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Paul Willging Says...

September 1, 2004
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Decide What You Want From Satisfaction Surveys

Decide what you want from satisfaction surveys Last month I talked about the importance of customer satisfaction in managing a successful long-term care community. So, just how do we measure satisfaction? As it happens, numerous questionnaires are available purporting to be the definitive answer to that very question. They are produced by academicians, consultants, providers, and provider associations. The challenge lies in distinguishing between those whose primary purpose is marketing and those whose critical focus is management. Or, put differently, do you want the good news or the bad news?

We've all seen survey results that show astronomical levels of resident contentment. They may help in filling buildings (although, personally, I doubt it), but they are of little use to a management team looking for areas in which to focus its quality improvement efforts. For that purpose, we need to find out what the customer isn't happy about. To negatively paraphrase marketing guru Chuck Chakrapani in his seminal text on the subject, How to Measure Service Quality & Customer Satisfaction: The Informal Field Guide for Tools and Techniques, don't measure for the wrong reason, don't measure the wrong things, don't measure the wrong audience, and don't measure the wrong way.

So, what should you do? Well, start by generating useful data. Complaints are a valuable source of information and can be a starting point for effective customer satisfaction measurement-but they can't substitute for it. Indeed, voluntary complaints are, at best, harbingers of customer dissatisfaction since they represent only the tip of the iceberg. Such complaints, however, might give you a sense of areas needing to be analyzed in further detail.

Other sources of useful information can include focus groups. Remember, when organizing these, that your customers are residents, their families, and staff; don't ignore any of them. Brainstorming sessions can also be helpful.

Our goal here is twofold: first, to gather all the preliminary information we need; and second, to bring focus to the measurement system itself by defining how the information will be used. If you don't know what you'll do with the results of any query, it's not worth pursuing.

Know what is important to the customer, not what you think is important. But focus also on those areas that are important to your particular mission as a seniors housing and care community. If you're not offering affordability to begin with, satisfaction with your prices might not be that important to you. (Value, of course, is something else again.) If you don't admit dementia residents, you probably won't be as interested in customer/staff reactions to difficult behavioral issues.

Measuring attributes that don't contribute to satisfaction (because they are not a part of your mission) is not just ill-advised-it can be harmful. It can provide an illusion of community focus that can itself lead to dissatisfaction if it's not fulfilled. Take affordability as an example: Even though it's not part of your mission, asking about how well you're achieving it may confuse the customer into thinking that it is; the result-a less-than-satisfied customer.

Another basic error in satisfaction research is to place more emphasis on the satisfied majority than on the discriminating minority. While most of your residents may claim to be happy with your transportation service, what if only 5% actually use it? Their level of satisfaction-or dissatisfaction-outweighs the views of the 95% who don't, even if the latter claim high levels of satisfaction with it. Remember, for purposes of quality management, we're interested in the bad news, not the good. Remember, too, that one very dissatisfied customer who has personal involvement with a service can bring more harm to the facility than the goodwill generated by ten satisfied customers who are only tangentially affected by it.

Quality management experts from Deming to Crosby have pointed out that the most effective way to improve customer satisfaction is to improve the processes through which services are delivered. Focusing your efforts, therefore, on the users of your services will keep the system relevant to its essential purpose.

Perceived importance also provides a useful filter for developing your survey questions. "How important is it to you that you have had to wait ten minutes for available seating for lunch?" If your resident actually looks forward to the wait as an opportunity to socialize, that gives you a different perspective than the response from the resident who might be fuming at the "waste of time." In short, avoid the temptation to lump all your customers together.