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What do customers want? Ask them.

"Our philosophy is, you need to talk to the customer and listen to the customer," said Marc Violette, general manager of sales and service for MCT Telecom (Contoocook, N.H.). Most telco managers would agree with him. Willingness to listen to the customer is one reason small telephone companies maintain consistently high ratings for customer satisfaction.

There's less agreement when it comes to finding the best way to listen, however. Theory holds that random telephone surveys are the most accurate because they yield the most representative samples of customers. In practice, companies often choose a survey method based on how well it elicits candid and detailed opinions from customers.

Some companies find that customers are most willing to express themselves in telephone surveys, especially when these are conducted by independent market research firms and include open-ended questions. Others find that mail or e-mail questionnaires encourage customers to share their opinions freely. (Companies report response rates to mail surveys of anywhere from 10% to 70%, depending on the subject.)

Focus groups run by independent moderators also are popular, although there is a risk; with an inexperienced moderator, a single opinionated customer can take over the group. For all types of surveys, companies often use incentives (such as a chance to win a prize) to boost participation.

Informal feedback can be obtained in several ways. Town meetings, presentations at the Chamber of Commerce or other business groups, and booths at community events are good opportunities to meet customers, share company news with them and hear their opinions. Company Web sites may offer open invitations for feedback. In addition, some companies ask technicians to leave postcard questionnaires with customers after making installations or repairs.

Covering the Bases

Many companies pay special attention to their largest accounts, whether these are businesses, schools or government offices. At Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom (Waitsfield, Vt.), for example, sales representatives meet twice a year with the top 100 accounts to review their bills and talk about their needs.

Even talking to potential large customers may be useful. Dakota Central Telecommunications Cooperative (Carrington, N.D.) surveyed the major businesses in a community it was considering entering as a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) to obtain information (number of lines, Internet use, and so forth) that would help it gauge potential market size.

And finally, all companies receive unsolicited feedback--complaints, compliments, requests and questions. Customers who take the trouble to contact a telephone company on their own initiative probably have strong feelings, positive or negative, so unsolicited feedback likely will not be representative of all customers. Still, every piece of information from a customer can be valuable.

Most of the questions companies ask their customers fall into one of two categories: how satisfied they are with the products and services they are receiving, and what products and services they would like to receive.

Customer satisfaction questions may be specifically tied to the company's service goals. For example, at Consolidated Telcom (Dickinson, N.D.), each department must set at least three goals for itself (such as responding to trouble reports within two hours).

Supervisors poll customers regularly, enter their responses in a database, and get together monthly to report on whether they are meeting their goals. "If they don't meet the goals, they're held responsible," said Rhonda Dukart, Consolidated Telcom's public relations and marketing manager. "There's a commitment from the whole company."

Surveying Products and Perspectives

Marketing surveys usually focus on new products that the company is considering offering. Customers are asked how interested they are in the proposed new product, and how much they would be willing to pay for it. Sometimes companies ask about existing products as well, usually when they are considering increasing or decreasing prices.

Occasionally companies use surveys to find out whether their customers recognize them as local institutions, or see them as good corporate citizens. For example, Consolidated Telcom, which is a cooperative, asked customers whether they approved of their donating time and funds to community projects. (Most of them liked the idea.)

Some customer feedback tells you what you already know: your customers are satisfied with their service and are looking forward to buying the new products you've been preparing to offer. Confirming your suspicions isn't a waste of time; it gives you confidence that you're on the right track. But learning something new can be even more useful.

At a minimum, you can solve individual problems that otherwise might not have come to light. Most companies that do customer surveys follow up on any complaints.

"It's good PR," explained Kurt Gruendling, vice president of marketing and business development at Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom. Customers are pleased to know someone is reading the survey results.

Other uses for customer feedback include:

* Providing incentives for employees: At Consolidated Telcom, employees receive certificates when customers single them out as especially helpful; when they occasionally miss the boat, they are asked to send apologies (along with company gift certificates) to their disgruntled customers.

* Improving service: The meetings Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom held with its top 100 accounts revealed a problem with telephone service setup for rental condos. In response, the company put in a new procedure and since then, it has become easier for renters to get phone service during ski season--with less paperwork for owners and realtors. At Hargray Telephone Co. (Hilton Head Island, S.C.), business customers said in focus groups that they wanted to see more regular updates about new products. Hargray now sends flyers to let customers know about new products and schedules follow-up contacts to rate customer satisfaction.

* Enhancing service: MCT Telecom's Web site has a request form for new cable television channels. Whenever the company is ready to add new channels, it reviews customer requests to decide which channels will have the most appeal.

* Salvaging unprofitable lines of business: Dakota Central Telecom was considering dropping its cable TV service altogether until a survey showed that customers preferred paying more to losing the service. The company now can provide the service profitably.

* Removing obstacles to sales: Hargray Telephone compared survey responses to what customers actually were buying, and found puzzling gaps for a few products, including three-way calling. The company realized that many customers who wanted three-way calling were unaware that it was available. After Hargray began advertising and promoting the product, sales increased substantially. In another example, many of Dakota Central Telecom's customers said at community meetings that they didn't know enough about the Internet to be able to use it. When the company began offering Internet classes in its office, subscriptions increased.

* Adding new lines of business: In the last few years, customers across the country have been telling their telephone companies that they wanted broadband Internet access, and telcos have responded by putting in digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable modem lines. Today, customers are beginning to ask for telemarketing screening and other new products, which many telcos are considering providing based on customer requests.

Improving the telco's recognition in the community: Dakota Central Telecom found that customers in part of its service area weren't aware that the company was a local provider. An advertising campaign helped draw attention to their local presence.

Just the act of surveying customers--regardless of their responses--can be valuable for a telco. Several companies noted that their customers appreciate having someone to talk to about services. Said Stephanie Morrison, business office manager at Pembroke Telephone Co. (Pembroke, Ga.), "If we show them we have an interest in their problem or in the service they're requesting, that's going to make them happy."

RELATED ARTICLE: GETTING TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER

Customer feedback is a gift, even if it's not always a welcome one. Nearly everything customers tell you can be put to good use. Here are some recommendations from Tim Owens with Cronin Communications Consultants (Longwood, Fla.):

* Ask specific questions. It doesn't help to know that customers are dissatisfied with tech support. Are they looking for extended hours, faster response time or better-trained staff? In marketing surveys, don't just ask people whether they want a new product--find out how much they will pay for it, what level of service they expect, and, if they already are buying the product from another company, what would induce them to switch to yours.

* Find out why customers are canceling services. In many areas, half of all digital TV subscribers cancel after the first three months, but providers don't always know whether the problem is price, quality of service or some other factor. Tracking reasons for cancellation in monthly reports can help reduce chum.

* Solicit feedback from all the communities in your service area. Communities may have very different preferences, depending on age of residents, income and seasonality of residence, particularly for products like cable TV and wireless telephone.

* Survey both existing and potential customers regularly. Customers' expectations change and grow as new products are introduced. You want to respond to their current and future needs, not to what they wanted three years ago.

--Masha Zager

Masha Zager is a freelance writer based in New York. She can be reached by e-mail at mashazager@bridgewriter.com [www.bridgewriter.com].
COPYRIGHT 2004 National Telephone Cooperative Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:PR Notebook
Author:Zager, Masha
Publication:Rural Telecommunications
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
Words:1524
Previous Article:Broadband pilot program: RUS celebrates second anniversary.
Next Article:Wireless Internet: asking the right questions.
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