This is a story about monkeys and peanuts and customer feedback. They are connected, just bear with me.

At the primate sanctuary where I volunteer, I have become fast friends with Max. A 28-year-old capuchin monkey, Max grooms my arms, holds my hand with his tail, and grunts “thank you” for peanuts. What I like best about him, though, is that he gives instant feedback. Very selective about his human friends, if Max doesn’t like a person on first sight he will throw something at their head.

I don’t condone Max’s behavior, but at least it is quick and honest. And it’s consistent. The last time I introduced him to a volunteer who offered him a peanut, Max threw it back and hit her in the forehead. When we walked by an hour later, Max had gathered an ammunition pile of peanut shells, sticks, and a rock. No one got hurt, but the volunteer kept her distance from Max after that.

None of us can figure out what drives Max’s opinions. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to his likes and dislikes. But that doesn’t make Max’s opinion any less valid. His perception is his reality.

With his unpredictable standards, Max, it seems, is a lot like customers. (Notice that I did not say our customers are like monkeys.)

At Tower Hill, our Customer Service representatives are the best of the best. We screen new hires thoroughly and put them through rigorous training. Supervisors provide ongoing feedback to ensure they continuously meet Tower Hill’s service standards.

But do they meet customers’ standards?

We survey every policyholder who calls our Customer Service Unit and has an email address on file. By emailing a survey right after they call, we get immediate feedback on our performance.

In 2012 we sent about 30,000 surveys, and nearly 4,000 responded. Well over 90% of the responses are positive, filled with compliments and thank you notes. That makes everyone feel good…but if it’s all good, why bother? What can we learn from hearing how great we are?

We can learn from the words customers choose in complimenting us. Comments like these tell us exactly what our customers expect from CSRs:

“I felt like we were in partnership and his role was to ensure my needs were handled to my satisfaction.  He took the time to be personable — when I hung up I was glad and relieved this was the company I was working with.”

“I called (with some dread) to find what I could do about our tardiness. Thankfully [the CSR] could not have been more kind and efficient and he saved the day for me.” 

“He was helpful and friendly and did not to try to rush me and took the time to explain things to me.”

“It sounded like she was smiling while talking on the phone.”

“She remained professional with me even after I let her know immediately that I was not happy. Her tone of voice remained pleasant and she worked towards resolving the issue quickly.”

“She was polite and knew what she was talking about.”

“She let me explain the reason of my call, never interrupted me and answered my questions to the point.”

customer sat graph

Occasionally, the customer will straight out tell you what not to do, like this: Never argue with a client.” That survey response was like a smack in the forehead from one of Max’s peanuts. When we get hit like that, we listen to the call recording and usually hear right away what went wrong. Occasionally we can’t pinpoint what triggered their ire. It doesn’t matter, though. The customer’s opinion is their reality.

So what does all this mean to you? Maybe it’s time to ask your customers what they think. You might be surprised by what you hear. If it lines up with your opinion, then you can feel validated. If it’s 100% positive, fantastic!  But it’s more likely you will learn some new standards to set, identify a weak point or two, or if nothing else, show your customers that you are listening.  And you might be surprised at how many respond. Surveys are ubiquitous, but that’s because they work.

After all, who better than customers to tell you how you are doing? They are the ones talking to your CSRs. They are the ones with the problems needing to be solved or the tasks needing to be done. They are the experts on their own experience.

The Tower Hill customer survey was designed by our survey software vendor Tamer Partners, who are experts at extracting opinions from customers. I’ve always said that unless you are a student, plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery – so feel free to steal our survey questions from this sample survey. Free or inexpensive tools like SurveyMonkey (no relation to Max) and Constant Contact  make it easy to send surveys and collect feedback. You really have no excuse not to do it.

If you need some help getting started, or if you want help analyzing survey results you already have in hand, give me a call or shoot me an email.

(And if you are brave enough to meet Max, I may be able to arrange that, too.)

Helene Goldson

About Helene Goldson


Helene spent much of her career in Canadian health benefits marketing communications, then spent a few years marketing HR software in California and Florida. She is a Duke graduate, and has a Masters in Journalism from the University of Alabama, both of which happened before the turn of the century.