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Put Your Listening Cap On

March 1, 2005
Odds are that someone in your organization at some point in time has had the bright idea to survey your customers to find out how happy they really are with the quality of your product or service.

Odds are that someone in your organization at some point in time has had the bright idea to survey your customers to find out how happy they really are with the quality of your product or service. The premise of such efforts being that if you can serve your customers' current and evolving needs better, they will be happier and more loyal, and will therefore direct more business your way.

You've probably been confronted by the results of these surveys: 11 percent are very satisfied, 20 percent are somewhat satisfied, 25 percent are just satisfied, 10 percent are not really satisfied, and 34 percent of your customers don't really have an opinion one way or another. "What am I supposed to do with this?" You may recall asking as you stared at the colorful little pie charts.

Like a map with a "You Are Here" star in the middle but no indication of where you want to go, such fuzzy customer research typically gets filed away in a drawer. The data may be pulled out later if it happens to support a particular management initiative, but it's usually never seen or heard from again. There are better ways of staying in touch with your customers' evolving needs.

One of the characteristics that make the material-handling industry such an interesting sector—and such a challenging one to cover—is the wide spectrum of our audience. Our readers include managers at manufacturing companies of every size and stripe that ship products to sister plants and warehouses, as well as to other manufacturers and distributors. They also include wholesalers that deliver perishable and non-perishable goods to food service operations and retailers; online and catalog companies that mail individual orders directly to end customers; and thirdparty companies that must tailor their warehousing and logistics services to the needs of their customer base.

Because of this variety, when charged with writing about a particular issue or trend, Material Handling Management's writers must talk to as many sources as we can. Eventually, people begin to make similar comments and observations, offering up a form of collective truth that we then present to our readers. You can apply a similar methodology to gathering actionable customer intelligence.

Not too many months ago I visited a manufacturer of hydraulic and pneumatic couplings.After the factory tour we wandered through a conference room where the walls were covered with pale yellow sticky notes with different circular shapes drawn on them. The sticky notes, explained the vice president of operations, were part of a "voice of the customer" project a cross-functional management team was working on as part of the company's Six Sigma process-improvement program. The gist of it was that the management team would call up customers who had agreed to participate and ask them openended questions about the products and the customer service they had received. The team would listen and then categorize these opportunities for improvement with the yellow sticky notes stuck on the walls. They were already using these comments to guide the plant's capital investment and process-improvement strategy.

The hardest part of the effort, she explained, was getting managers to sit still and listen to customers without getting defensive, jumping in to solve problems, or explaining away any issues as isolated occurrences. They asked for honest feedback, and then had to be quiet and simply listen. That's where good research and customer loyalty begins.

David Drickhamer,