Feedback Avoidance: Is Your Company Listening to Live Customer Feedback?

by | Aug 23, 2017

Professionally we are taught that getting feedback at work is something we should desire, no matter how much we really don’t want it. This ingrained resistance is easily conveyed to customers individually and culturally, essential shutting down a critical channel for growth and innovation.


Avoiding Feedback

We all want positive feedback or compliments: “you did great!” or “I love when you do it that way.” Unfortunately, most of the time when someone wants to give us feedback at work it is because they want us to understand something we are doing incorrectly or a way in which we impacted them negatively.  Individuals shy away from feedback and/or respond defensively when feedback that isn’t overwhelmingly positive is provided. We don’t just avoid it in our professional lives. We avoid it in our personal lives too if we can.  And all of this avoidance actually results in a social culture of feedback avoidance that comes right in to the workplace.

Feedback avoidance is conveyed in words, tones, facial movements, and body language. These signals tell the feedback giver that the feedback is not welcome. It often puts the giver on the defensive and make them agitated because they just took the effort to try to help and like have something they really need to convey. Most of the time it shuts down their effort to provide feedback all together.  This results in less personal growth it often results in communication issues that cause us all to wonder why we don’t understand each other better.


Hurting Business Growth

If humans have trouble accepting and hearing feedback, businesses end up not hearing important feedback from customers and partner because the humans that interact with customers convey the culture of feedback avoidance. No matter how much marketing you display that says “we value your feedback,”  employees signaling the opposite will block dialogue. Businesses usually don’t know they aren’t hearing it until they are confronted with attrition and lost revenue.

While working with a large company to improve their customer service and experience offerings, we went through all the existing data and insights this client had collected about and from its customers. None of the existing insight and data came from the live service channels: the call center, the email, chat, or Twitter agents, the sales team, nor the other staff interacting with customers. We could see the service transactions and notes in the CRM system but not one piece of negative or positive feedback – just transactions, escalations, and resolutions.

This wasn’t totally surprising – customer service representatives, Twitter agents, and sales people are notoriously busy and under pressure. Recording feedback while providing services is the holy grail of call centers – everyone aspires to do it but it is rarely possible.  All indications at this client, based on the notes we were reading and the conversations we had with the front line, were that these employees were not getting any customer feedback at all. But it was a huge loss for their business and their innovation efforts.


People Give Feedback All The Time, For Free

People who are upset tell you they are upset more than people that are happy tell you they are happy. Customers reach out for help because something is not as it should be. It was impossible that our client’s front line wasn’t getting feedback. They were getting it and either they couldn’t hear it or they didn’t know what to do with it. Either way, opportunistic (and free) feedback was being lost and couldn’t be used to help with innovation, satisfaction, or any management function.

Critically this meant that day to day reports on the customer success were looking better than they should – in the absence of information we will all default to the assumption that things are going well. Missing all that feedback also meant that this client had no customer insights to mine to troubleshoot product and service issues, manage the customer experience, develop customer success metrics, contribute to R&D, or use for innovation efforts. Any time this client wanted new insights they needed to pay for new research to be done and take up more of their customers’ precious time to collect forced-feedback, the least desirable kind. With the increasing rates of survey fatigue among consumers and the importance of brand’s respecting customers’ time and needs, this is a big issue.


Training and Culture, Culture and Training, and Technology

Organizations must realize that their culture resists feedback innately because humans resist feedback. Considering ‘feedback as a gift,’ as the adage goes, requires first person experiences in which positive and constructive feedback were very helpful. As noted above, that’s not normally how people experience feedback. Organizations need to intentionally change employees’ receptivity to customer feedback through training, incentives, technology, and results-oriented proof that both negative and positive feedback are helpful to individual and company growth.

The best kind of insights, the kind that can change a business’s trajectory, are the kind that comes when people are just talking, not the kind that comes when they are put on the spot during formal research. Full of emotion and stories, unedited, and unsolicited, these are the game changed insights that researchers and innovators dream of!

Changing the culture and training employees to hear customers’ needs and extract insights from conversations is a different approach than teaching them to record complaints that may be critical of their own performance.Rewarding the sales team, for example, to objectively analyze a lost deal, even if the sales person is the reason deal was lost, is essential to business growth.  Or teaching Twitter agents to subtly uncover the context of use that led to a problem so that a customer story is captured for future innovation efforts not only empowers the agent but creates a deep database of insights for feature or platform development later.


The Feedback Test

During the project described above we ran a feedback test on our client’s live channels.  Over a two week period, we called our client’s call centers, chatted with their contact center, used Twitter service, and sent emails twice a day at different times of the day from different client accounts. We requested help on legitimate problems that ranged from simple email address changes to complex issues such as troubleshoot a software installation. When the service portion was done, we’d say/write: “Thank you for your help. Can I provide you with some feedback to pass on?”

We noted the response we got – the tone, the words, the level of confusion – and ranked it from a customer’s perspective (was it welcoming? did we think it would get passed on?) and from the company’s perspective (did this person seem to know what to do? did they act empowered? did they represent the brand as it intended to be represented?) After we asked the question, we then provided the feedback to the agent. We alternated the type of feedback from negative to constructive to positive feedback. We then asked what the process was for getting this feedback to someone that could do something with it.  We recorded impressions of those steps too.

90% of the time when we asked if we could provide feedback the agent bristled. Their voice changed. They stammered a bit. They were caught off guard. If we could aggregate all the quotes from agents it would read like this: “Um, yeah, I guess so. I mean, I don’t really have a place for it and no one sees what I record but OK.”  When we provided constructive or negative feedback about the process or product,  the agent got very defensive 100% of the time. The impression to the customer was always: feedback not welcome and it has no where to go.


How Does Your Company Handle Feedback?

Our client wasn’t unique. Ceatro Group has an ongoing project to test all companies we interact with, personally or professionally, on their ability to accept feedback, positive or negative, in their live service channels: call centers, chat, Twitter, email, sales, retail, professional services, and so on. We have been running this project for about 7 years now. And sadly we don’t need to show you a graph to convey the results: 98% of companies show subtle resistances to construction or negative feedback, most companies’ representatives become defensive about their actions or their company’s product, and most don’t have a way to capture feedback so that it will be reliably shared with decision making teams.  About half of that tiny group that can take feedback well often redirects the customer to submit feedback in another channel, usually an email address like, essentially dismissing the customer and the concerns.

We encourage all executives to run this test (or hire us to run the test) on your own company.  Opportunistic feedback is indeed a (free) gift  – not only will capturing it help your growth, listening and hearing customers will improve their customer experience immediately.


This article, original published on August 22, 2012, has been updated with new research and findings.