Article

How to connect with your silent customers

By Susan Lahey

Published June 30, 2020
Last updated June 30, 2020

Most customers don’t leave feedback. Some research shows that, in fact, 85 percent of customers won’t leave “post-transaction messages.” And as a general benchmark, an average survey response rate is 33 percent, though in reality it may be much lower, between 5 to 30 percent. There are often several reasons for this, but one obvious one is that people are busy and stressed, and most don’t have the time or the energy to manage relationships with every company that provides them with goods or services.

Instead, most customers will do what they need to do with your product or service and proceed on with the rest of their day. These are the Silent Customers.

“If I am a good and loyal customer, I want to be recognized as a valuable customer and just do my thing and move on,” said Renee Bauer of St. Louis. “I get my oil changed at the dealership where I bought my car and after the oil change I would get an email and a phone call wanting me to do a 10-minute survey on ‘How happy were you with the technician?’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘It was an oil change. It was a perfectly fine oil change. I’m not going through this again.’”

The problem with silent customers is that while they often demand very little, they will also silently switch providers if they’re not happy. So the question is: Can you coax a silent customer into communicating about their experience with your company in a way that will help you to improve your service? Fortunately, the answer is yes.

The problem with silent customers is that while they often demand very little, they will also silently switch providers if they're not happy.

Earn trust by taking action on customer feedback

Customers may fear that they’re generating positive reviews, but that nobody’s actually going to act on their feedback. Frequently, they’re right—one study showed that most companies asking for feedback were really just trying to collect positive information to boost their brand perception. So why should a customer stop in the midst of what’s probably a busy day to stroke a company’s ego? That’s not a good relationship-builder.

Bauer herself said she feels like this brand outreach is often just “a front to mine my data to sell me more things. It’s faux customer service.”

These days, trust is expensive and hard to earn—and it can be so easily lost. According to Zendesk’s Customer Experience Trends Report 2020, 52 percent of customers will go out of their way to purchase from a favorite brand. Yet at the same time, roughly half of customers surveyed said they would switch brands after just one bad experience. More than one bad experience and that number goes up.

[Related read: The trust economy and why it’s okay to get a bad rating]

Research by Edelman shows that consumers trust brands more than they trust governments. They want to trust them with their customer experience, with the quality and sustainability of the product, and with the company’s responsibility toward society. More than 80 percent said trust was a primary factor in whether or not to buy a product. The only surefire way to build trust is to follow through.

When it comes to collecting feedback, customers need to trust that you’re going to act on it. Inge De Bleecker, senior director of User Experience & Conversational AI at Applause in Austin recommended that feedback be divided into several actionable categories, each of which has a dedicated team. She was writing about getting feedback on an app, so her categories included:

 

  • Functionality and features
  • Bugs
  • Usability issues
  • New functionality requests
  • User education flaws

 

But your categories could be whatever is most relevant to your product or service. Artificial intelligence could also be applied to your feedback system to spot which bucket a customer’s feedback belongs in, and even to let them know that their feedback is being forwarded to the team responsible for improving the customer experience.

Having some indication that providing a response will impact a future customer’s experience is more likely to inspire customers to respond than just contributing to a star rating. 

Of course, you actually have to follow up. You have to triage the data, prioritize issues, look for patterns, and generate lists of action items to respond to the feedback. Problems or bugs could be tackled immediately while enhancements should be placed on a roadmap for future consideration. The important thing is not to simply collect data and let it sit in a server somewhere.

[Related read: To excel at customer intimacy, you will need data]

Consider offering incentives to elicit feedback

Customer feedback is a double-edged sword. Most people rely on online reviews to make a decision, and because they know not all the reviews will be equally legitimate or relevant, they want to see a lot of reviews: more than 100. Plus, the positive reviews—say a five-star—have to more than balance out the ones and twos, because most folks won’t even consider a transaction without a review of over three stars. But when you incentivize people to give feedback, you have to make sure to do it in a way that doesn’t imply you’re paying for positive reviews, because that erodes trust.

The important thing is not to simply collect data and let it sit in a server somewhere.

One study showed four different incentives—other than money or discounts—that spur people to leave feedback. Getting away from the academic names—“identified regulation, introjected regulation”—these look more like perks, guilt, status, and community in layman's terms.

Obviously, if someone gets a coupon or discount for leaving a review, that would count as a perk. As the study noted, Booking.com offers customers an opportunity to win a gift card when they leave feedback on the platform. This is a way to acknowledge that someone is going out of their way to provide feedback.

[Related read: Zappos’ ‘Customer Service for Anything’ is a very human experience]

Guilt or responsibility is the motivator that inspires some people to respond to a service provider or customer service agent who asks for feedback. A one-on-one interaction, from one human to another, can be a powerful motivator. On the other hand, if this outreach inspires guilt, it’s not necessarily the best tactic for building a lasting relationship. An automated feedback response inspires less pressure, but could perhaps be personalized. It generally matters whether the survey is coming from someone familiar or from a brand with whom the customer actually has a relationship.

Status is when someone is recognized as a VIP to the company for leaving reviews. On TripAdvisor, for example, someone who has left a lot of reviews is recognized with points. The points don’t purchase anything or count toward future travel, they just mark you as an experienced traveler, which can be a status symbol all its own. It’s one way to become an influencer. TripAdvisor is dogged about reminding travelers to leave reviews and promising them they’re moving up in the ranks, which appeals to those who like to gamify their travel.

Community is the more altruistic desire to leave feedback and reviews for the benefit of those who come after, especially for those whom you consider to be part of a tribe of people with similar interests. Setting up a customer community can be a great way to create a space for feedback and open up dialogue between your brand and customers.

Any of these strategies, or combination thereof, can help to encourage feedback, but it depends on your customer base and what would be the most appropriate reward for them. 

[Related read: How 5 top brands use customer feedback to drive agent performance]

Use data as a guide—but not without a human touch

Companies have an enormous opportunity to use their technology investments to learn more about customers who aren’t talking to them directly. And this is important because reaching silent customers can help to diversify the feedback your company receives; often feedback is skewed by only the happiest and least happy customers. 

Customer service surveys, Voice of the Customer data that uses Natural Language processing, and AI that tracks a customer’s digital behavior can all help identify customer patterns. But we’re human and our patterns aren’t always consistent, so there’s nothing that beats actually talking to customers, either on the phone, in person, or through digital channels like messaging and social media.

But we're human and our patterns aren't always consistent, so there's nothing that beats actually talking to customers

Case in point, Bauer shared that if she buys clothes and they don’t work out, that’s on her, and she’s unlikely to reapproach the brand. But when it comes to choosing service providers, she views it almost like a sporting event to get her money’s worth and has gone out of her way to negotiate with her cable company in order to retain her business.

[Related read: Customer loyalty is great, but what about loyalty to customers?]

But there was an occasion when she went clothes-shopping at Chico’s and the sales clerks gave her honest appraisals about which garments worked and which didn’t, and went searching for complementary garments through the department. Bauer went to the store expecting to spend about $50 and wound up happily spending $600.

“It was like shopping with a girlfriend,” she said. “Any company with that level of service wins my heart.”

And really, that’s the best way to woo a silent customer.