdvisor and Expedia. They found that independent, small-owner, and small-company hotels appeared to be more likely to manipulate reviews on websites.

What is the key lesson for this finding for customer strategists? I would argure that it is less about these specific findings and more about a basic aspect of a customer listening program – that is, are the results accurate and reliable? In other words, do the results reflect the overall population (and, by extension, what population do the results represent)? I have written on numerous occasions about the importance of the quality of customer lists (see here, here and here for examples); what I would add today to the discussion is the point that diversification matters.

There are two ways to define diversification in this context – first, how much variety is included in the customer list within a given account? This clearly aligns better with a B2B customer listening program – for example, do we have a good mix of end users, decision makers, and executives for each account in our listening data? Having a variety of contacts from the same account will yield, in the words of James Surowiecki, the “wisdom of crowds.” This means that the group in total is generally smarter than any one participant in that group. Sampling theory tells us that as the base size of a study increases, the error around the mean estimate will be minimized. This is applied in the context of a total sample, but it can also apply to the findings from an account – think of each account as a sub-sample. By getting a variety of perspectives from customers within each account, we increase the likelihood that we will be getting a clearer picture of the health of those accounts. This can provide clues to astute strategic account managers – for example, if there is significant variance in the scores from within an account, it may speak to confusion that should be teased out and/or managed; this can often lead to incremental sales opportunities.

The second type of diversification relates to how we listen – when customer loyalty research was in its infancy (called customer satisfaction research at that time), we asked customers for feedback because there were no other mechanisms to gather those perspectives. CRM systems did not exist that allowed us to tie together disparate data to arrive at “the big picture.” This is why we had to ask about which products a user was familiar with, even though the customer would (rightfully) argue that we should already know that information – there was no way to tie all the data together.

The world is changing, though. Not only are CRM systems providing a more well-rounded view of customers, there are new and different ways of listening to – and analyzing – customer feedback. In the same HBR article, the authors talked to doing a “web scrape” to gather data on the hotel ratings. In addition, we can scan data in Twitter, look at Facebook pages for the number of “likes” a company has, and so on. Operationally, we can link customer behavioral metrics as well as internal quality indicators to our listening data. We can literally swim in the data.

All of this data prompts some pundits to proclaim that the need for customer listening via surveys is gone. I could not disagree more. It is certainly getting more difficult to gather customer feedback – response rates are more challenging to achieve, and the proliferation of DIY survey tools means that anyone can send a survey, regardless of how bad it is – but to say that surveys are dead is a bit extreme. I would argue that this diversity of data sources provides an opportunity to gather, analyze and understand customer sentiment from a variety of perspectives, which is valuable. My colleague Jen Batley recently wrote about the uses and challenges of this. The bottom line: we have many sources of customer data to rely on, and we should be wary of focusing on just one. Making the connections among these sources means we increase our odds of understanding what makes our customers tick.

Mark A. Ratekin
Sr. Vice President, Consulting Services

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