A CIO of a small software company recently approached me about a big customer service issue he was trying to solve. At the same time his company was rolling out new versions of software for customers, the CIO was getting lots of negative feedback from customers about the features the tech team had chosen to implement.

The CIO was confident that he and his team were implementing features based on “customer demand” because he had been to several meetings with his sales reps and they assured him that he was developing the most requested features.

To diagnose the problems, I agreed to go on sales calls with the sales reps to see where the system was failing. I identified a type of communication breakdown, and a solution, that have significance for any company that’s creating intellectual property based on feedback from internal, or external, customers.

The failure of one-way conversations
As I attended sales meetings, it struck me that the sales reps moderating the meetings had one goal in mind: Sell more services and software. It really didn’t matter to the reps that the existing software didn’t work. In fact, as I listened to the conversations, I recorded 10 bugs in the existing software that none of the reps reported.

The week after I attended the meetings, I asked the CIO what feedback he had received from the meetings. As we reviewed the e-mail messages that resulted from the meetings, the problem became clear. The sales reps were delivering only the information necessary to help them provide additional products and services, even though the customers were giving them essential information about the existing systems issues.

We examined the data coming from the software support group and found that only a small percentage of the issues reported through the sales reps were duplicate issues reported through software support.

As we began to examine solutions to this “one-way conversation” problem, it became apparent that the problem was endemic to the organization. The organization didn’t recognize the value of the information that was being lost because they didn’t actively capture and act on the data collected in their meetings.

I think most companies’ employees would agree that they spend way too much time in meetings relative to the value they receive from them. The only way to realize the value of any meeting is to actually follow through on all the action items raised in the meeting. The first step is to agree on the issues and actions discussed.

Creating a feedback loop
After I read through the sales reps’ e-mail messages, it was clear to me that they hadn’t adequately captured the customers’ issues and concerns. The organization had lost valuable and essential information that it needed to continue improving its products and services.

As an experiment, I took my meeting notes and created a simple meeting summary document for each meeting that I had attended. (Click here for a template that you can customize.) The summary included participants’ names and e-mail addresses, issues raised, description of the issues, and suggested resolutions. The document also indicated to whom the issue would be assigned for resolution.

I e-mailed the meeting summary to the attendees of each meeting and asked them to report back if they had additions or changes. While the response was overwhelming, it was not all positive.

The sales reps were appalled that I had listed the software bugs and the other complaints from customers on the system. In their view, I had just introduced potential objections that could keep them from closing future deals. Their responses were heated and visceral.

The customer response was radically different. They gave extensive feedback about the issues and resolutions I suggested, and added, on average, an additional 50 percent of content to each of the document summaries. More importantly, the customer e-mails included comments such as “it’s good to see that you’re finally listening to us” and “we’ve been looking for alternatives to your system because we didn’t think some of these problems would ever get resolved.”

Automating the process
After the meeting summaries were updated with the customer and sales rep information, it became clear that the value from this exercise would only be recognized if the company did a good job of following up on and closing all of the issues recorded. It was also clear that this process was a very effective way to capture both external data and internal information.

The first response from the CIO’s technical leads was that they needed to develop or buy an elaborate CRM system so that they could start capturing and processing the information that these meeting summaries would generate. Although that may be the ultimate resolution, I suggested that they start on a smaller and smarter scale.

Since all the meeting summaries were Word documents, we just used the document fields (File/Properties) to record simple information like the customer name, the meeting date, and whether all the issues in the document had been resolved by setting the value of the comments field to Open or Closed. By saving the files to a common directory, it was easy to allow anyone on the CIO’s team or the sales management team to quickly scan the directory and see which issues had been resolved for which customers. They could also add comments or suggestions to the document using Word’s annotation features—allowing everyone to see each other’s comments and the history of the document.

Since the initial directory was established, the CIO’s team has also built a SharePoint Team Services site that allows them to search, read, and update documents from either Word or Internet Explorer.

Two lessons learned
The company learned two valuable lessons from this exercise. First, every point of customer contact needs to create a two-way feedback loop in which the customer has the chance to agree with the assumptions recorded. In fact, whether for a customer meeting or an internal meeting, it’s important to provide a mechanism for all meeting attendees to provide feedback after a meeting.

Second, don’t fall into the trap of creating complex solutions for complex problems. Start with simple solutions. This company’s employees started with Word documents shared via e-mail and are now sharing documents using a SharePoint site. They’re also already talking about moving toward a workflow solution based on elements of their Exchange installation and a more robust implementation of SharePoint using SharePoint Portal Services.