A New Look at Comment Cards

Businesses are always interested in what their customers think, and perhaps no method for gathering information from customers is more prevalent than the ubiquitous comment card. Used by companies of all sizes, comment cards can be found in stores, restaurants, hotels, banks and any other place of business that serves retail customers. They represent a popular method of research because they are easy to design and inexpensive to distribute and collect.

The only problem is that they are generally not very useful. Comment cards have severe limitations as a method for gathering data, and the situation is frequently made worse by bad design and inappropriate analysis. As a result, many companies end up doing little or nothing with the cards they collect, which may sit in boxes for months before someone reads them or, more often, throws them out.

Comment cards can be very useful, however, if they are designed well and analyzed correctly. Some companies have developed effective systems for using the data from customer comment cards, and have made them an integral part of their service improvement initiatives.

The first step to using comment cards effectively is to understand that they make terrible customer satisfaction surveys. Most companies try to turn them into surveys by asking customers to rate such things as service, convenience and product selection. But comment cards do not give reliable information about these things because they do not come from typical customers. The people who fill out the cards tend to fall into one of four groups:

  • Extremely happy customers
  • Extremely unhappy customers
  • Extremely bored customers
  • Customers with requests (for products, new store locations, etc.)

Notice the operative word in the first three categories: extreme. If a customer is satisfied with the product or service, why bother to fill out a card? Customers expect to be satisfied. Having your expectations met is not something to write about. In research parlance, the sample is self-selected, and the people who fill in cards are not likely to be representative of the general population of the company's customers. It therefore makes no sense to ask these people to provide ratings that are going to be tabulated and averaged. The results will be useless at best, and completely misleading at worst.

Not only are surveys of this sort inappropriate as a means for telling companies what their typical customers think, they do not even tell much about atypical customers because the design prevents respondents from giving relevant feedback.

Pick up a comment card at any place of business, and you will more than likely find the following components:

  1. A lead-in that says something like, "Was everything to your satisfaction? Please let us know how we are doing by filling out this card . . ."
  2. Lots of rating categories, using a four or five-point scale. Categories can include everything from "Satisfaction with service" to "Cleanliness of parking lot."
  3. Three or four narrowly spaced lines for "Additional Comments."

Now, imagine you are a customer who is very angry at the service you just received. You wish to share your experience with management, so you pick up the card described above. What does it offer you? A survey. A chance to rate a lot of things that are completely irrelevant to your situation. What you want to do is tell your story, not check little boxes. But there are only a few skinny lines on the card to write about what happened. You write what you can, but you're not satisfied. Since you couldn't tell your story to the company, you tell it to other people. Lots of other people, because bad service makes a good story. And, because the card did not allow you to give details about the service incident, the company has no way of knowing what really happened in order to correct the problem.

The situation can be summed up in this way: A typical comment card tries to make customers fit their experience into common categories. But the type of incident that leads a customer to fill out a comment card is usually uncommon. So the company is either collecting the wrong information from the right people or the right information from the wrong people. Either way, it makes for bad research.

The solution is obvious. Since many of the customers who fill out comment cards want to tell their story, design the card to let them do it. Give them lots of widely spaced lines or empty space. Give them the opportunity to praise or to vent with as much detail as they wish. Also, let them know that their comments will be read and taken seriously. Some of the best comment cards are designed as letters to the company president. They look something like,

 

"Dear [President's name]:

Here is something I would like you to know . . .

 

[Lots of white space]

 

Sincerely yours,"

[Space for name, address and phone number]

 

One of the objections to this type of card is that someone has to read all the comments. That takes a lot of time and effort, which is why it is so tempting to make the card into an easily quantifiable (but useless) survey instrument. If the comment card is to be designed as a letter rather than a survey, however, it is essential that the company simultaneously put into place a system for reading and responding to the cards. There are ways to streamline this process, but to ignore it is to make matters worse, because customers (the angry ones, at least) will expect a reply.

However, if these two components are put into place — an opportunity for customers to tell their story and a mechanism for responding to them — comment cards can be exceptionally valuable. First, they provide a method for companies to identify and reply to customers who have had a negative service experience and may be at risk of taking their business elsewhere. As such comment cards become a powerful tool for service recovery, which has three well-known effects on the bottom-line:

  1. Keeping at-risk customers from leaving;
  2. Minimizing negative word-of-mouth advertising that would undermine marketing efforts; and
  3. Increasing positive word-of-mouth advertising (customers who have had a problem fixed are famous for becoming vocal advocates of a company).

The flip-side is that customers who have had a positive experience can be thanked for their feedback, which encourages customer loyalty.

Furthermore, letter-style comment cards allow the company to analyze service problems and successes from the point of view of customers rather than management. In survey-style cards customers are typically asked to rate areas that should be the store managers' and employees' responsibility to monitor, such as cleanliness, lighting, signage and parking. In the letter-style card, on the other hand, customers are encouraged to provide information about specific service encounters and how they were affected by those encounters. Analysis of these stories reveal, from the customers' point of view, the underlying issues and circumstances that lead to positive or negative service experiences.

These stories are much more useful than the one- or two-word comments written on typical survey-type cards because they provide rich anecdotal information about the types of service behaviors that are likely to lead to highly positive or negative outcomes. The stories can be incorporated into training programs to help employees become aware of circumstances that might lead to lost customers and to recognize opportunities for providing memorable service. The stories can also be used as a recognition tool for honoring specific employees, teams or stores.

Many companies have switched to letter-style comment cards and have put into place efficient systems for reading, analyzing and responding to them. Some have even subcontracted parts of the process without losing any essential information. Whatever system is put into place for handling comment cards, it should have the following components:

Postage-paid return. Customers should be able to fill in cards off-site and mail them back at their convenience. Not only does this give them time to think about what they want to say, but also it ensures that employees and managers do not intercept unfavorable cards. (Such a situation occurred at a large hotel a few years back. Comment cards were placed on the pillows in rooms, and completed cards were picked up by the Housekeeping staff to give to the General Manager. Predictably, cards that were less than complimentary about Housekeeping never made it out of the rooms, and the Housekeeping staff always received high praise.)

Store identifier. Because cards are typically sent to a central location for processing, a code should be included on all cards so that results can be made available at the store level.

Pre-sorting for "Hot" cards. Comment cards should be quickly read before processing to identify those that require an immediate response. "Hot" cards (also called "911's") typically comprise only about 10% to 20% of the total, but since they come from customers at risk of leaving they need to answer right away to promote effective service recovery.

Determination of comment codes. Most cards will probably fall into a handful of relevant categories. The cards can be marked by category (a process called "coding") and entered into a database to make analysis, reporting and response easier. It is important, however, that the comments themselves — and the core issues underlying them — be used to determine the categories. A frequent mistake is for management to come up with categories a priori, which misses the point of using the cards to gain insight into service from the customers' point of view.

Several layers of categories can be derived. It is useful to identify the tone of the comment — for example, positive, negative or neutral (neutral comments are often in the form of requests for new products, expanded hours, etc.). A second level is the issue. Typical issues are "timeliness of service", "responsiveness/flexibility of staff to special requests", "attitude of staff", "overall competence of employees", "fairness of pricing policy" and "quality of product". Notice that all of these issues could have either positive or negative outcomes, which would subsequently determine the tone of the customers' comments.

For example, a customer who asks if her child can use the restroom in a mall store might be told that the restroom is for employees only. The customer replies that she understands it is store policy but "this is an emergency." The issue here might be categorized as "company policy", but that would be missing the point.

From the customer's point of view the issue is actually the flexibility of the employees, or perhaps the willingness of employees to recognize and respond to special circumstances. How the employee finally responds — by sticking to policy or by acceding to the customer's request — will determine whether the outcome is positive or negative.

A company might find from coding its comment cards that the issue "flexibility" comes up frequently, and that the outcome from this issue is negative 75% of the time and positive only 25% of the time. A printout of the comments associated with this issue will reveal specific employee behaviors and decisions that lead to positive or negative customer experiences. The comment cards have thus revealed a relevant service issue from the point of view of customers and simultaneously provided policy guidance and training focus for the company. The result is fewer lost customers and greater customer loyalty. Continuous coding and monitoring of comment cards should reveal over time a shift in the proportion of negative vs. positive outcomes in the "flexibility" category.

Another, broader, level of categorization used by some organizations might be called type or class. These codes would separate comments into "service", "product" and other general areas.

Too many codes become cumbersome, of course; the company must decide the level of coding based upon what it plans to do with the information. After coding, the next important component of a comment card system is . . .

Company response. Hot cards, at least, should be replied to, either in writing or with a phone call. As for the other 80% to 90% of cards, writing a letter or making a call would be too expensive and time-consuming for most companies, and it really isn't necessary. A simple acknowledgement card to those customers who supply an address is often sufficient.

Some companies print several cards with more specific messages. For example, a large restaurant chain that receives over 2,000 comment cards per month has printed response cards with six different messages. One card responds to requests for new locations ("Thank you for your interest, etc."), another handles positive comments about service, and yet another handles negative service comments ("We appreciate your feedback and assure you that your concerns are being shared within the company."). In order to send the right reply to the right customer, the company prints out address labels sorted by comment code. The process is simple and quick, and enables the company to add a level of personalization to their reply that a general acknowledgement card would not achieve.

Multi-level reporting. The final essential component is to create usable reports. If comments, codes and store numbers are entered into a database, it is a simple matter to create different reports that can be used at different levels of the organization. Corporate departments and managers can track requests for products and locations, and can monitor frequencies of codes to determine if changes in policy, training and hiring are having an effect on the number of positive and negative comments provided by customers. Regional managers can identify problem stores and track improvements, and store managers can receive printouts of comments sorted by code, allowing them to see patterns in service delivery at their sites.

None of these steps are particularly difficult. The biggest challenge is in the initial design and set-up of the system, but once the system is running its value quickly becomes clear. Instead of being used as an inadequate survey, comments cards can be used as a rich source of insight for improving service and building customer loyalty.

 

Comment cards have severe limitations as a method for gathering data, and the situation is frequently made worse by bad design and inappropriate analysis. As a result, many companies end up doing little or nothing with the cards they collect, which may sit in boxes for months before someone reads them or, more often, throws them out.

 

Comment cards can be very useful, however, if they are designed well and analyzed correctly. Some companies have developed effective systems for using the data from customer comment cards, and have made them an integral part of their service improvement initiatives.