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[20 comments]

Consumers Don't Think Retailers Are Listening

June 14, 2012

They say they want your input. You give it to them and then ... wait for it ... nothing.

Many consumers share the experience of filling out a form or perhaps speaking with a department manager about products they should stock or other steps they could take to make a store or website better, and then nothing happens.

I can remember when a mass merchandiser opened in our area a few years ago and had a small grocery section consisting of shelf stable, refrigerated and frozen foods. There were a number of products the store sold that my family liked so, at the chain's request (it said it right there on the receipt), I went online and provided a detailed list of other high-selling items that I would be very happy to buy at the store. I also pointed out product handling issues, such as rampant freezer burn on ice cream and other items. Out-of-stocks were a problem that I believed was due to the store's practice of filling the shelves at night. That might work with apparel and toys, but grocery was a completely different animal. So, long story short, I really wanted to help this store improve and ... wait for it ... nothing. (Okay, that's not completely true. About two years after my email, they started stocking Peet's Coffee, still a relative rarity here in New Jersey.)

Now comes new research from Empathica, a customer experience management firm, to show that I'm not alone. According to its survey of 6,500 consumers in the U.S., 85 percent of consumers have provided feedback with only 46 percent of those believing any action was taken as a result.

"Our research proves that consumers really do want to provide feedback and engage in conversations with brands," said Dr. Gary Edwards, chief customer officer, Empathica. "But at the same time, they are clearly disappointed by not having any visibility into what happens afterwards. Feedback remains a one-way street and what consumers are yearning for is two-way dialogue. They want to know that their feedback is being acted upon in ways that will drive meaningful changes to the customer experience at the locations they frequent."

For those retailers who take an action, there is a reward: 83 percent of consumers told Empathica that they are more loyal to a brand when they say action has been taken based on their feedback.

"Unfortunately, a lot of retailers fail at creating the transparency that customers desire. Admitting some areas of the business require more attention builds credibility and helps retailers realize the huge potential for brand advocacy," said Dr. Edwards. "There are large numbers of customers out there who are motivated to provide feedback for the brand. The challenge is identifying them and making it easy to share their experiences not only with the brand, but also with other local consumers."

Discussion Questions:

Discussion Questions: Is there a problem in the way that retailers ask for and act, or not, on consumer input? How can retailers improve in this respect?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

What grade would you give the retail industry as a whole for responding to consumers' suggestions?

Comments:

This must be Transparency Day on RetailWire.

Of course there is something wrong with the way most retailers process customer input because most retailers don't ever act on the majority of what they are told or -- potentially even worse -- just respond to points of view that agree with their own.

Don't believe it? Check out the way most companies handle the input they receive on Facebook and other social media sites.

This time the researchers seem to have gotten it right.

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Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting

Given the popularity of online surveys, George's column raises the question of what happens to the survey results. Do they filter down to the buyers or store managers who have the authority to take action? Or do they fall into a "black hole" of data collection?

However, it's important to keep in mind that the survey data must represent some sort of consensus before an individual customer can expect action to be taken on his or her requests. Sometimes the best assortment planning represents the "art of saying no."

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Dick Seesel, Principal, Retailing In Focus LLC

Just because a consumer makes a recommendation does not mean that a retailer has to act on it, other than to acknowledge the feedback, which should always be done.

Feedback can provide valuable information to a retailer. For example, it could be posted on the company website and invite comments from other consumers. If many consumers back a particular idea, then it might be implemented.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

Better to have not made an implied promise than to have made one and then not acted on it. This has been a staple in many of the presentations I have about how to increase sales in small-format stores. Generally customers in these locations are local and frequent the location often so they can quickly see if action has been taken on their suggestions.

I advise clients that if they are going to ask for input, they have to respond either by taking the suggested action or explaining why they didn't. At a minimum, a "Thank you for your suggestion" type of response should be sent to for those that come in via email.

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Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

The biggest issue with this disconnect between words and deeds is that the people who think that asking for input (usually C-level and/or marketing) are not the people that have to respond (merchants and store operations). Secondly, asking for specific input (I want marinated hummingbird tongues) can be problematic (not a big enough market).

There are retailers who are making some headway with this on Facebook, mainly because FB allows for a two-way dialogue. Of course, there needs to be an investment in staff to quickly respond to the requests. Even if the answer is "No, we can't," the customers will appreciate that you listened, considered, and responded.

Bill Emerson, President, Emerson Advisors

Yes, there is a problem. "85 percent of consumers have provided feedback with only 46 percent of those believing any action was taken as a result." So half of the customers think no action was taken. Part of the problem is retailers' commitment to providing feedback and the mechanism for soliciting feedback.

One solution is to drive most feedback to blog/chat format so that the customer understands that a person on the site has received the feedback, then they can see the message thread and reply from the retailer. They could also let other customers chime in on the conversation thread and get free crowdsourcing, good or bad! Last thing, retailers should provide fast acknowledgement of feedback and expectation for reply -- if a buyer decides to add a new product, will it be a day, or 144 days?

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Robert DiPietro, GVP Product Strategy & Business Development, Affinion Group

One of the worst things retail can do is not to ask valued consumers for feedback. However, the very worst thing that retail can do is to ask for feedback, but then ignore it. I think that in reality, many retailers are really not interested in consumer's opinions on the topic of product assortment, because category managers are intent on making decisions based on IRI, Nielsen, and historical data, and not so much what consumers really want.

I cannot encourage retailers enough, nor can I overstate how critical it is to carry specialty brands, niche items, and even certain newer "unproven" innovative items, not yet even yet on the front page of IRI aggregate ranking, in order to create the right shopping experience for your customer. Otherwise, your consumers will leave your stores to buy elsewhere, online, or direct from the supplier.

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David Biernbaum, Senior Marketing and Business Development Consultant, David Biernbaum Associates LLC

I'm with Ryan. It's no coincidence that the other story today is about McDonald's UK doing more to listen to customers and -- wait for it -- some kind of commitment to actually doing the things that customers tell them! What a concept!

Every time this topic comes up with me, and it's definitely happening more and more, I find the retailer always has this shudder, this massive internal resistance to actually changing anything. I think part of it is the desire to be a brand steward -- "If I'm supposed to be credible in knowing my customers, then they shouldn't be able to tell me anything new -- I should already know what they want and need."

But if a customer points out that the shopping carts aren't getting rolled in in a timely manner or the bathrooms at store #123 are always messy, or (my personal favorite gripe) the Target store in Highlands Ranch, CO never has boys' shoes in my son's size -- I mean, never. What is the retailer really going to do about that? That feedback gets lobbed into some corporate headquarters number crunching machine and the store manager will be lucky to see it sometime in the next 30-60 days, if at all. The consumer who took it upon themselves to offer this feedback -- who is taking ownership in that store and wants to see that retailer succeed -- never gets any acknowledgement that they've been heard.

The processes to embrace customer feedback -- at the granular level, not just customer satisfaction overall -- don't typically exist. Does the VOC group have regular meetings with Merchandising or Marketing to tell them what customers are saying about products or ads (JCPenney, this might've benefited you)? With Store Ops -- district and store managers -- to discuss where things are going astray in execution? Are there internal SWAT teams that hunt down the root causes of out-of-stocks that customers complain about, US military style -- no excuses, no blame, just fix the problem?

My experience says the answer is largely, no.

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Companies ignore customer feedback? Say it ain't so George! Shocking I say, shocking!

Look -- most companies don't listen to their own employee's feedback, why would they listen to customers? It is assumed customers don't know much, so the store George mentioned probably hadn't a clue he actually knows what he's talking about. Furthermore, the store thinks, they can't be changing everything just because some idiot customer wants it different.

Frankly the 'survey' checked box approach is so last decade. People are looking for engagement and engagement is more about the future than the past. We need to find ways to do more than 'fix' things that have already happened and move into a 'feed-forward' relationship with customers.

Gotta go...I'm off to get my oil changed at the car dealer. Luckily the dealer will fill in my evaluation form for me. I tell you, you just can't get that kind of helpful caring service in many other places.

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Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

In my experience, if a retailer is not going to act on the feedback received AND close the loop with customers by communicating with them both individually (where possible and appropriate), as well as at a broader level, asking for feedback is pointless. Retailers that truly value customer feedback will find a way to make sure that customers that take the time to provide feedback know that their input is valued and that some action has been taken to resolve the situation or reward an associate for a positive experience.

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Brian Numainville, Principal, The Retail Feedback Group

Requesting information, ideas, and suggestions from consumers is a good way to begin interaction. However, if the company has no way of gathering, analyzing, and responding to that information, they would be better off not asking. Requesting the information creates the expectation that the company wants to hear from consumers. Not responding destroys that expectation and leaves consumers frustrated, disillusioned, and suspicious of any future request.

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Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc.

Having been involved in several research and customer surveys of this nature, the results became internal statistical fodder that in every case never produced a tangible outcome for the customer. This was due to a number of factors. The most noticeable was the gravitational pull of organizational mass of large corporations. The solution would require a change in the 'status quo' of existing and embedded workflow and processes. The required changes would be too disruptive and there wasn't enough 'energy' within the organization to escape the gravitational pull of the status quo. The original concern for customer satisfaction and service was crushed by the status quo.

The true reasons were then masked by a series of rationalizations as to why they couldn't or wouldn't affect a change. Another customer-centric insight was then relegated to a word file buried and lost forever in the retailer's archive server farm.

Understanding that the new digital shopper is empowered and they have many and immediate options available to them will force retailers to react. If they don't, their brand will suffer the fiscal consequences of their inactions. There is no hiding in the era of the digitally empowered shopper!

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Adrian Weidmann, Principal, StoreStream Metrics, LLC

First of all, it is great to hear that 85% of consumers are willing to provide feedback (at no cost) to retailers. Lets think about the millions the retail industry spends on mystery shoppers, surveys, panel tests, etc. Why not put in place a system to optimize the feedback being provided today to improve your overall business?

How it might work: Customer sends a note complaining about the lines at a grocery store being too long. Manager of the store responds asking for additional details including day of week and time of day. He then lets the customer know that he will be walking the floor a few times during the following week in particular the time they were shopping to better understand the issue. The following week the manager sends off a note with his findings and what he is doing to resolve the issue. He then asks the customer to please follow up in a week or two to see if the issue has improved.

Sounds like a lot of work, but isn't that why we are in retail to serve customers and provide the best experience possible so they will come back and tell friends?

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John Boccuzzi, Jr., Managing Partner, Boccuzzi, LLC

Max pretty much said what I was thinking. We should always acknowledge and thank the customer for their input. I also think when a retailer takes a customer's suggestion, they should let their staff and customers know they did so.

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Doug Fleener, President and Managing Partner, Dynamic Experiences Group

Maybe it's because the ideas are bad, or just plain dumb. This is the pitfall of constantly asking for feedback; there's a lot of geniuses out there!

Consumers generally think their ideas are amazing. As a matter of fact, we have an entire generation of young people who think they're writing for the New York Times every time they post something. But alas, 99% of blogs, tweets and posts and yes, even retail opinions are really not very good.

So, it doesn't surprise me that people are upset about their ideas not being implemented. However, the reverse should be true; if you have an idea that DOES get acted on, you should be ecstatic (and maybe even rewarded, although I hesitate to say that).

I think retailers are learning a LOT about transparency and crowd sourcing, and hopefully the conclusion is this; you can ask, but you still have to do it yourself ... you have to LEAD the customer, it will not be the other way around.

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Lee Peterson, EVP Creative Services, WD Partners

I once asked a CIO how his company answered email from customers. His response was ".....ANSWER it?" Retailers will want to leverage the input they get from customers, and create a meaningful dialogue that provides competitive advantage. Does anyone know of a retail company that gets it right?

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

Nikki said it in a nutshell; "...the processes to embrace customer feedback...don't typically exist." When we talk about how important it is for retailers to 'interact' with their customers today, this is a big part of it. The person or method they use to interact must be enabled to give them more than a pat on the hand.

Lee Kent, Brings Retail Executives Together to Meet.Learn.Profit, RetailConnections

For those few retailers that actually employ a staff (size of the staff depending upon the size of the retailer) of customer service people, they find that the upside of this labor investment returns high ROI with every comment/complaint to which they respond. Personal attention is priceless, and the lifetime value it creates with the consumer is very tangible and measurable.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM

There is a an upscale, mid-sized market I shop at -- OK, it's probably 5K square feet, but that still seems "mid-sized" to me -- that (still) handles feedback the old fashioned way. They have a suggestion box and post the questions and answers on a bulletin board ... it's a nice, homespun touch, but how practical it would be with a $100M/yr location, I don't know. As for the issue of whether/not retailers are acting on your suggestion, remember that maybe your prayers WERE answered... and the answer was "no."

'notcom'

When customers provide feedback, they are speaking with a store employee or filling out a form which goes to corporate.

Overwhelmingly, the communication flow from corporate to the stores is downward, even to store managers. it's a very top-down directed flow. We direct, you do. The structure isn't designed to facilitate communication flowing the other way, unless it's a direct response to an inquiry from above.

When customers fill out a form, typically that ends up in a corporate staff backwater. The mission is part customer service, part PR. These folks aren't plugged into either senior or line managers.

This is the conundrum of mass-market retailing. Mass-market retailers are marketing to the common denominator. The organization is designed to focus on driving economies of scale, rather than identifying and capitalizing on discreet opportunities or problems.

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Ted Hurlbut, Principal, Hurlbut & Associates

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