Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Santa’s Customer Survey

What an exciting time of year! Yes, it’s exciting because it’s Christmastime and all, but it’s also because we’re doing something we’ve never done before. You’re probably asking, “What could a worldly and sophisticated fellow like Santa Claus never have done before?” Why, implement a customer survey, that’s what.

I admit it sounds a little odd. Santa brings joy and happiness, right? Right! That’s the way it’s been for hundreds of years. I had a 110% customer satisfaction rating. Not that I actually asked anyone, it was just one of those things I knew. Everybody knew. Santa Claus topped the JD Power list before J.D. Power was even born.

Lately things have changed, though. People are so demanding. Gimme, gimme, gimme! I blame it on video games and a lack of exercise. We’ve even started getting complaints. That’s right, complaints. Who on Earth would file a complaint against Santa Claus? Crazy, right? Well, it has happened more times than I would like to admit. I’ve heard it all: “I didn’t get what I wanted,” “The toys seemed cheap,” “It didn’t come with batteries,” “I wanted money,” “Jewelry is what really grates my cheese.” I even got a complaint from a guy who said I didn’t leave a present for his girlfriend, and he was married to someone else! I’m telling you, people have gone nuts. Nuts or not, they’re my customers. That’s the bottom line.

So, complaints were becoming an ugly fact of life at the North Pole. My head elf, Horatio, and I were sorting through complaints one night when he said something that really grabbed my attention.

“Handling complaints is a mug’s game, old man,” Horatio said. “We need to get ahead of the curve.”

I set down my mug of eggnog and squinted at the little devil. “What are you talking about?” I growled.

That’s when Horatio gave me one of my most important lessons of my long life. He said we’d never succeed just by trying to deal with complaints. We needed to be proactive. When I heard that, I felt like busting him into Saint Patty’s Day. After all, I’m the King of Proactive. How could I possibly pull off Christmas Eve without being proactive? Gimme a break. But I had to admit that I wasn’t proactive when it came to customer feedback. I assumed that everyone who didn’t complain was satisfied. Horatio said that for every complaint we received, there were probably hundreds of other people who had a complaint, but didn’t bother to tell us about it. He said that we needed to reach out to our customers and find out what they thought, and take action on their perceptions before they ever had a chance to complain. At first, all this MBA mumbo-jumbo just made me mad.

“I’m Santa Claus!” I bellowed. “Isn’t that good enough?”

Horatio looked me dead in the eye and said, “The Easter Bunny is kicking our butts. Heck, even the Tooth Fairy is gaining ground on us.”

It turns out that these jokers already had customer surveys and focus groups. And their objective was overtaking us in customer loyalty and brand recognition! We had targets on our backs and I didn’t even know it.

We had to act fast. Horatio and I made plans to begin working on a survey the very next morning. We convened my Executive Elf Council at 8 o’clock sharp. The first thing we did was brainstorm service attributes that our customers cared about most. Horatio cautioned us that we couldn’t ask about every possible service attribute. If we did, we would end up with a 100 question survey that nobody would bother to complete. We had to focus our survey questions on the few important drivers of customer satisfaction. The trick would be identifying these few important drivers.
The elves brainstormed dozens of issues related to customer satisfaction. The issues ran the gamut from my rosy cheeks to where the reindeer relieved themselves. I counted up the ideas and was dismayed to find that we had brainstormed over 60 issues. Clearly, not all of these were created equal; we would need to prioritize. Horatio led us through a voting exercise whereby each elf had three votes to assign to what they believe were the three most important issues. And guess what? Nobody could agree on what were the most important! The votes were all over the map and we hadn’t succeeded in prioritizing anything. What did you expect from a pack of elves? We were at a standstill.

"Let’s take a break,” Horatio said. “Everybody get up and stretch your legs. We’ll reconvene in ten minutes.”

The break was a good idea, as it relieved a lot of tension. Have you ever seen a North Pole elf get tense and frustrated? It’s an ugly thing, I promise you. I spend at least half my time dealing with elf problems. After everyone had cleared out of the conference room, Horatio called me over.

“It’s time to use some data,” he said. “Do you still have all the letters sent to you from children?”

“Of course,” I said. “They’re in the big file cabinet in my office.”

“Great. Give me a hand,” Horatio said.

We carried 2 years worth of letters to Santa into the conference room. When all the elves had returned from the break, Horatio divided us into 5 groups. Each group was given a stack of letters. The task was to scan through each letter and see if it included any feedback. Most of the letters just asked for things, of course, but a few included some ideas for improvement. We tallied up the feedback and consolidated them into categories. Once we did this, the most important drivers of customer satisfaction became clear:
• Jolliness
• Generosity
• Communication
• Santa’s lap

That last one seemed a little strange, but it came directly from our customers. I guess that’s the value of using real data to develop your survey, instead of just guessing at what your customers care about. Horatio said we could easily create a survey based on these satisfaction drivers. He suggested a simple question followed by a four-point scale. The scale would represent the best and worst possible responses on each end, with two additional points at equal intervals in between the extremes.

“Santa, would you care to use your poetic wit to create some survey questions for us?” Horatio asked.

“It would be my pleasure,” I said.

Within a few minutes I had dashed off four concise questions:
• How would you rate Santa’s overall mood?
• Did Santa give you everything you wanted?
• How easy was it for you to communicate with Santa?
• Did you sit on Santa’s lap this year? If yes, how would you describe the experience?

All the elves agreed that the questions accurately represented the four main issues. The elves, led by Horatio, developed a customized scale for each question. We all smiled with a sense of accomplishment. I was just about to suggest a big bowl of eggnog, when Horatio said, “We’re not quite finished.”

You should have heard the chorus of boos and catcalls that rose up from that motley gang of elves. I thought I was going to have to spray them down with a garden hose, when Horatio soothed everyone with a wave of his hand.

“Calm down,” he said. “It’s no big deal. We just need a couple of open-ended questions to put at the end of the survey.”

Horatio explained that no matter how good a job we did at identifying the key drivers of customer satisfaction, we didn’t address everything. There were bound to be some issues that customers cared dearly about and which weren’t even on our radar screen. A couple of open-ended questions would enable customers to add anything that they thought was important to them. Horatio suggested two simple questions along the lines of “What did you like most” and “What did you like least.” They sounded fine to me. My cyber elf typed up the whole survey, which stretched to a whopped three quarters of a page long. Nice and tight, as I like to say.

I told Horatio that we would mail it out right after the first of the year, using the addresses in my Rolodex. Horatio just laughed. He said we needed to use technology: our website, email, virtual focus groups. It would be cheaper, easier, and faster. Horatio said we didn’t have the luxury of time, and from what I saw from these complaints I believed him. We needed to make improvements now.

The first of our electronic surveys have gone out and we’re already getting some great feedback. Review of customer feedback is one of the key agenda items during our weekly North Pole staff meeting. We go over each survey, discussing what people like and don’t like. At first I wanted to take action on every single comment. That’s when Horatio pulled back the reins.

“Whoa there, big boy,” he said. “Let’s focus on the important few, not the trivial many.”

Turns out that Horatio had been reading a W. Edwards Deming book. Now I’m reading it. If you want to know anything about the Pareto principle, you just talk to your ol’ friend Santa Claus. I’ll get you squared away.

Anyway, we prioritize our feedback and select at least one issue to take action on at every staff meeting. A team is assembled to come up with an improvement plan. We track process improvements through our corrective and preventive action system. That’s another new thing we developed. It’s just a simple database that applies project management to problem solving and process improvement. We enter the issue into our system, assign a champion, appoint team members, agree on a due date, and track the action all the way to completion. At the beginning of each staff meeting, we review open corrective and preventive actions. When elves and reindeer know that I’m going to hold them accountable, our improvements never slip through the cracks. A good dose of follow-up always ensures success.

Of course, anything that looks or smells like a complaint jumps to the front of the line. We handle complaints immediately like we always have. The difference now is that complaints aren’t the only tool we use for feedback. We’re addressing perceptions long before they have a chance to turn into complaints. Complaints are an important feedback tool for our customers, but the proactive feedback we’re capturing on our survey is even more important. It’s the engine that drives our improvement machine.

You’re probably wondering about the improvements we’ve made, and I don’t blame you. Here are just a few:
• I now attend jolliness refresher training, just to sharpen my game. I don’t want anybody to say I wasn’t jolly, dammit.
• I’ve established a toll free phone number that is staffed with elves 24/7. This should make it easier for kids to get in touch with me.
• We repainted my Santa Throne a nice white color, like vanilla ice cream. I learned that the fire engine red throne was intimidating to some children.

I can’t tell you how much we’ve learned from our survey. One of the many valuable lessons is that customer sometimes have unreasonable expectations of what Santa can and will do. We’ve begun a PR campaign to calibrate expectations. When our customers know up-front what to expect, they tend to be much happier in the long run. For example, we’ve had to educate people that Santa does not bring money, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, guns, or items of a sexual nature. This is a kid’s program, for goodness sake! You would think that people would have a little common sense, but you know how that goes. We explicitly state our limitations right on the website for all the world to see. Just click on the tab that says, “Stuff that Santa Doesn’t Bring.”

Another thing Santa doesn’t do is bring presents to naughty people. Trust me, I know who’s been naughty. We have some state-of-the-art technology that can detect naughtiness from half way around the world. Horatio pointed out that the term “naughty” was a bit vague. Now we clearly define the actions that could lead to a judgment of naughty. There are no surprises, but here are just a few to give you a flavor for what Santa doesn’t appreciate:
• Cruelty to animals or children
• Lying
• Cheating
• Stealing
• Relying on others to do what you should do yourself
• Voting Democratic

Ho, ho, ho! That last one was a joke. Don’t anybody get bent out of shape; Santa has a right to be funny every now and then. The lowdown is we have a list, so if you want a present from Santa don’t be naughty. And don’t send me an email asking for sex toys or a big fat spliff. Even asking for these things can get you bumped into the category of naughty.

We have even more plans for next year. My idea is to leave a little comment card in every stocking. The card will ask everyone to go to my website (with parental supervision, of course) and leave feedback online. Before Christmas Day is even half-over, we’ll have thousands of feedback entries. Horatio is going to write a computer program that slice and dice the feedback in every imaginable way. He has all kinds of wild ideas for statistical analysis, but I told him, “Santa wants it simple. Give it to me in pictures, little fellow.” So Horatio also plans on boiling the trends into some simple charts and graphs that even an old fat man in a red suit can understand.

So, would you like to see our customer survey? I would value your comments on it. We’re constantly trying to fine-tune our feedback tool so we get the right information. We could ask 100 questions, but the key to success is keeping it short and sweet. Let us know what you think, and of course feel free to provide some feedback on my performance in general. Like our Quality Policy says, we’re dedicated to providing a profound, positive, and memorable Christmas experience, while continually improving our performance. Those aren’t just words on the North Pole conference room, they’re the beliefs we live by. Oh, and if you leave cookies for me this year, please note that I’m especially partial to Do-Si-Dos from the Girl Scouts. Leave out a plate of those babies and I might just overlook some naughtiness!