If you're asking for feedback, make sure you use it—or at least explain why you're not

Two different approaches to asking customers for feedback show the perils of a process many tech leaders take for granted. Don't waste people's time with useless surveys.

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Illustration: Lisa Hornung/iStockPhoto

The 2020 return to school has been interesting, as any parent of school-age children will tell you. Delays, uncertainty, technology problems, and all manner of challenges have been the norm, making what was once a predictable and reliable process anything but. Like many school districts, ours sent a survey to parents in August, asking parents questions on everything from whether they'd prefer in-person instruction versus virtual instruction, to whether they could transport their children to school or would require bussing.

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Our district published the survey results, and unsurprisingly, parents were more or less evenly split on whether they wanted their children to attend school in-person or attend virtual school. The district ultimately decided on a split strategy, offering virtual classes for parents who wanted to opt-in, with the caveat that your decision would be in effect for the entire year. For parents who chose in-person schooling, the district would start with alternating days for the first month, and then transition to a traditional five-day week, as a way to "test the waters" and various safety protocols.

This is in stark contrast to the experience of a coworker, whose district sent out no fewer than three detailed surveys. As one would imagine, results were similarly split between those who wanted virtual versus in-person schooling, and subsequent surveys explored the nuances of each option. The district also held public hearings, and prefaced each point of customer feedback with elaborate preambles about how important parents' feedback was to determining how schooling would be structured. After all the sound and fury of all these parental touchpoints, the district dictated that schooling would be 100% virtual and parents could essentially take it or leave it.

The message is in the action

As technology leaders, we often employ various feedback tools to gauge our performance. Whether it's a simple "How was your service?" question at the bottom of a help desk ticket email, or a more complex survey, digital tools have made it easy to solicit customer feedback. Like the second school district, these requests usually highlight the importance of the customer feedback with flowery language, but the response then falls into a black hole.

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Asking someone for feedback is a bit of a fraught request, since it's generally not assumed to be a one-way transaction. The person receiving the request assumes that the feedback is not only desired, but will be acknowledged at a minimum, and preferably acted upon. This becomes doubly true if you launch a particularly elaborate feedback mechanism, or multiple feedback-gathering tools that ask similar questions. In the case of the school district that launched multiple surveys, an expectation was set that repeated feedback implying parents wanted options around in-person and virtual schooling were dashed rather dramatically. Had the school simply invested the time in communicating what ultimately seemed like an arbitrary decision, they would have likely had more buy-in and grudging acceptance, versus creating the perception that policy would actually be based on the feedback that had been repeatedly solicited.

"Here's what's going to happen …"

When the work of gathering feedback is complete, whether the feedback is from a single user on a single interaction with your IT organization, or it's in response to an elaborate company-wide survey, share with the respondent what you heard and what's going to happen based on that feedback. Even if your organization is going to change absolutely nothing, share that information. 

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This need not be a wildly complex process. If your organization is sophisticated enough to automatically send the "Tell us how we did by answering this simple question"-style emails in response to every interaction, send an email that says something to the effect of, "We'll talk to everyone you interacted with and figure out where things went wrong, and would like to speak with you for more details," if they indicate a substandard response. If they indicate an acceptable or excellent response, share that you communicate these results with each person they interacted with in the aggregate, and ultimately factor this feedback into their annual performance review (assuming that's true). If you do none of these things, stop sending an email asking for feedback!

Similarly, if you conduct a large-scale survey, share a simple email with two to five bullet points about what you heard, especially if some of the data were surprising. Also share one to five actions you'll be taking based on that feedback. If you heard that everything was exceptional and you're planning to change exactly nothing, share that data as well and provide an opportunity for people to contact you directly if their experience contradicts what the survey indicates.

Don't forget the social contract of a survey

In both these cases, you fulfill the social contract of asking for feedback by clearly articulating how that feedback will be applied and demonstrating specifically what changes will occur (if any) based on the feedback that was received. Do this consistently, and you'll suddenly find that people are more willing to provide feedback when requested, and that it will likely contain richer detail. Those free-form text fields might suddenly contain a few gems, and the offers to speak with people directly may suddenly be acted upon.

Alternatively, if you're not willing to invest the time to share the actions you're going to take based on feedback, simply stop asking. Your customers will appreciate not wasting their time to provide information that goes into a black hole, and you'll save time and money avoiding an exercise that's done merely for show.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...