Customer Service, Richard Nixon, and the Silent Majority

July 29, 2013

In a 1969 national address, President Richard Nixon popularized the term the silent majority. While the term was not original to President Nixon, his address cemented the idea that there existed a silent majority whose outlooks differed from the vocal minority opposing the Vietnam War and dominating the news coverage of the day.

While the term silent majority has layers of subtext in politics that are not relevant here, the Nixonian conception that there exists a silent majority whose viewpoints are misrepresented by the more vocal minority provides a useful metaphor for customer service.

Who Is Your Silent Majority?

Most customers never say a word about service. This is one of the reasons both surveys and online company ratings can be so misleading — they often represent only the opinions of the customers who love you or who hate you. The larger portion of satisfied customers who like you (even a lot) are often not captured because they never speak up.

A recent UK survey found that 73% of consumers do not complain when they have a problem. Do you think more step up to comment when they have a satisfactory or good experience? Hardly.

Silence is truly deafening in customer service.

Tapping Into Your Silent Majority

Like President Nixon, the first step in embracing the silent majority is by identifying them and acknowledging them. Yet, getting satisfied customers to speak out can be extremely difficult.

Surveys can work, but how many surveys do we all delete from our inboxes each day?

I recommend a different approach:

Try to catch customers at the end of an interaction or a transaction.

Lots of companies try this in a formal way. Would you mind answering a few questions about your experience today? However, the moment we hear this, most of us know that we are going to be forwarded to a survey department. Most decline the surveys, and a lot of potential data is lost in the hand-off.

So, why hand the call off at all? Because most post-interaction surveys are as much about grading the rep who helped the customer as about getting feedback about more general service topics.

If your goal, however, is simply to look into the minds of your typical customers and not to grade the last reps that helped them, then it is most effective to talk to your customers at the end of the interaction. The questions can then be a natural extension of the conversation.

Since we spoke about your delivery issues today, do you mind if I ask you what you think of our delivery process as a whole?

I would ask no more than two questions: a primary question and a follow-up. This keeps it conversational and not like a survey that you started without permission. You can have multiple questions queued up — a certain question for delivery issues, a certain question for product issues, etc. Then you could have a number of potential follow up questions that would depend on the answer given.

This technique works better at the departmental or small-medium business level, as it relies on qualitative and opinion data instead of qualitative research that must be parsed manually. It is unabashedly non-scientific.

While discussing the limitations of anecdotal and opinion data is outside the scope of this post, suffice it to say that opinion data can be extremely helpful in identifying themes as well as topics for more formal research. True, bad data can be worse than no data at all, but good directional data is better than silence.

For example, imagine if 15 of the 20 customers you query tell you how much they dislike your returns process. They indicate that they are satisfied customers but that they stay with you despite your returns process, not because of it.

Whether the data is scientifically sound or not, it’s a pretty good bet you’ve got an issue in this area that bears further scrutiny and a piece of the customer experience that can be improved.

Your silent majority has finally spoken.

Whether or not you are a fan of President Nixon, there is little arguing that understanding the existence of a silent majority and embracing its needs worked for him. If you can make an effort to understand what your quiet customers are thinking, it can work for you too.

5 thoughts on “Customer Service, Richard Nixon, and the Silent Majority”

  1. Like politics, especially local politics when you only have 10-15% of the people showing up to vote.

    Publix, where shopping is a pleasure. Trust me, Publix does it right and I know all the key players. In fact I play tennis once a week with their head marketing guy. Today I walked into the deli and asked for a meatloaf sandwich (of which I had been previously told they could do it). The person taking my order said they couldn’t do it because they didn’t have a ‘code’ for a meatloaf sandwich. She asked her manager and I rec’d the same reply. Instead of arguing the point, I turned and walked away disappointed. Yes, Publix has enough goodwill built up that I wouldn’t stop shopping there, but was highly disappointed they couldn’t think outside the box and just make it happen. It’s only a sandwich, how hard can that be?

    Sorry I got off point, but wanted to tell my customer service story.

    1. Political participation is another good political metaphor — the small percentage of the people who scream the loudest steer the ship.

      I love Publix too — looks like your story came from either bad execution on the front lines or a lack of empowerment of the front lines. I’m guessing it would not have been too bad if they just said no, but they indicated they could do it, then told you no. That’s usually problematic, to say the least.

  2. Holy Facepalm! Batman. When I write and talk about “wooing your lurkers,” this is what I mean .. that loud but small group of fans and followers isn’t the end all be all; there could be a much bigger, quiet one too. And it goes both ways; not only those customers who aren’t happy with you but those who really, really like you — except they never say a thing.

    Per your suggestion, a quick 2-second follow up can help ID problems and find the solutions for them; and it can also bring some brand champions to the front, win win. Bill’s Publix story (hey dude) is a perfect example; the brand is strong enough to withstand one disappointment, but by not empowering/training employees to step up (b/c yeah, how hard would it be to price out something comparable?!), they are missing out on offering a profitable selection and annoying a strong supporter. Sheesh. FWIW.

    1. Whenever I hear “lurkers”, I immediately think of blogging — but really it can apply to many other areas. It’s such an interesting dynamic with blogging too. I know I get solid traffic here, but most read without engaging further. Tapping into those people can give you feedback, as you point out, of people who are both positively and negatively disposed towards your blog/brand/company. And it matters, because in many ways it is probably a better indication of your true performance than those on either extreme.

      And anyway… what’s it take for a guy to get a sandwich around here. 🙂

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