What would you give for fewer customer feedback surveys?

What would you give for fewer customer feedback surveys?

Companies are using more technology to analyze their consumers' feelings without directly asking them

Experience-management firms maintain that their analysis, including their ability to identify emotions, is effective and gives them the ability to take action in near real time. (Illustration by Chaya Howell)
Experience-management firms maintain that their analysis, including their ability to identify emotions, is effective and gives them the ability to take action in near real time. (Illustration by Chaya Howell)

Overall, would you say you're satisfied, somewhat satisfied or dissatisfied with customer surveys?

Odds are you won't answer.

Instead of asking customers directly, U.S. companies are finding other ways to gauge their feelings, marketing executives and business professors say. Customers would likely never notice many of these methods.

Companies can now apply machine learning to analyze the language used in transcripts of calls and chats.

They say that they can evaluate how happy or angry customers are, or why they are calling.

From there, companies hope to more quickly and accurately decide on next actions to improve their service.

It's a technological solution that companies say they hope will help boost their responsiveness and get ahead of complaints that get amplified across Twitter and Instagram.

The question is whether consumers are willing to continue to trade some degree of privacy for quicker assistance or potentially better service by letting an algorithm evaluate their words on calls, chats or public social-media posts.

For industries that track customer-experience feedback closely -- including retail, travel, healthcare, finance and the auto industry -- surveys have long been the standard. They pop up everywhere: as an option at the end of a call to purchase plane tickets, in your email after a doctor's appointment, even as a scannable QR code in the lobby of your bank asking you to rate your visit.

However, companies say that few customers fill them out and that survey-only data is limited in its ability to discern a consumer's feelings or surface new problems.

The technology that allows companies to capture and analyze large amounts of data to measure the consumer experience "has fundamentally changed in the last five years," says Bill Staikos, a senior vice president at Medallia, an experience-management firm.

Such firms use data to help clients track and improve experiences of those who use their products and services.

To help launch a chatbot in 2020, Miami International Airport used the experience-management firm Qualtrics to mine publicly available data from social-media platforms and customer reviews.

That aided the airport's social-media team by answering questions in both English and Spanish, the airport says.

Instead of posting on social media, travelers first took questions to the chatbot. Inquiries on social channels were quickly reduced by almost half, airport representatives say, allowing employees time to handle more complex help requests.

By 2021, the airport says it reduced its overall customer-resolution time to 10 minutes, from as high as 90.

Tech advances have significantly changed how customer experience is measured.

Executives from experience-management companies say that they rely more on tracking data digitally without using third-party cookies.

State and international laws have limited cookies in recent years, but public posts on social-media platforms are open for them to review.

Some who study this field remain unsure about the limitations of the algorithms.

"I would not say that they're identifying emotions. I would say that they are attributing emotions, because I feel like a lot of this technology is highly questionable," says Frank Pasquale, a Brooklyn Law School professor who serves on the U.S. government's National Artificial Intelligence Advisory Committee.

Mr. Pasquale asks whether data sets across the industry reflect the bias of the people who wrote the algorithms, and even if machine learning can currently identify human emotion at all.

Many consumers have shown a reluctance to having their behavior tracked online.

A 2021 KPMG Advisory survey of 2,000 U.S. adults showed that 86% of American adults "say data privacy is a growing concern for them." Only 17% would willingly give up personal data, even "to help businesses create better products and services."

Customer-experience management companies say they take the concern seriously, and that it is reflected in their data-collection strategies.

They also say that their analysis of calls and chats, including their ability to identify emotions, is effective and lets them react to customer needs in near real time.

If a company can quickly read complaints on the same topic -- a glitch in the payment function on their app, perhaps -- it can fix it more quickly.

Sentiment analysis also allows companies to intervene almost instantly to retain someone's business by offering an unhappy customer an in-app discount.

Some consumers worry that a machine-learning algorithm could misinterpret them. "What if you're just a loud person by nature?" asks Abi Serkanic, an accountant in Zion, Ill.

Others like Logan Lockner, a writer and editor from Atlanta, say they are more willing to accept changes in technology and more observation of their behavior by companies if it makes for a smoother experience.

"I'm not necessarily proud that is my answer," says Mr. Lockner.

Ben Nayyar, a telecommunications program manager in Edison, N.J., says he appreciates the technological advances that make him feel heard by companies.

"I think that's why consumers like myself -- and I've seen a lot of others -- are going through the route of social media, so that you get that attention from them," he says.

Companies plan to expand use of these tools in the near future.

Qualtrics has a product in the works that will analyze calls in real-time. Among other features, it aims to instantly pull up information that service agents need to solve a customer's problem to reduce time spent on hold.

None of this means the survey is approaching extinction, says Brad Anderson, Qualtrics's president of products and services.

The company says that its analysis of speech records has surged since 2018. Its use of surveys has also grown over that time, though at a slower rate.

Momentive, which owns SurveyMonkey and GetFeedback, continues to incorporate surveys in some form in about 90% of its analyses. Medallia says it still uses them 20% of the time.

"I think if you were to ask a lot of customers, they would say if we could get the feedback and learning without asking a question, [they] would love to do that," Mr. Anderson says. "But I think you'll always have both."

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