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Uncovering the Unknown

It’s perhaps the most widely debated topic and theory in business, and yet we remain divided and uncertain of the answer despite the years – more like generations – since the argument manifested. The divisive theory, of course, is “the customer is always right!” While it may strike some of you as unconventional, or even preposterous, personally I believe both sides of the argument are overwhelmingly wrong, but also undeniably correct. In other words, it depends, and it is up to you to leverage your expertise and available information to determine which side of the theory to support in each opportunity.

While operating as the Operations Manager for Bahlman Cleaners in San Angelo, TX – a market dominated by (extra) heavy starched blue jeans and button-ups – customers would often ask to have their dry-clean only garments laundered or starched. As you know, a laundry press buck in excess of 400°F and non-heat tolerant, delicate fabric are not a wise combination. Not only would your crew likely be cleaning melted goop off your press, but you would also likely be refunding the customer – who thought their request was correct – for the garment. Regardless, those same customers were always satisfied with our wet or dry cleaning and silk press service – unknown to them – and would return a few days later with the same garments and same confident, “correct” request.

In contrast, when I first helped select and implement a Point of Sale (PoS) many years ago, we recognized the value of informing customers of their total due when sending Order Ready messages. This subtle change in our customer communication practice permitted customers to arrive with pre-written checks or to send a pick-up proxy on their behalf. Based partially on ambiguous comments and jokes from customers, wondering if they had enough cash on hand at checkout, along with astute observations of these interactions, the customer feedback on implementation of this simple feature was exceptionally positive. I utilize this experience to exemplify how the customer was indeed correct, but only with a blend of our experience(s) and insights from various sources.

This experience also showcases how the industry can continue to evolve and mature in its service offerings through better engagement with customers, vendors, and each other. For those of you whom typically have time and opportunities to interact with customers and collect feedback face-to-face, 2020 was likely a difficult year to continue your normal practices. Whether you are a member of the former, or an owner/operator who has not had these privileges, continuous engagement with your customer base is essential to your success and has remained a challenge since Spring 2020.

If you find yourself asking how to interact with customers who are not visiting as frequently, if at all, I encourage you to utilize today’s technology in digital surveys. Today’s digital surveys are full of useful features complete with industry templates, common questions, preset themes, workflow logic, and a variety of distribution options to name a few. Of course, some of these features’ availability are dependent upon the freemium or premium level you are subscribed to with the survey provider. But even in the most basic, freemium option, these digital surveys offer the ability to openly ask your customers for their feedback and generate or test new growth ideas.

The use of surveys is a technique and strategy I have helped Bahlman Cleaners to utilize since recognition of their value after the change in Order Ready messages. In the first few attempts, I definitely struggled to have successful engagement and gain statistically significant insights. However, after correcting various faults in execution, the practice became second nature and insightful. I share these moments of humility to encourage you to persevere if you have previously attempted to utilize surveys, and to offer you a path forward.

The top three errors in my initial practices revolved around scope, incentive, and analysis.

  • Scope – Without getting too technical, surveys provide you with sample data points which represent a larger population. Therefore, when creating and distributing a survey, it is important to keep in mind your overall objective and the corresponding audience. In layman terms, if you are wanting to collect satisfaction feedback on your counter service at a specific location, be sure not to include route only customers, or customers from other locations, in your distribution group. While that seems pretty obvious, it can be a simple parameter to overlook, which will yield lower engagements due to lack of relevancy.

  • Incentive – I cannot express this enough, incentives matter! Just like you, your customers receive hundreds of emails a day, and you are competing with thousands of other distractions. Therefore, if you want strong engagement and valuable insights, you must define the value of the survey results to you and offer an incentive that is of equal or greater value to your target audience for providing it. This could be an incentive which all participants receive, or perhaps a grand prize, but don’t underestimate the power of “FREE”. Finally, don’t forget to properly execute on the incentive; it is difficult to administer credit to participants and run an anonymous response survey.

  • Analysis – While the two prior topics are of the upmost importance in collecting response data, the analysis of that data is what creates true insights and value. Unfortunately, analysis of your new data is the most challenging aspect of completing a survey, and actually begins in the initial design phase. Without the correct questions, it is near impossible to complete proper statistical analysis to gain insights on your objective. Objective being the keyword, be sure your questions and corresponding responses are objective, rather than subjective, as well as quantifiable. A well-designed survey, and the subsequent analysis can often reveal additional insights about your respondents, and larger population, you never thought to ask or consider. To be fair, it’s only through my experiences in education and professional practice since my time as Operations Manager which have helped me to become more than competent in this field.

Most of you have years, some decades, of experience in the industry. However, I challenge you to not fall victim to status-quo just as Nokia or Blockbuster. Instead, step outside your comfort zone and try something new, and expose yourself to new or different information than you are accustomed. Again, digital surveys are a great tool to accomplish both. And while I have focused on engaging with customers, this practice is also applicable within the B2B realm between you and suppliers, vendors, or even industry colleagues to help convey and collect new ideas and insights.

If you have attempted surveys in the past, but have struggled, or are interested in exploring this practice and don’t know where to begin, feel free to reach out. Whether it’s helping you define scope, ideate incentives, analyze existing results, explore comprehensive services, or just to verify who I am, I would be honored and pleased to assist you with your needs or to just connect to help improve the industry. After all, having grown-up in the industry, I recognize its longstanding pain points and founded WVH on the pre-tense of helping to make improvements where possible.

Blake Bahlman

B.A., M.B.A., M.S.I.S.


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