Thursday, February 28, 2008

Measuring Service Quality

As quality practitioners, we’re accustomed to measuring the physical attributes of a product: dimensions, angles, power, hardness, tensile strength, color, and many other characteristics. Getting a handle on services can be more difficult. Often there are no physical attributes to measure, or they don’t clearly affect the essential nature of the service. We have to think about what really matters to the customer about the service. Although this is the case with both goods and services, it takes on special significance with a service. Let’s examine the nature of services and discuss the most effective ways of gauging their effectiveness.

The first thing to keep in mind about the service sector is that it is completely different from manufacturing. The things that you take for granted in manufacturing simply don’t exist in many service situations. Consider:

You control the environment. Even if you subcontract manufacturing to an outside firm, you can still stipulate the environmental conditions. With a service, the environment is often dictated or strongly influenced by the customer. You must adapt to these environmental issues, which can be a huge challenge.

The customer usually isn’t present. Sure, the customer’s presence is felt through specifications, tolerances, and product requirements, but the customer isn’t standing in front of you or peering over your shoulder. With a service, on the other hand, the customer is front and center. He or she is right there, throwing curve balls and changing requirements midstream.

For these reasons, service provision is radically different from manufacturing. Output measurements that are applied in manufacturing make no sense in a service situation because the customer has such a strong influence over our environment. Think about these traditional measures of output:

• Number of customers processed per hour
• Minutes spent on each call
• Reports generated per day
• Average time per repair
• Rooms cleaned per shift

I’ve seen all of these measures applied aggressively in service environments, and all of them frequently backfired because you can meet output objectives and still generate very low customer satisfaction. That’s why the best way to understand service effectiveness is through customer perceptions.

Customer perceptions are key

Customer perceptions are critical in any product context. In the world of service delivery, they’re especially important due to the personal and interactive nature of services. You may satisfy every stated requirement and still fail to satisfy the customer in a profound way. The ground is shifting as the service is performed, and what you think was perfect may be far from satisfactory. That’s why you must specifically ask your customer what he or she thinks about your services. Don’t provide a long survey that probes every aspect of the service experience; just start with two simple questions: “How satisfied are you with the quality of our services?” and “How likely are you to recommend our services to a colleague?”

These two questions apply to nearly any service situation and industry. The first question addresses basic satisfaction, essentially asking if the services met all requirements. The second question takes this a step further and addresses true commitment: Do you feel strongly enough to recommend our services to somebody else? These represent two different places on the same continuum (as seen in figure 1), and both arenecessary for long-term success.

It’s worth noting that satisfaction falls only in the middle range of the continuum. The blunt reality of business is that basic customer satisfaction is no longer adequate for businesses to remain successful. Basic satisfaction simply means that they might use your services in the future--unless a better offer comes up. Satisfaction is little more than the absence of dissatisfaction, and there’s no glory in just squeaking by. Satisfaction is a reasonable starting point, but the ultimate goal is the kind of commitment that results in customers telling their friends and colleagues about your organization and recommending your services. That’s what you should be striving for.

The two survey questions include a four-point response scale. Some data gurus might question whether this provides much constructive information. Keep in mind, however, that people aren’t reliable measuring instruments. With subjective judgments, four or five degrees of resolution are about as precise as you can expect. Combine the preceding questions with the following two open-ended questions and you’ll have a very useful tool for measuring your services:

• How can we improve our existing services? This is one of the simplest yet most effective questions ever conceived. It strikes at the heart of quality: improvement. It gives customers control of the dialogue, and they can do with it what they will. The responses will provide a clear path to making improvements that your customers value.

• What services would you like to see us offer in the future? Innovation is the key to long-term survival, and this question enlists your customers’ help in making you an innovator. The range of responses is limited only by your customers’ imaginations.

In the case of the open-ended questions, the results can be sorted into similar categories. These can then be plotted on a Pareto diagram to provide guidance on the actions that should be taken. Many quality practitioners bristle at open-ended questions because they don’t produce data in a traditional sense. The responses can be converted to data, however, without much difficulty. Even more important, the results point the way to exactly the improvements and innovations that your customers desire.

You now have a dynamic tool that will take less than a minute of somebody’s time. The scaled questions probe two timeless issues--satisfaction and commitment--and produce solid data that can be tracked, while the open-ended questions provide direction for your improvement efforts. Together you have one of the most streamlined and effective service surveys imaginable.

When to capture perceptions

Ask customers for their feedback as soon as the effects of the service are felt. This might be immediately after performing the service or six months later; it all depends on the type of product you’re addressing and the sorts of contractual obligations that were made with the customer. Consider these service scenarios:

• Restaurant. Feedback could be provided immediately following the experience, or certainly within a day or two of it.

• Appliance repair. Feedback could be provided immediately on certain aspects of the service, but it would probably take weeks to know how effective the repair was. Most appliance-repair companies warranty their repairs for a certain length of time, so the feedback horizon could follow a similar time frame.

• Management consulting. Complex consulting projects that aim to increase a company’s profitability and competitiveness might take up to a year to evaluate. Asking for feedback any sooner would be premature.

These three examples illustrate a range of time frames for feedback, from immediately after the service to a year later. Each organization must decide for itself when the effects of its services can be determined and, thus, when it’s appropriate to solicit feedback.

Once you’ve determined when to capture feedback, the next logical question is how to do it. Yes, you already have the tool, but how exactly will it be administered? Your choices are many: in person or by telephone, e-mail, web site, fax, postal mail, or text message. The chosen method should reflect the most convenient process for your customers. In general, try not to add another communication burden to your customers. If you have frequent face-to-face contact with them, use these interactions for getting their feedback. This also goes for existing communications via telephone and e-mail. If it’s already happening, use it. Providing feedback will only add a minute of extra time, and that’s an investment that most customers are glad to make.

Objective measures

Everything we’ve discussed so far is related to subjective measures of service quality. In other words, we’re asking someone’s opinion of how we performed. They probably don’t have data to back up their opinions, and they may not even be able to provide specific examples. These opinions are the basis for making buying decisions, however, so they’re valuable to you as a service supplier.

Besides subjective performance measures, there are also many objective measures that can be applied to your services. You need only look as far as your service guarantees and contracts to find some effective metrics. Nearly every service provider commits to performing its service within a certain time frame. This naturally gives rise to the question: Was the service performed on time? No opinions are necessary here; you either met your commitments or you didn’t. The data can easily be gathered, charted, and analyzed by your own organization. Hard data provide an excellent counterpoint to customer feedback, and they usually substantiate the themes revealed through customer feedback. When data don’t support these themes, it’s useful to explore the reason for the gaps; e.g., “Our customers think we’re always late, yet our data show this isn’t the case. What’s causing this difference in perceptions?” When there’s a difference of this sort, one of two things typically must happen:

1. The data-collection method must be changed to better match what the customer experiences.

2. The customer must be educated at the performance level. Sometimes providing objective data can shape people’s perceptions, and there’s nothing wrong with doing this.

So, what sorts of measures are helpful in managing service quality? Here are some of the most common:

• On-time delivery. The scheduled date and time is agreed upon between the customer and services provider, and deviations from this schedule can cause serious problems. On-time delivery is an excellent measure that’s usually easy to track.

• Responsiveness. This means your ability to respond to the customer within a reasonable amount of time. The response could be related to a question, problem, quote, inquiry, or order change. Organizations that cultivate “customer intimacy” are usually concerned about how responsive they are.

• Effectiveness. All services are supposed to accomplish something: provide information, repair an appliance, process a transaction, or develop a program, among others. If you’re able to determine if your service was effective, then this is an important measure. Keep in mind that I’m talking about an objective measure of effectiveness, not the customer’s perception of effectiveness.

• Availability. Services that are up and running must be concerned with availability. Examples include utilities providing water, electricity, gas, telephone, or other resources exactly when they’re needed. Being down for a few hours can cause millions of dollars in losses and huge claims.

• Audit results. Processes that provide a service can usually be audited. Either through in-person observation or by examining records, an audit can reveal whether the service was performed as planned. Ideally, conformity with the plan would mean that the service is effective, though this isn’t always the case.

• Cost control. This means adhering to established budgets and spending plans while meeting other service objectives. Notice I didn’t say “cost reduction,” which often is used to justify a reduction in service quality.

In summary, a two-pronged approach is the most effective way to measure service quality. Gauge service effectiveness through customer perceptions and through objective data, and remember that measures are worthless unless you take action.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Five Keys to Successful Internal Auditing

Internal auditing is one of the most routine improvement tools available to organizations. In fact, it’s so ordinary that auditors sometimes forget the underlying principles of auditing. Auditors must be periodically reminded of these underlying truths or the entire audit process can begin to backfire. Keep these in mind as you audit and you’ll nearly always be successful.

Principle 1: The customer of the internal audit is the one being audited

That’s right; the people you’re auditing are your customers. Internal auditing is a service you perform to help make your organization more successful and identify problems before they spiral out of control. The quality of your product depends on how well the audit is planned, the type of training provided to auditors, the level of engagement of top management and the way auditors behave during the audit, among other factors. You must conduct the audit with the same level of professionalism and diplomacy as if you were being paid by an outside party.

Little things that indicate the auditors have forgotten who the customer is include:

*** Treating the audit as a “Gotcha!” exercise. Auditors should never express satisfaction or glee when nonconformities are found. Focus on the facts and keep things as impersonal as possible. Failures revealed by the audit are opportunities for the future.

*** Failing to adjust the audit plan to meet the needs of the auditee. Unexpected events can occur during an audit: accidents happen, lines shut down, rush orders must be processed. The audit plan should be flexible enough to handle changes on the fly.

*** Holding surprises until the very end. The auditee should be apprised of audit results throughout the entire process. Don’t make the mistake of holding a “bombshell” until the closing meeting for maximum impact. Auditor should communicate their concern, along with all supporting evidence, when they think they might have found a problem.

*** Focusing on insignificant details at the expense of critical issues. Auditing is a detailed activity, but don’t forget to examine the effectiveness of the overall system. When faced with an issue, auditors should ask themselves, “What effect does this really have on the organization and its customers?” The answer will usually indicate if the issue is one worth delving into in great detail.

Principle 2: Planning is the key to success

Audits don’t create improvements by accident. It takes a great deal of planning and coordination. I’ve often said that a well planned audit almost runs itself. On the other hand, a poorly planned audit runs itself into the ground, and planning often gets shortchanged in the rush to get audits done.

Audit planning involves a significant amount of dialogue between the auditors and auditees. It’s a dynamic process that begins well in advance of the audit itself. Planning typically provides details around the following issues:
*** Date: When will the audit take place?
*** Location: What’s the audit’s location?
*** Scope: What are the official boundaries of the audit?
*** Objective: What is the point of performing the audit?
*** Auditors: Who will perform the audit?
*** Areas to be audited: What functions, departments or processes will be evaluated during the audit? Sometimes this is clear from the scope, but often not.
*** Topics to be audited: What subjects will be audited in the given departments? Should the auditee expect questions about document control or management commitment? This not only gives the auditee a heads-up, but it also helps guide the auditors.
*** Timing of the audit: When exactly will each department be audited? When will the opening and closing meetings take place?

The audit plan may also address other issues, but the ones mentioned above are the most common. The purpose of the audit plan is two-fold: To help the auditors understand exactly what they’ll be doing during the audit and to allow the auditees to know what to expect. It isn’t uncommon for the auditee to propose changes to the audit plan, usually minor alterations in the timing (“Instead of auditing sales at 9 a.m., can you come at 10 a.m.? We already have something scheduled for 9 a.m.”). Changes of this sort are entirely reasonable and should be accommodated to the extent possible. Remember, the customer of the audit is the auditee.

The audit plan is documented as concisely and clearly as possible. The exact format is usually dictated by the magnitude of the audit. A plan for an audit of an hour or two could take the form of an e-mail. A plan for a full day or multiday audit will often take the form of a matrix, indicating hour-by-hour blocks of activities. Whatever the format, the plan should be communicated far enough in advance of the audit for all parties to digest it and understand its effect on operations.

Principle 3: Opinions never constitute nonconformities

Everybody has opinions. As people become wiser and more experienced, they tend to develop even more opinions. Many auditors consider themselves to be wise and experienced, meaning they have loads of opinions. Sometimes these opinions become the basis for nonconformities, which is a huge mistake. Facts are the only legitimate basis for nonconformities. Opinions have no role in the process.
A child could write a good nonconformity. The problem is that children don’t write them, wise and experienced auditors do. Consider the following:

- The company committed itself to doing XYZ. The commitment is a fact, evidenced by its presence in a procedure, plan, policy, specification, contract, work instruction, standard or statement.

- The company failed to do XYZ. The failure is a fact, based on evidence such as records, observations, documents or interviews.

No opinions are present in the nonconformity, just cold, hard facts. It’s hard to argue with facts. It also makes the audit go much smoother. Sure, facts may remove a degree of creativity that auditors exercised, but creativity is better expressed in other ways.

Nonconformities aren’t the only kind of audit findings. Because the audit is a balanced process, positives are also highlighted. These may be recorded individually, summarized in an audit report, or presented orally during the closing meeting. Every organization will have at least one or two positives that can be recognized. The auditors just have to remember to look for these in the course of their auditing.

Some organizations also include another category of finding called observations, remarks, comments, opportunities, recommendations, or any number of other names. These fall into a gray area that doesn’t quite constitute nonconformity, but is still an issue worthy of investigation. Sometimes these will include specific recommendations for taking action based on past experience, established best practices or regulatory requirements. These types of findings give auditors a chance to express opinions. Audits are a great place for benchmarking and sharing best practices, as long as all parties to the audit understand and agree to how this will happen.

Principle #4: Don’t burn out your auditors

It’s human nature to utilize your best resources. If you have a patch of ground that produces great tomatoes, it’s tempting to keep planting tomatoes there, year after year. The only problem is that the soil eventually becomes exhausted. This is the case with an internal audit program, too. Experienced and well-trained auditors produce effective results, so they frequently get called on to perform audits. As a result, the organization fails to develop new auditors, and they end up with no auditors when the experienced auditors run out of gas and scream, “No more!”

One of the best strategies is to make each auditor’s ‘tour of duty’ a year and a half. Annually, train a new group of auditors, and then use the remaining six months for the experienced auditors to mentor the new group. Schedule auditors in teams of two, one new auditor and one experienced. That way, the new auditors get the benefit of observing the seasoned auditors in action, and the seasoned auditors can learn from the new perspectives and unburdened approaches employed by the new auditors.

After a few years of rotating in new groups of auditors, you’ll have utilized a significant chunk of your employees. The benefits of doing this are clear:
 Broad exposure of personnel to other functions in the organizations
 Deeper understanding of the management system and its processes
 Stronger communication and analysis skills, as a result of auditing experience
 Varied perspectives and viewpoints that come from using a wide range of personnel as auditors
 Less likelihood that the audit process will fall victim to groupthink, which happens when the same people always involved
 You will an informal ‘alumni association’ of ex-auditors who can be called on to perform audits periodically if you get into a pinch

Take the time and effort to develop new teams of auditors on a regular basis. You’ll find that the overall effectiveness of your audit process will increase significantly over time.

Principle #5: Audits should focus on critical success factors

Critical success factors are the things that keep you in business and help build customer loyalty. They will be different from industry to industry and from company to company, but there are certain critical success factors that apply to nearly all organizations. The internal audit should probe these areas in detail and dedicate significant effort to analyzing their effectiveness:

 Management review: This is the top management reviewing performance, analyzing data, making decisions, and initiating actions for improvement. It is one of the most important functions in your organization, so auditors will need to apply some effort to examining it.

 Corrective and preventive actions: Few issues have as much bearing on an organization’s success as problem solving and problem prevention. These processes should be scrutinized nearly every time an internal audit is performed.

 Customer satisfaction: The primary reason that organizations exist is to satisfy their customers. How well an organization listens to its customers and takes action on what it learns is definitely a critical success factor.

 Internal audits: If internal auditing wasn’t important, you wouldn’t be reading these words right now. Auditing is one of your primary processes for evaluating process effectiveness and driving improvements, so you will definitely want to audit it on a regular basis. Some people find the notion of auditing the audit process unusual, but it must be examined just like any other key function.

 Product realization: Whether your organization produces a good or service, it certainly has product realization. It could involve manufacturing activities (e.g., cutting, stamping, welding, and assembly) or service activities (e.g., scheduling, repair, trouble shooting, instruction). No matter what kind of activities are in place, this is your core transformation process that has the most direct impact on your customers.

Decide which processes in your organization are the most important to its success, and make sure these processes are audited in-depth and often. The results of the audit will speak for themselves.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Don't Survey Your Customers!

Scaled customer surveys are among the most widely used tools in business. Unfortunately, they're also some of the worst. There's nothing evil about surveys, but they can turn an inherently simple task, such as gathering customer feedback, into something complex and unwieldy. When that happens, there's a good chance it won't satisfy its original purpose, which in this case is making improvements. Why exactly are surveys the wrong tool for most organizations? Let's explore the reasons and then consider an alternative approach that's far more appropriate.
Surveys don't produce timely data

Most traditional customer surveys are sent out periodically to a sampling of an organization's customers, typically once or twice a year. This is a manageable frequency from an administrative standpoint because implementing a survey requires a significant dedication of time and effort. The downside is that by the time the organization receives the feedback, the information is at least six months old and usually much older. The information is almost worthless because customers have already acted on their perceptions before the organization has had a chance to do so. Customers don't wait around to tell you what they're going to do before they do it. If you're not tuned into your customers on a regular basis, you'll never know what hit you.

It makes more sense to gather customer feedback continually. Make the customer feedback process something that's always happening, not a grand event that occurs once or twice a year. This consumes far fewer resources, and it also ensures that the information is current. If you can't take action on customer perceptions within a few weeks of the perceptions being formed, there's a strong chance that you will lose your window of opportunity.

Too many questions

Another downfall of most surveys is that they try to do too much. They probe the customer experience from every imaginable angle. Although admirable, this approach results in long, unwieldy surveys that most customers run away from as fast as they can. I have personally gotten into the habit of scrawling "TOO LONG" in huge block letters on these kinds of surveys. I'm providing feedback, but not exactly the kind expected. Most people don't even bother to provide this much; they simply toss the long surveys into the trash.

The key to successful customer feedback is to ask about the few aspects of the customer experience that matter the most. By asking about everything under the sun, you're establishing the expectation that you'll take action on everything, which is impossible. You're also telling your customer, "Your time isn't very valuable, so the imposition of this long and boring survey should be no problem for you." Focus on a few vital issues, and these obstacles go away. The dilemma is that most organizations don't know what the few vital issues are--thus the need for long surveys. Your organization must back up and get its arms around the things that really matter to your customers.

Difficult to design

If you like defusing explosives, you'll love creating surveys. They include so many failure modes that they're nearly impossible to design correctly unless you do it for a living. Why are they so hard? Let's examine two of their more challenging aspects: questions and scales.

Most surveys comprise a series of questions or statements, followed by a response scale. The response scale usually represents degrees of satisfaction (e.g., "very satisfied," "satisfied," "neutral," etc.) or degrees of agreement (e.g., "strongly agree," "agree," "neutral," etc.). Both of these scales present huge challenges. Most people don't have the writing skills to craft clear, unambiguous survey questions. The result is that the questions don't accurately reflect the attribute that's being queried. In the spirit of getting the job done, customers will often take a guess at what the questions really mean. Like all guessing games, sometimes they'll be right and other times wrong. At best, your data will be 50-percent valid--not a very good percentage.

In the unlikely event that the survey questions are clear, there's still the obstacle of designing a logical response scale. This would seem to be an easy task, but it's extremely complex. Typical errors I've observed are scales that aren't balanced, scales that are biased, scales that don't have equal intervals between the points, scales that don't match the question or statement, and scales that have too many degrees of resolution. If the scale is flawed, then the data that come from it are also flawed. Junk in, junk out, as the saying goes.

No direction for improvement

The fourth downfall of traditional surveys is that they don't provide much guidance for improvement. Sure, they provide data, but what actions are you going to take based on those data? For example, let's imagine that you've asked customers to rate the technical knowledge of your sales force. The average response is 3.4 on a five-point scale, roughly halfway between "neither good nor bad" and "good." What does this number really mean? Even more important, what are you going to do about it? The data help you produce fancy charts, but they probably won't steer you toward specific improvements.

If you aren't able to take action on survey data, their value as improvement tools is zero. Had you asked customers an open-ended question such as, "What do you think is our biggest customer service weakness?" you might have received some feedback that provided a clear path for improvement. In the world of customer perceptions, data don't always rule. Perceptions are by their nature qualitative and subjective, and the attempt to produce data from such a fuzzy source can be misleading. It's better simply to get actionable information than to attempt to turn human beings into precise measuring instruments. If you capture customer perceptions, analyze the trends and take action, you've accomplished a great deal.

So, what should you do?

I've made the case that a traditional customer survey using scaled responses probably isn't the best way for most organizations to capture feedback. If not a survey, what should you do? Here's what I recommend:

Step 1: Examine your existing customer interactions. Your interactions with your customers are limitless. These contacts are conducted via telephone, e-mail, mail, fax and in person. Because you already have numerous contacts with your customers, there's no reason to invent a new contact for the sake of collecting customer feedback. Make use of the connections you already have, and all parties will generally be much happier.

Step 2: Choose an interaction suited to collecting feedback. Not all customer contacts are created equally. Certain conditions should be met when you decide which contacts will be leveraged for collecting customer feedback. In general, the contact should be neutral, routine and candid. Here's what each of these mean:

• Neutral: The contact isn't related to an existing problem or complaint. Attempting to collect feedback when a customer already has a problem is obnoxious and counterproductive. Use an interaction that's neutral in tone and purpose, such as a query or order placement.

• Routine: The contact happens on a regular, routine basis. Feedback collected from routine interactions of this sort is likely to be fresher.

• Candid: The contact occurs between parties that trust one another and are willing to communicate freely. A candid relationship is key to collecting accurate and representative perceptions.

Step 3: Develop a tool that's matched to the customer interaction. Choosing the right tool for the job is critical in every endeavor, and that goes for collecting feedback, too. Once the organization has selected an appropriate customer interaction for collecting feedback, it must develop a tool that works in that context. This is a subjective task, and certain guidelines can assist in knowing what tools work best in different situations:

• Telephone contact: An unobtrusive tool that's conducted at the end of a routine telephone call. Brevity is critical with this kind of tool because most people are anxious to get off the phone once their business is completed.

• In-person visit: A tool that enables the company to see its product in use, just as the customer experiences the product or service. The tool should also enable different people to be queried, depending on the nature of the feedback sought.

• After service or consumption: A tool that enables the customer to conveniently provide "flash feedback." Make the return of this feedback seamless. If the customer
has to expend any effort to return the feedback, it probably won't be returned.

• E-mail: A live link within the body of the message that takes the customer to a simple and visually appealing evaluation of their experience. Make sure the link works fast and is compatible with a variety of Internet browsers and computer monitors.

Benchmark customer feedback tools with other organizations. There's no virtue in being original. Borrow good ideas and approaches as you see them. Hundreds, if not thousands, of examples exist for each of the tools described above. See what other people are doing and adapt the methods to your own needs.

Step 4: Focus on open-ended questions. If you want to grab the attention of your customers, ask them what they like and don't like. It's that simple. Asking simple, open-ended questions of this sort enables the customer to dictate the content of their feedback. What's important to them is what you'll hear about. This is exactly the sort of feedback you want. Trends in open-ended feedback will inform you on the issues that customers care most about, something that many organizations don't understand.

Open-ended feedback also provides a clear path to improvement. Numerical ratings can help you prioritize issues, but they don't tell you exactly what to do. Open-ended feedback can. When 75 percent of your customers answer the question, "What makes you most frustrated about being our customer?" in the same way, you know exactly what you need to do to improve. There's no ambiguity.

Open-ended feedback doesn't help you make fancy charts. But do you really need more fancy charts to cover the walls of the conference room? No, you need improved customer satisfaction and loyalty. Open-ended feedback will reveal exactly what actions lead to long-term success, which is much more important than fancy charts.
Here are my favorite open-ended questions. Three are about all you need. They will quickly point the way to improvements that matter to your customers.
• Do you have any problems with our products that you haven't told us about?
• Is there anything you think we do particularly well?
• What could we do in the future that would make your job easier?

Step 5: Act on your opportunities. Action is the most critical step of the entire process. It starts with identifying trouble areas. Problems that are revealed through feedback must be addressed immediately. This is the business equivalent of triage: Stop the bleeding and stabilize the patient. Let's hope you won't discover too many issues that require triage, but it's better to learn of these proactively while the customer is still your customer, and not a former customer.
After addressing the trouble areas, the organization must analyze the trends. Open-ended feedback follows the same rules as most traditional numerical data: It tends to clump into categories. Group the feedback into categories and apply Pareto analysis to the results. Your opportunity areas will quickly emerge. Input these opportunities into your corrective/preventive action system and track them to completion. Treat every improvement action as a mini project, with assigned tasks, responsibilities, time frames, resources and reviews. The more sunlight shines on your improvement action, the better it will be. In other words, communicate widely. The final communication about your improvement will be to your customer: "Here's what we've done based on your feedback." These may be the most important words you ever say--and you don't have to use a traditional customer survey to say them.