When an organization with disgruntled customers takes major steps to improve service delivery, customers ought to be happy. Often, however, they continue to grumble and grouse because of what I've dubbed the perceptual lag. That is, the perception of an improvement often lags far behind the implementation of that improvement.
Once you become aware of the potential for a perceptual lag, you can take steps to minimize it. One of the best ways to do this is to publicize the improvements to the customers who've agitated for them or will benefit from them.
A Lag Lesson
Consider, for example, a company I consulted to whose customers had been enduring service snags, slips and snafus. These customers - internal business units - would have gladly obtained the services elsewhere but they didn't have that option.
At length, following a much-needed management change, the service group undertook a major series of improvements. Over the course of a year and with significant effort, they accomplished a lot. They were justifiably proud of the improvements they'd made and badly needed a pat on the back from their customers.
Yet, when they ran a customer satisfaction survey, the ratings barely surpassed the ratings in the previous year's survey. In reviewing the results of the two surveys, I saw how unhappy many customers still were. The service personnel were devastated. Despite all they had accomplished, many customers seemed to neither notice nor appreciate their efforts.
The lesson: Although customers may be swift to complain, they're usually much slower to notice changes made as a result of those complaints. What customers tend to see isn't what has been fixed, but what's still broken. Actually, that's not surprising: If customers have endured an extended period of shoddy service, they adopt a "prove it" mentality and require an even longer period of consistently good service before they believe it's real and enduring.
A Lag-avoidance Strategy
A perceptual lag is especially likely when service personnel have done little or nothing to publicize the improvement effort. As a result, even if customers recognize that things have gotten better, they don't associate the improvement with their prior complaints.
To minimize the perceptual lag, put on your public relations hat and notify customers about your plan for making improvements. Involve key customers in evaluating and finalizing the plan so they'll have a stake in your success. Let them know the part they can play in helping you help them.
Make sure customers are aware of the improvements you're working on. Report your progress regularly, and keep linking the action you're taking to their grievances. When you've implemented an improvement, inform them. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
When service has slipped, what customers often want as much as anything else is to know you take their needs seriously. In fact, personal attention often leads to higher customer satisfaction ratings in subsequent surveys, even when work on service improvements is not yet complete.
Hopefully, you have happy customers. But if you're still working toward that goal, do everything you can to limit the lag.